Elections

Miami-Dade sues to block amendment that would force it to have an elected sheriff

Members of the Constitution Revision Commission listened to citizens at a town hall meeting in Miami on April 16, 2017. The panel, which meets every 20 years, has drawn several lawsuits challenging the proposals they have placed on the ballot as misleading.  A retired Florida chief justice is challenging in court six proposed constitutional amendments, saying they are either unconstitutionally misleading or violate First Amendment rights.
Members of the Constitution Revision Commission listened to citizens at a town hall meeting in Miami on April 16, 2017. The panel, which meets every 20 years, has drawn several lawsuits challenging the proposals they have placed on the ballot as misleading. A retired Florida chief justice is challenging in court six proposed constitutional amendments, saying they are either unconstitutionally misleading or violate First Amendment rights. pporal@miamiherald.com

Warning that a constitutional amendment before voters will “gut” Miami-Dade County’s right to govern itself, the county has filed a lawsuit seeking to invalidate Amendment 10 on the November ballot. If adopted, it would require the county to elect a sheriff.

The complaint asks the Leon County Circuit Court in Tallahassee to throw out Amendment 10, the proposal placed on the November ballot by the Republican-controlled Constitution Revision Commission, and allow Miami-Dade to intervene in a case filed in June by Volusia County. Broward County filed a similar lawsuit last month also seeking to halt the amendment.

Dennis Moss, one of the longest-serving members of the Miami-Dade County Commission, said the ballot item weakens the county’s ability to set its own governing rules.

“I oppose our home rule power being usurped through the actions of the State of Florida,” he said Tuesday. “Our system of making appointments to the applicable positions work well for us in Miami-Dade County.”

Each county argues that the proposal unconstitutionally misleads voters because, while it claims to empower voters “with rights they already have,” it fails to explain that it would strip voters in Broward, Volusia and Miami-Dade counties of their constitutional right to govern themselves by overriding their home rule charters.

“This ballot question illegally ‘hides the ball’ and ‘flies under false colors’,” argues the lawsuit filed by Miami-Dade on Monday.

The amendment rolls together several ideas, the most controversial of which would overrule county charters and require Broward to elect a tax collector, Miami-Dade to elect a sheriff to replace its appointed chief law enforcement officer, and force Volusia County to reverse a decision voters made in 1970 to appoint its county officers.

The Constitution Revision Commission bundled the county charter override together with three less controversial elements: making the existing Department of Veteran’s Affairs a constitutionally authorized agency, creating the Office of Domestic Security and Counterterrorism within the Department of Law Enforcement, and beginning the annual legislative session in January instead of March in election years.

Unlike the proposal to overrule county charters, the Legislature could have adopted the other proposals by passing laws.

The resulting mash-up deceives voters and violates previous court rulings that the summary and ballot titles of all proposed constitutional amendments cannot mislead voters, the counties argue.

“In this case, Amendment 10 is disguised as a benign effort to ‘retain’ an already-existing department of veterans’ affairs, ‘ensure’ elections of already-elected county officers, and ‘create’ an already-existing office for domestic security when, in reality, its true ramification demands a far less passive verb: it will gut home rule,’’ the Miami-Dade lawsuit states.

In 1957, Miami-Dade County became the first county in the state to adopt a Home Rule Charter to exercise home rule powers. The charter abolished the county constitutional offices of property appraisers, tax collector, supervisor of elections and transferred the duties and functions of such offices to the county manager. Soon after that, voters abolished the office of sheriff.

1957 Charter.JPG
A copy of the Dade County charter approved by voters in 1957 was included as part of the lawsuit the county filed on Monday, seeking to invalidate a proposed constitutional amendment that would override portions of the county’s charter. Mary Ellen Klas meklas@miamiherald.com

Over four years, county voters rejected three attempts to restore the elected office of tax assessor. In 1963, they re-established the elected sheriff. For three years, the county experimented with an elected sheriff but, the lawsuit notes, “the elected County Sheriff was accused of various levels of corruption including criminal charges of campaign finance violations,” so in 1966 the county abolished the elected position again.

Since then, county voters have restored the elected property appraiser position but continue to give the county mayor the authority to appoint the other offices of sheriff, tax collector and supervisor of elections.

“The impact of this misleading ballot language, however, is even more egregious with specific respect to Miami-Dade County because, if adopted, Amendment 10 would fundamentally impair the unique form of government that the electors of the state, through the Florida Constitution, exclusively granted to the County without providing fair notice to the voters of that change,’’ the lawsuit alleges.

It says that if voters are going to be asked to revise their constitutional rights as established in Florida’s Constitutions of 1885 and 1968, “they should at least do so with open eyes and be adequately informed about that decision. Instead, Amendment 10 purports to lull voters into a sense of complacency by misleading them as to the scope of the proposed change.’’

Read Next

The Miami-Dade challenge is the latest of at least five lawsuits that claim the work of the Constitution Revision Commission — the 37-member panel that meets every 20 years to update the Florida Constitution — is misleading.

After meeting for a year, the panel placed eight amendments on the November ballot. Some, like Amendment 10, merged unrelated proposals.

Read Next

The Florida Greyhound Association, which represents dog owners and trainers, has also sued seeking to remove Amendment 13 from the ballot as misleading. It would end greyhound racing in Florida. The League of Women Voters and two individuals have filed suit to invalidate Amendment 8, which authorizes charter schools to bypass county school boards and be authorized by other, as yet undetermined, authorities.

All three counties have asked the court to take up the issue on an expedited basis, to resolve the dispute before ballots go out to voters starting in October.

Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@miamiherald.com. Follow her on Twitter @MaryEllenKlas
  Comments