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Hillsborough mayor proposal argued at court hearing

TAMPA — This we know: There is no way Hillsborough County voters will decide, on the same day, whether to create the position of county mayor and choose someone for the job.

But that's how a proposed county charter amendment reads, and that's a problem.

For now, a Hillsborough circuit judge has ordered the county mayor referendum removed from the Nov. 4 ballot.

Whether it comes back depends on the 2nd District Court of Appeal.

It should, said Barry Richard, a Tallahassee attorney for Elected County Mayor Political Committee Inc.

"The voter is not being misled in any way," he said during a hearing Thursday.

No, it shouldn't, said Jennifer Blohm, a Tallahassee attorney for activist James E. Shirk, who sued to block the referendum.

"The people who were signing this thought it was going to be on the November 2006 ballot," Blohm told a three-judge panel.

Supporters of a county mayor began circulating petitions to hold a referendum in 2006.

But Hillsborough Supervisor of Elections Buddy Johnson's office said the group fell short of the number of signatures needed to schedule the referendum.

Johnson later said supporters could continue collecting signatures until they reached the number they needed. And he said in 2006 that the county mayor question could be placed on the ballot in 2008.

Trouble is, the charter amendment summary said the county mayor would be elected in even-numbered years beginning in 2008. And that language carried over from 2006 to this year.

After Circuit Judge James D. Arnold ruled the amendment invalid because of that problem, supporters appealed.

During a hearing Thursday, Richard said the central question isn't whether the amendment mentions a mayor's race in 2008. It's whether Hillsborough voters want to change their form of government.

And the ballot question clearly concerns whether to go from having an appointed county administrator to a nonpartisan, elected mayor, Richard said.

"They know it can't begin before it gets adopted," he said.

But presiding Judge Darryl C. Casanueva noted the Florida Supreme Court has warned parties in the past to "be careful about what you put in" ballot initiatives, especially when it comes to dates.

"The date might be important if it affects a critical component of the amendment," Richard said, but it doesn't. The petition, he said, ought to be read that the new county mayor would be elected at "the next general election at which it can be placed on the ballot."

Blohm contended that passing the amendment would create a "hole" in county government.

The amendment would eliminate the county administrator's job, she said, but no county mayor would be elected.

"It gives an exact date when the transfer was supposed to happen, and it can't happen," she said.

Judges didn't say when they would rule, but attorneys for Johnson hope for a decision by Sept. 10 so they can print ballots and mail them to absentee voters who live overseas.

Hillsborough mayor proposal argued at court hearing 09/04/08 [Last modified: Thursday, September 4, 2008 11:52pm]
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