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Activist sues over county mayor ballot question in Hillsborough

TAMPA — Tallahassee attorneys for a local activist filed a lawsuit Monday against Hillsborough Elections Supervisor Buddy Johnson, claiming Johnson acted improperly when he placed an initiative question concerning election of a county mayor on the 2008 ballot.

The lawsuit, filed on behalf of political activist James E. Shirk, says the county mayor question cannot legally be placed on the 2008 ballot because the petitions leading to it asserted the ballot question would be in 2006.

The suit also says the description of the initiative question misled voters by suggesting its approval would merely substitute an elected nonpartisan county mayor for the current appointed county administrator. In reality, the suit says, the county mayor could exercise the power to execute contracts and appoint subordinates, both of which now require the consent of the seven-member County Commission.

Shirk's Tallahassee attorneys, Jennifer S. Blohm and Ronald G. Meyer, now seek an injunction preventing the county mayor question from being included on the 2008 ballot. Blohm said Monday she expected a hearing on the injunction before the end of July.

"We think this is all about preventing the voters from voting on this issue in the fall,'' said Mary Ann Stiles, a lawyer-lobbyist who has pumped her money and time into the county mayor effort. "Obviously, we have someone on the run and they have to use a lawsuit to try to stop us."

Johnson, the GOP incumbent now seeking re-election against Democratic challenger Phyllis Busansky, did not respond to messages seeking comment on the suit.

After Johnson certified the county mayor question in April 2006, Stiles' group began collecting signatures on petitions that said the initiative question would appear on the ballot "in the next general election." Four months later, following a 30-day certification period, Johnson announced that Stiles' group had fallen about 3,000 signatures short of the 37,202 required to place the question on the 2006 ballot.

After conducting a private audit of the petitions, Stiles complained that Johnson's office had bungled the count. Hundreds of petitions had been lost, while others bearing the valid signatures of registered voters had been inexplicably rejected, Stiles said.

A group opposing the switch to an elected county mayor conducted its own review of the petitions this year and found Johnson's records in such disarray that "an audit was impossible,'' said public affairs consultant Beth Rawlins.

After the failure of the initial petition drive in 2006, Johnson permitted valid petitions to stand and newly signed petitions to be added until the legal threshold was reached. Johnson then declared in October 2006 that the county mayor question would be placed on the ballot in 2008.

Shirk's attorneys say a Pinellas case that went to the appellate court shows Johnson's actions were improper.

Stiles, despite her earlier criticism of Johnson's handling of her petitions, says the election chief was correct in allowing the referendum question in 2008.

"The county charter allows petitions to be valid for six months,'' Stiles said. "In this case, I believe Buddy did cross all his T's and dot all his I's."

Jeff Testerman can be reached at (813) 226-3422 or testerman@sptimes.com.

Activist sues over county mayor ballot question in Hillsborough 07/07/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 8, 2008 6:33am]
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