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Judge to hear St. Pete Beach ballot challenge Tuesday

ST. PETE BEACH — On Tuesday, the city hopes to persuade a judge not to remove four ballot items from the scheduled June 3 referendum election that is asking voters to consider new development rules.

The court hearing before Circuit Judge David A. Demers involves a legal challenge filed by William Pyle, a major financial supporter of the political action group Citizens for Responsible Growth, which is opposed to the proposed changes to the city's land-use plan.

Pyle's lawsuit against the city challenges four of six ballot summary questions as "deceptive" and "misleading" and calls for them to be rewritten or taken off the ballot until a future election.

In a narrow 3-2 vote, the City Commission voted last week to allow the city's new attorney, Michael Davis, to fight Pyle's claim in court.

"It is real hard to write ballot language," Davis told the commission. "You can't put everything into 75 words that is important."

Commissioners Linda Chaney and Harry Metz, who are supporters of CRG, were overruled in their argument that Pyle's claims against the ballot language may be justified.

The ballot questions in dispute (Nos. 3, 4, 5 and 6) cover proposed changes to "goals, objectives, policies, permitted uses, densities, intensities and height standards" in the city's comprehensive plan as well as related changes to the city's land development code.

The four ballot questions are the result of successful referendum petitions circulated last year by the political action group Save Our Little Village.

During a special commission meeting last week called to discuss Pyle's lawsuit, Chaney repeatedly criticized the potential legal cost of defending against Pyle's lawsuit.

"How can we do this without spending a lot of money on lawyers?" she asked. "Why would we want to spend public dollars to mount this defense?"

Both Metz and Chaney said the judge's call for a full hearing on Pyle's claims implied that he agrees there are "problems" with the ballot language.

"Why would the judge sign the writ if he didn't have an inkling that something is wrong" with the ballot language?" Metz said.

Chaney wanted the commission to try to negotiate new language with SOLV and schedule a later referendum election on the four ballot questions.

She also reminded the commission that she had strong reservations about the ballot language before it was approved by the commission. The language was only slightly changed from what was originally proposed by SOLV.

Davis told the commission that defending against Pyle's lawsuit would probably cost about $5,000.

But the city is already obligated to spending about $17,000 to hold the special election and would have to spend the same amount again if the SOLV items are taken off the ballot.

"Numerous citizens have contacted me and said the ballot language is confusing," she said.

Mayor Michael Finnerty countered, saying that the "average person in St. Pete Beach is intelligent and smart enough to decipher what they are reading and whether or not they want what they are reading to happen."

Commissioner Christopher Leonard warned that even if the ballot language were changed, it could be challenged again.

"I would like the court to make the determination on the validity rather than rewriting the ballot language," Leonard said. "A legal opinion is worth pursuing."

Commissioner Al Halpern cited the many public meetings held by the city's Planning Commission and SOLV to explain the proposed new development regulations.

"The public understands the issues despite the ballot language," Halpern said.

The court hearing is scheduled for 5 p.m. Tuesday. Depending on the results, the commission scheduled either a public discussion during its regular meeting later that night or a private "shade" meeting with its attorney to discuss the outcome of the court hearing.

Judge to hear St. Pete Beach ballot challenge Tuesday 05/24/08 [Last modified: Monday, May 26, 2008 11:16am]
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