ST. PETE BEACH — Circuit Judge David Demers doubled down Wednesday on an earlier decision invalidating the city's comprehensive plan.
The City Commission is expected to appeal the multiple rulings and will consider whether to ask voters to repeal a City Charter requirement that most of them have acknowledged has cost nearly $1 million in legal fees.
City officials hope the March municipal election will duplicate November's high city voter turnout (42 percent, double the normal turnout) and the sharp rejection (60 percent) of a state constitutional amendment imposing a similar Hometown Democracy-style voter requirement statewide.
Since a 2006 voter-approved referendum, the charter has required voters to approve all changes to the city's comprehensive plan or development regulations involving changes in building height or density.
Two years later, voters approved a new comprehensive plan and related development regulations.
In a lawsuit subsequently filed against the city by resident and now mayoral candidate Bruce Kadoura, the judge effectively told the city Wednesday that its comprehensive plan was presented improperly to voters on the 2008 ballot.
He said the same thing in November in a related lawsuit filed by resident Bill Pyle.
"This was a victory for the citizens and the taxpayers. The plan placed unfair burdens on the taxpayer," said Ken Weiss, attorney for both Kadoura and Pyle.
In the Pyle lawsuit, Demers agreed with Pyle's complaint that the language used to describe the 2008 referendum question was inadequate, particularly because the ballot summary did not tell voters that the then-proposed comprehensive plan involved increases in height and density.
The Pyle ruling, which was clarified but not substantively changed Wednesday, was cited by Demers in his decision in the Kadoura case.
The city and its co-defendant, Save Our Little Village, a political action group that drafted the comprehensive plan, did win on several points in the Kadoura case.
In the Kadoura case, the judge refused to invalidate the original settlement between the city and SOLV that led to the 2008 referendum.
"The voters decided the proper course and they could have rejected the plan," the judge ruled, also rejecting Kadoura's contention that residents were not given proper notice of the ordinance establishing the comprehensive plan.
"The purpose of the notice was met by the election and public debate that took place," Demers said.
But even though voters approved the plan, the judge said that if the city wanted that plan to be in effect — or any other plan different from the pre-2008 comprehensive plan — it would have to go back to the voters.
"This Final Judgment does not bar the city from holding another referendum," Demers stressed in his order.
The ordinance establishing the comprehensive plan does not have to be changed, he added, but the ballot language describing the ordinance does have to comply with the City Charter and state law.
Commissioners will meet with City Attorney Mike Davis on Thursday to discuss the rulings and possible referendum questions for the March ballot.