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Wednesday, Jul 18, 2018
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Counties sue to remove amendments from Florida’s November ballot

Two Florida counties are asking a court to throw an amendment off the November ballot that asks voters around the state to overrule decisions made by their local voters on which of their officials should be elected.

In separate lawsuits filed this month in Leon County Circuit Court, Broward and Volusia counties are asking the court to invalidate Amendment 10, the proposal placed on the November ballot by the Republican-controlled Constitution Revision Commission. The two counties argue that the proposal unconstitutionally misleads voters because it fails to explain that if approved, voters in Broward and Volusia counties would be stripped of their right to govern themselves.

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 law enforcement officer, and force Volusia County to reverse a decision voters made in 1970 to appoint its county officers. Miami-Dade County has not joined the lawsuit.

"The ballot title and summary for Amendment 10 are misleading, inaccurate, and fail to fairly inform voters of the true effect and impact of the proposed amendment," wrote lawyers for Broward County in a lawsuit filed Friday.

"The ballot title and summary for revision 10 are ambiguous and unclear; and do not fairly inform the voter of the scope of the revision," wrote lawyers for Volusia County in a lawsuit filed June 7.

They are two of a growing number of lawsuits aimed at the work of the Constitution Revision Commission, the 37-member panel that meets every 20 years with the intent to update the Florida Constitution.

After meeting for a year, the Republican-controlled panel placed eight amendments on the November ballot, including merging unrelated amendments together in Amendment 10. 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.

To get past the opposition to the provisions relating to the counties, the CRC bundled the idea 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 other proposals do not needed a constitutional amendment to become law.

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.

"Of the seventy-five words that comprise the summary, only thirty-four words buried in the middle advise voters that the proposed amendment materially negates home rule powers of counties," the Broward lawsuit states.

"The ballot title and summary of Amendment 10 do not fairly inform the voters that the chief purpose of the amendment is to remove the electorate's right to engage in local self-governance and design the structure of their local government in a manner best suiting local needs and desires."

Although the Florida Constitution allows for elected "constitutional officers" including "a sheriff, a tax collector, a property appraiser, a supervisor of elections, and a clerk of the circuit county" in each county, it also allows voters to establish "county charters" that call for those officers to be appointed.

In 1974, Broward County voters abolished their elected tax collector position and transferred many of the duties from the clerk of courts to the county administrator and the Department of Finance and Administrative Services. It also created an independently selected county auditor.

In 1970, Volusia County voters abolished its offices of tax collector, sheriff, property appraiser, and supervisor of elections and transferred the functions and duties of those offices to departments of county government.

Although the Amendment 10 ballot summary states that the amendment "removes county charters' ability to abolish, change term, transfer duties, or eliminate election of these offices," Broward argues that "misleadingly implies that the charter, rather than the electorate, has control over whether to abolish or change the term or duties of constitutional officers."

The amendment also fails to tell voters that the amendment also overrides the power of the Florida Legislature to pass laws that transfer the duties of constitutional officers.

"The ballot summary uses an emotional appeal, "ensures election," and refers to "all" counties, as if rights of voters in non-charter counties were in jeopardy," the Volusia lawsuit claims.

It also "uses present tense verbs that do not tell state voters that revision 10 by implication would undo prior decisions by county voters," the lawsuit said.

Both 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.

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