Miami-Dade commissioners agreed Monday to start counting nearly 130,000 signatures tied to a proposed ballot item on new campaign-finance rules, but warned they still might kill the proposal over stern concerns raised by county lawyers.
The 9 to 0 vote came during the second emergency meeting this month called to consider the ballot measure backed by unions, local Democrats and others. The proposed rules would impose a broad package of restrictions against campaign and committee donations by county vendors and lobbyists — prime sources of financial support for county officeholders.
“I’m prepared to vote yes, but with a very, very large ‘but,’ ” said Commissioner Sally Heyman, a lawyer who cited what she said were legal shortcomings in the proposed item.
With election administrators now saying they can count the 127,000 submitted signatures in time to get the item on the ballot for the November election, Monday’s meeting handed proponents a significant victory. Organized under the Accountable Miami-Dade political committee, the group waged a two-week campaign demanding a rapid tally of petitions delivered Aug. 2 in two U-Haul trucks.
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“Special interests shouldn’t have a bigger say just because they have bigger bucks in their wallet,” Michelle Davis, an organizer of the petition drive, told commissioners. “We did our part. Now it’s time to do yours.”
Monday’s session also opened a new line of attack against the proposal, with county lawyers warning the submitted ballot language contains significant legal flaws, including the presumption that the current finance system conveys “an appearance of ethical impropriety” in county government.
“This question is misleading,” said Oren Rosenthal, an assistant county attorney who specializes in election law. “The ballot is no place for political rhetoric and subjective evaluations. The ballot question potentially runs afoul of this restriction.”
Elections chief Christina White said the estimated 127,000 petition forms would be hauled to a separate building, and a temporary staffing firm was ready to deploy part-time counters to start the task of validating the signatures as those of Miami-Dade registered voters Tuesday. Only about 52,000 valid signatures are needed to win a spot on the November ballot. White estimated a cost of about $1 million for the accelerated effort, which would be done in time for a Sept. 7 meeting by the 13-member County Commission.
That session promises to bring yet another fight, with commissioners still needing to decide whether the ballot item is “legally sufficient” and valid to go before voters. Privately, both sides expect a court challenge from the losing side.
Commissioner Rebeca Sosa voted for counting the petitions, but warned she wouldn’t support sending a flawed question to voters only to see it overturned in court. “It’s so discriminatory that a lawsuit will end up costing taxpayers more,” she said. “I’m not irresponsible enough that [I would support the item] just to look politically correct.”
Because of the tight timeline for getting the measure on the November ballot — the alternatives are the next countywide election in 2018 or a pricey special election before that — the commission agreed to start the process of validating signatures before deciding on the legality of the language.
In his comments, Rosenthal offered a scathing critique of the proposed item, the most detailed one yet from a public official. He said the proposed ban on vendors’ family members from giving would mean even adult children of minor investors in companies with county contracts could unwittingly violate the rules by making political donations.
“This ballot question may mislead voters to think that only corporate speech rights are impaired by the ballot language,” Rosenthal said. “While the actual language in the ordinance includes a broad, far-ranging prohibition on individual speech rights.”
Joe Geller, a Democratic member of the Florida House and a lawyer with Greenspoon Marder who recently joined Accountable Miami-Dade’s legal team, said minor issues with the ballot item can be addressed before ballots are printed. He defended the broad language as legal, but said a court has time to weigh in before November. “What really is the harm if you put the item on the November ballot?” he said. “If the courts strike it down, they strike it down.”
The proposed ballot item would beef up a little-used option for candidates that provides public dollars for campaign expenses. The new rules would give up to $2.2 million in matching funds for mayoral candidates and up to $1.1 million for County Commission candidates. In exchange for the tax dollars, candidates would have to agree not to self-fund their races or maintain more than one political committee.
Daniella Levine Cava, the county commissioner who was also the measure’s leading advocate, praised the package as removing “the barriers between citizens and their government,” and making it easier for first-time candidates to win
One provision of the ballot item states the proposed rules address “the appearance of ethical impropriety in county government” by reducing maximum campaign donations to $250 and restricting who can give to county candidates and some political committees.
Some commissioners said they resent the suggestion that their votes can be bought. “There is an implication here that this board is corrupt,” said Commissioner Esteban “Steve” Bovo. “I take exception to that.”
No lobbyist spoke up against the measure, but the industry has been maneuvering against the proposed rules as unfairly targeting them. Brian May, a top lobbyist representing the Miami Dolphins, Uber and others in County Hall, tweeted Monday: “I guess Unions should have a bigger say?”