Florida Politics

Firefighters withdraw their endorsement of Amendment 1

Who favors and who opposes solar Amendment 1?

Amendment 1 will be voted on during the November 8 election.
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Amendment 1 will be voted on during the November 8 election.

Proponents of Amendment 1 lost a crucial supporter Friday as the union representing the state’s professional firefighters withdrew their endorsement of the utility-backed amendment and demanded that the political committee pull its television ads featuring firefighters.

Firefighters had been heavily featured in hundreds of television ads run by the Consumers for Smart Solar, the political committee financed by the state’s largest electric companies. The ads urged voters to support Amendment 1 and implied that rooftop solar panels could be a fire hazard.

“It is clear to the elected executive board of this organization that our membership would prefer to pursue any future firefighter safety regulations related to the still developing alternative energy industry through legislative or rulemaking action, as opposed to a constitutional amendment that many believe to be misleading,’’ the Florida Professional Firefighters said in a press release issued late Friday.

The campaign has promoted the amendment as protecting consumers and encouraging solar but the amendment would inject into the constitution language that the utilities want to impose new fees and costs to rooftop solar users. After weeks of complaints from members, the executive board reversed its endorsement, suggesting that the amendment was misleading.

“We assure Florida’s firefighters that their safety remains our top priority and this decision, by no means, indicates that we will be any less vigilant in advocating for their health and well-being when it comes to rapidly evolving, environmentally friendly, and sometimes confusing alternative energy systems,” said Jim Tolley, FPF president.

Richard C. Silvestri, a retired fire captain for the City of Miami, was among those who complained to Tolley about their endorsement of the amendment. He said saying that portraying solar panels as a fire hazard was “one of the biggest scams on Floridians in the history of the state.”

Silvestri has recently installed solar panels on his home in Fort Pierce and he said that the process required numerous permits and inspections — including by Florida Power & Light — to be hooked up to the grid.

“I am in an expert’s position to say the procedure followed was above and beyond,” he wrote in the letter to Tolley, which he provided to the Miami Herald/Tampa Bay Times. “The only way these solar installations could be anymore unsafe than the thousands of other electrical and electronic devices in use on the grid either in businesses, homes, factories, marinas, airports, etc. would be if they are installed without permits.”

He strongly urged the union to reverse their endorsement.

“If this amendment passes you will have done a major disservice to the public, to at least one retired firefighter and I am sure there are others, and you have aided and abetted one of biggest scams on Floridians in the history of the State,’’ Silvestri wrote. “We are engaged in a David vs. Goliath battle and having a phony firefighter on TV ads hoodwinking the public that they should support this fraud is so repulsive to me, words do not suffice, not to mention the harm is does to us in attempting to defeat this.”

In the ad, paid for by the utility-backed committee, Wayne Bernoska, Jr, a member of the firefighters union, declares that “in my job, I see a lot of fires that could have been stopped before they were started. That’s why Florida’s firefighters support Amendment 1. Amendment 1 does solar the right way.”

PolitiFact Florida has recently debunked similar safety claims made by the Amendment 1 campaign which suggested in web ads that Amendment 1 “protects Florida seniors from scams and rip-offs.” PolitiFact concluded the amendment doesn’t alter current consumer protection laws and, if there were no amendment, the effect on consumer laws and regulations would be the same.

Sarah Bascom, spokesperson for the Consumers for Smart Solar political committee, said they have asked television stations to pull the ads as requested by the firefighters.

“While we are disappointed that they no longer want these policies enacted through a constitutional amendment, we are glad that Florida firefighters continue to be on record in support of policies that encourage solar,” she said.

Opponents of Amendment 1 welcomed the news of the firefighters’ change of position.

“We have known all along that the utilities drawing beloved firefighters into their scam to advance Amendment 1 was beyond shameful,” said Stephen Smith of the Floridians for Solar Choice, the political committee supported by the solar industry which is opposing Amendment 1. “Thousands of firefighters across the state have told us they are ‘Voting No on 1.’ This is all the more reason for every citizen of Florida to do the same.”

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

Here’s the text of the release:

The Florida Professional Firefighters have withdrawn our endorsement of Constitutional Amendment #1, Rights of Consumers Regarding Solar Energy Choice. Our support for the initiative was solely based on the proposed constitutional protection of local government’s right to regulate the safety of solar energy production. We continue to believe that fair and reasonable safeguards are vital to firefighter safety during fire/rescue operations on properties with multiple electricity sources and particularly retrofitted alternative energy sources such as solar power.

As a member driven organization, our leadership has communicated with hundreds, if not thousands, of firefighters over the last few weeks regarding their concerns with Amendment 1 and the real firefighter safety issues related to solar energy systems.

It is clear to the elected Executive Board of this organization that our membership would prefer to pursue any future firefighter safety regulations related to the still developing alternative energy industry through legislative or rulemaking action, as opposed to a constitutional amendment that many believe to be misleading.

We have requested that Consumers for Smart Solar stop broadcasting advertisements featuring firefighters and/or the logo of the Florida Professional Firefighters.

“We assure Florida’s firefighters that their safety remains our top priority and this decision, by no means, indicates that we will be any less vigilant in advocating for their health and well-being when it comes to rapidly evolving, environmentally friendly, and sometimes confusing alternative energy systems,” Jim Tolley, FPF President, said.

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