BusinessForce supports Orange County initiative petition reforms

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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

February 10, 2016

CONTACT: Robert Agrusa, Executive Director

407-907-8082
robert.agrusa@orlando.org

 

BusinessForce Supports Initiative Petition Reforms

 

ORLANDO, FL (February 10, 2016) – After nine months and 14 public meetings, the Orange County Charter Review Commission will vote tomorrow to adopt important changes to the citizen initiative process that will prevent out-of-state special interest groups from influencing our local charter review process and using our county’s governing document to advance their respective political agendas.

“Unfortunately, the current process allows for Washington, DC-based special interest groups, whose only concern is the national political significance of our region, to hijack the process and rewrite the sacred governing document of our county, the County Charter. — See more HERE.

The proposed changes, if approved by the voters, will also bringing the Orange County signature gathering requirements in alignment with the state of Florida’s, ensuring equal and fair representation from residents of all six County Commission districts.  And, in an effort to enhance transparency and clarity, reforms related to the collection process have been drawn from other charter counties in the state of Florida and the nation.

“Like the Florida Constitution, the Orange County Charter is intended to set forth the basic framework for county governance and it is not intended to be cluttered with the agendas of Washington, DC-backed special interests. We must uphold its integrity by safeguarding it with these pragmatic and well-defined reforms,” said Robert Agrusa, Executive Director of BusinessForce.

“Close examination of each reform demonstrates that the Orange County Charter Review Commission methodically and deliberately drew upon tested best practices to bring clarity, transparency and fairness to the initiative process,” said Agrusa.

Included below are the specific provisions under consideration:

Single Subject Requirement

  • We support that proposed initiative petitions (for both Charter amendments and ordinances) be subject to a single subject requirement, namely that they “shall embrace but one subject and matter directly connected therewith.”
  • This requirement provides consistency with the standard for state constitutional amendments by initiative and by adding a single subject requirement brings Orange County (one of the few charter counties in the state without a single subject requirement) into line with the majority of charter counties.
  • It promotes clarity and makes it easier for a voter to understand what is being proposed, and helps prevent voter confusion.

Petition Gatherer Badge Requirement Identifying Whether Volunteer or Paid

  • We support that each petition gatherer circulating a county initiative petition will be required to wear a badge that states “Volunteer Gatherer” or “Paid Gatherer,” as the case may be, in a form and manner specified by ordinance.
  • The badge requirement provides a level of needed transparency to the initiative petition process. A potential signer will be able to assess whether the petition gatherer is motivated by principle or profit.
  • This requirement helps identify whether an initiative is “grassroots” based on popular local support, and conversely helps address the issue of “outside interests” coming into the county to propose issues that may not be in the best interest of the county’s citizens.
  • This provision is also designed to be flexible, since the County Commission will specify the form and manner of wearing the badge by ordinance, and thus can tailor requirements so they are not burdensome or costly.
  • The benefits of transparency and petition signer education far outweigh this burden.
  • This is constitutional permissibility as five states currently require this badge requirement: Arizona, Colorado, Nebraska, Oregon and Wyoming.

Petition Gatherer’s Affidavit

  • We support the circulated petition form must contain an affidavit to be completed and signed by the petition gatherer for each petition circulated, providing the name and address of the petition gatherer, whether he or she was paid or volunteer, and, if paid, by whom and on what basis (hourly, per-signature, other).
  • The petition gatherer will also affirm that the petition was signed in the petition gatherer’s presence, the petition signer had sufficient time to read the petition language, and the signature on the petition is believed to be the genuine signature of the petition signer.
  • An affidavit requirement for petition gatherers provides a degree of desired transparency to the initiative petition process and all of these requirements were gathered from similar provisions in other county charters, or from requirements of other states that have withstood constitutional challenge.
  • It discloses to the public in a documented way whether a petition gatherer has been paid or was a volunteer, who is paying the petition gatherer and on what basis.
  • It fosters a better understanding by the signer of the subject matter of the petition by encouraging an opportunity to read it before signing and it promotes honesty on the part of the petition gatherer and helps prevent fraud in signature gathering.
  • A statutory written declaration “under penalty of perjury” will be used rather than a notary acknowledgment which results in additional burden and cost to the petition sponsor.

Legal Review

  • We support the concept of a legal review that will be conducted by a Legal Review Panel, comprised of three attorneys licensed to practice law in Florida who have demonstrated experience in Florida local government law and who are selected on a bi-annual basis through the county’s purchasing process applicable to legal services.
  • This requirement follows the lead of a neighboring charter county (Brevard), which has had a legal review panel process in place for some time and, based on inquiry, has found it to be beneficial.
  • Within 20 days after the 1% signature requirement is met, the Legal Review Panel will meet to render a written determination whether the proposed initiative petition satisfies the single subject requirement and is consistent with the Florida Constitution, general law and restrictions of the Charter.
  • If at least two members of the Legal Review Panel find that the petition satisfies these requirements, the petition process continues. If, however, two or more panelists find that it does not satisfy the requirements, the current petition drive ends and the petition must be corrected to satisfy the requirements before a new petition drive starts.
  • The Legal Review Panel will also be charged with ensuring the petition language is clear and not misleading. This legal requirement provides a mechanism for review of the petition language other than by going to court, which is more costly and time-consuming.
  • The legal review benefits the sponsor of an initiative petition by passing on the legality of the petition early in the process so it can be withdrawn and/or corrected unlike paid leave in 2012.
  • It also may benefit the sponsor by making the initiative less likely to be challenged upon completion.
  • The requirement for a legal review early in the process can save county resources on costly legal challenges which might otherwise occur later in the process.
  • The Legal Review Panel decision may still be overturned later in the process if challenged in court however, the substantial benefits of a legal review that potentially avoids litigation and provides valuable legal feedback to petition sponsors and the public far outweigh the risks.

Financial Impact Statement

  • We support that within 20 days after the 1% signature requirement is met, the Comptroller will prepare and transmit to the sponsor of the petition, the Board of County Commissioners, and the Supervisor of Elections, a separate financial impact statement, not exceeding 75 words.

*  The impact statement will estimate the increase or decrease in any revenues or costs to the county, local governments or to the citizens resulting from the approval of the proposed initiative petition.

* This financial impact statement will be placed on the ballot immediately following the ballot question.

* This financial impact statement will fall in line with the current standard by which a Constitutional Amendment is placed on the ballot in the State of Florida.

  • In addition, upon receipt of the financial impact statement, the sponsor of the petition will prepare and submit to the Supervisor of Elections a revised petition form containing the financial impact statement.

* The Supervisor of Elections, within 15 days after submittal of the revised petition form containing the financial impact statement, then renders a determination on the form of the revised petition.

*  At least 75% of the signed total petitions verified by the Supervisor of Elections must include the financial impact statement.

  • This financial impact statement helps educate the public on the cost of an initiative, in taxpayer dollars and requires that the financial impact statement be placed on a revised petition form which will provide transparency by informing petition signers of the financial impact of the initiative if adopted.
  • Placing the financial impact statement on the ballot helps ensure that the financial impact of a proposal is considered by voters at the critical time of voting.
  • Lastly, specifying that the financial impact analysis be prepared by the Orange County Comptroller ensures that the independent analysis is prepared by an office equipped with sufficient expertise that acts autonomously from the Board of County Commissioners.
  • We believe that the substantial educational benefits of a financial impact statement independently prepared and placed before the voters on the petition form and ballot far outweigh any additional obligations and costs.

Public Hearing

  • We support that within 60 days after notification of legality by the Legal Review Panel, a public hearing will be required to be held on the petition before the Board of County Commissioners.
  • Holding a public hearing to address the merits of the proposal early in the initiative petition process helps educate the public and provides transparency by allowing a longer period of time for the community to review, discuss and fully understand the pros and cons of the initiative.
  • It also allows the County Commission to consider the merits of the proposal and act independently upon it if appropriate.

Remove Requirement of BCC to Call Referendum and Automatic Placement on the Ballot

  • We support the removal of the requirement that the Board of County Commissioners must affirmatively vote to place a qualified initiative petition on the ballot takes out a step in the process that could effectively kill the petition process and makes this a true citizen-led initiative.
  • Now the Charter will specify that the initiative will be automatically placed on the ballot after verification of sufficient signatures by the Supervisor of Elections

Number of Signatures – 10% of Electors in Each Commission District

  • We support the recommendation that the number of signatures necessary for a charter amendment by initiative be changed from 10 percent of the county electors in a majority of the commission districts to 10 percent of the county electors in each commission district.
  • Such a change makes charter amendments by initiative consistent with ordinances by initiative under the Orange County Charter, which requires a percentage of signatures from all County Commission districts.
  • It closes the current loophole that effectively allows only 6.67% of registered voters in the County to approve a petition drive (due to the present requirement that the requisite signatures be obtained only in a majority of the commission districts), and brings Orange County in line with other charter counties. (Orange County is unique in its “percentage from a majority of districts” structure.)
  • In order to place a Constitutional Amendment on the ballot for the entire state of Florida, each initiative is required to have a percentage of signers per congressional district, why should Orange County be any different than the State threshold. 
  • 8 of 20 charter counties in Florida has at least 10% requirement including Miami Dade, Pinellas, and our neighbors in Osceola.
  • Currently only 4 counties (Brevard, Duval, Sarasota, and Volusia) have requirements that are less that our current threshold of 6.67% and all but one are much smaller charter counties.
  • This recommendation was strongly supported in public comments over multiple public meetings of the work group and was based on the concerns that some districts have intentionally been avoided in past petition drives.
  • The recommendation provides for better public input across all districts on charter amendment petitions, and for equal participation and representation of all districts, thereby avoiding the disenfranchisement of districts or specific areas of our county.
  • In other words, it preserves the principle of “One Person, One Vote.”
  • The Charter should be sacred as it is our governing document of our county and should not be easily amended, and certainly should not be easier to amend than an ordinance could be.

No Amendment or Repeal of a Successful Charter Amendment by Initiative for One Year after Effective Date

  • We support that if a charter amendment by initiative petition is successful in passage, it should not be subject to amendment or repeal for a period of one year after its effective date.
  • This would allow reasonable time to determine whether an amendment works and it benefits the sponsor of a successful initiative petition by protecting the amendment for at least a year from repeal or change.
  • These protections for charter amendments by initiative provides consistency between charter amendments and ordinances by initiative, which presently have the one year protection.

Removing Special Election from Elections at which Initiative Petition can be Held

  • We support the recommendation that “special elections” should be removed as elections at which a referendum can be held on an initiative petition.
  • With this removal, the Charter more simply provides that a referendum be held at the next primary or general election occurring at least 150 days after verification of sufficient signatures.
  • Such change provides clarity and predictability as to when the question will be placed on the ballot and 15 of 20 county charters already apply this method.
  • It allows the petition sponsor to more effectively select the election at which the initiative will be considered by the voters and Supervisor Cowles concurred that the change simplifies the initiative petition process overall and provides clarity and predictability.

Require Petition Sponsor’s Registration as a Political Committee

  • We support that the sponsor of an initiative petition must “register as a political committee as required by general law.”
  • This requirement has long been the law under Florida election law, but a number of county charters state it expressly in order to help those pursuing charter and ordinance amendments by providing a single source for guidance in working through the process.
  • At BusinessForce, we are held accountable for disclosing our donors, our relationships with all public and private organizations, and our agenda. I think it is fair that anyone who is trying to amend our County Charter should be held to the same standard without hiding under another tax exempt status.

“BusinessForce recognizes and appreciates the hard work of the dedicated citizens of Orange County who have given their time to this important issue,” concluded Agrusa.

BusinessForce is the political action arm of the Central Florida Partnership. BusinessForce’s goal is to affect positive change in Central Florida through regional public policy advocacy and by encouraging and supporting candidates for public office who, as public officials, will embrace free enterprise and sound, responsible business practices in government.

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