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Count sugar tax petitions, court says

The Florida Supreme Court has ordered the state's 67 elections supervisors to ignore a sugar industry request to stop counting petitions seeking a penny-per-pound tax on sugar.

The court, ruling late last week, granted the Save Our Everglades Committee's request to hear the sugar industry's legal challenge to the 700,000 sets of signed petitions. The move takes the lawsuit out of Leon County Circuit Court, where a hearing had been set for Thursday.

The Supreme Court also granted the committee's request for an order regarding a July 10 letter from the Steel, Hector & Davis law firm to the state's supervisors of elections.

That letter advised the officials of the pending lawsuit and asked them to stop counting and verifying the petitions, which would put the proposed sugar tax to clean the Everglades on the November ballot.

In a brief, two-sentence order, the court ordered the election supervisors that "there be no delay in counting the petitions absent an order of this court."

The Supreme Court's action "was exactly what was needed," said Bill Sundberg, an attorney for Save Our Everglades.

In their request to the Supreme Court, Sundberg and colleagues said the July 10 letter was an attempt by the sugar industry to subvert the democratic process.

"This action represents a direct attempt by (Save Our Everglades) opponents to stifle a fundamental right of the people _ the right to vote," the committee attorneys wrote.

The author of the sugar industry letter, Jonathan Sjostrom, said the industry has the same rights as anybody else to lobby elected officials.

"That's what the right to petition your government is all about," Sjostrom said.

With an Aug. 6 deadline for verified petitions to be turned over to the state Division of Elections, any delay by the elections supervisors could have been critical to whether the question made the ballot.

Sjostrom said his clients _ several sugar companies owned by West Palm Beach sugar giant Flo-Sun Sugar _ wish to keep the sugar issue off the November ballot and that he was well within his rights to go directly to the elections supervisors.

Elections supervisors disagreed.

"I think it was a little presumptuous to think they could ask us to stop checking petitions," said Kurt Browning, the supervisor of elections in Pasco County.

The Supreme Court is scheduled to hear oral arguments on the three Save Our Everglades petitions on Aug. 29.

At that time, the court also will consider the sugar industry's complaints that punctuation and wording in some of the petitions was changed from what was approved by the Division of Elections.