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Pro-growth St. Pete Beach groups fined $12K for acts before 2008 referendum

ST. PETE BEACH — The Florida Elections Commission levied $12,000 in fines last month against two political action groups that advocated for voter approval of a 2008 referendum that changed the city's comprehensive plan.

In a related matter, the City Commission on Tuesday plans to readopt comprehensive plan amendments for Corey Avenue and Gulf Boulevard that were changed in 2008.

Once the plan creating a community redevelopment district is fully adopted in a second vote this month, the commission also plans to readopt specific land development regulations, probably in July.

Both actions are allowed under changes to the state's Growth Management Act recently approved by the Legislature, as well as the March referendum repeal of a city charter requirement to submit building height changes to voters.

The 2008 voter approval of changes to the comprehensive plan and land development regulations were challenged in a series of lawsuits, some of which are still being litigated. The commission plans to review those cases at 4:30 Tuesday, before the regular meeting at 6 p.m.

Efforts by two political action groups and their representatives to advocate for voter approval of the 2008 referendum prompted the elections commission fines — marking the fourth time the panel has fined political action groups and their representatives for violations connected to the city's political battles over its comprehensive plan and land development regulations.

To date, those fines total nearly $25,000.

Save Our Little Village and the Alliance for a Balanced Community agreed in April to pay $11,500 and $500 in fines, respectively, after acknowledging that they had violated state election laws.

Their representatives, R. Gary Renfrow (ABC) and Lorraine Huhn and John Gottwald (SOLV), were dismissed from the case or not held personally responsible.

Renfrow was the ABC treasurer. Huhn was SOLV's chairwoman, and Gottwald its treasurer. All three were individually named in the original 2009 complaint.

In paying the fines, the parties admitted violating several election laws:

• ABC paid $15,000 in 2007 to Cornerstone Strategy and Communications LLC for a political survey later used by SOLV. ABC was fined $500 for not properly reporting that fact on its campaign treasurer's report.

• SOLV was fined a total of $2,000 for failing to properly report the in-kind contribution from ABC and for incurring a legal expense without having sufficient funds to cover the bill.

• SOLV was fined $9,500 in additional civil penalties for failing to report the ABC contribution.

The consent order was approved by the elections commission in May.

According to the order, neither ABC nor SOLV will face further action since each agreed that the elections commission could "prove facts by clear and convincing evidence establishing prima facie violations."

Last year, the elections commission fined Citizens for Responsible Growth $7,000 for multiple violations of state election laws in 2006 and 2007, including failing to include a proper disclaimer in newspaper advertisements, failing to have sufficient funds to pay for some of those ads, and for accepting contributions in excess of the legal limit.

In a separate order last year, the elections commission similarly found that in 2006 former city Commissioner Harry Metz, who was CRG's deputy treasurer, wrote checks to the St. Petersburg Times without having sufficient funds to cover the checks as well as previously authorized expenses. He was fined $3,750.

CRG opposed the SOLV-sponsored referendum.

In 2008, the elections commission fined CRG and its then-chairmen Brenda Preston and Terrence Gannon a total of $2,100. The fines were for multiple instances of failing to include the word "paid" or a disclaimer in political advertisements in 2005 and 2006 leading up to another citywide referendum to require voter approval of changes to building heights.

Pro-growth St. Pete Beach groups fined $12K for acts before 2008 referendum 06/11/11 [Last modified: Saturday, June 11, 2011 4:31am]
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