(Ran Beach edition)
What the city saw as a delay was described as a denial of democracy by opponents Tuesday during a hearing in which a faction battling redevelopment efforts won on a technical matter in court.
"What greater harm can come to a citizen than if government can unilaterally take their vote away," said Ken Weiss, attorney for Citizens for Responsible Growth, the group opposed to the city's plans to allow mixed-use development and tall hotels to promote tourism.
Weiss told Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Walt Logan that residents had already voted by absentee ballot on one of his group's referendum questions, which the city was removing from the March 14 ballot because the question is under appeal as unconstitutional. Taking the item off the ballot amounts to erasing those votes, Weiss said. Logan agreed with Weiss and removed a stay the appeal created.
The Pinellas County supervisor of elections says it is impossible, however, to include the item on the March ballot, so Weiss will have to seek a special election. Three other referendum questions are also under appeal with the hope they might make the November ballot. Two more questions are before Logan in another action.
"The courts have always frowned on piecemeal appeals. Why should we have piecemeal elections?" asked William Hyde, standing in for Tom Pelham, who has been representing the city in a series of lawsuits. Hyde said it would be best to have all referendum questions on a single ballot, possibly in November. "There is no irreparable harm here. It's a delay."
The referendum in this case would change the city's charter to require a unanimous city commission vote on comprehensive plan changes affecting five or fewer parcels. Though this technical issue would only affect future plans, not the city's present proposals, and though it may never arise, CRG is campaigning for its passage as an opportunity for voters to "return your right to be heard."
Late last year, Logan had accepted this referendum as valid while throwing out three others concerning citywide votes on future city plans. Two questions he has not yet ruled on would have voters approve existing city plans. Weiss has appealed Logan's ruling on the three the judge denied. Weiss said he is aiming to have those on the November ballot, but wants to force a special election on the referendum discussed at Tuesday's hearing.
Weiss had filed his appeal in the beginning of February and the city later countered with a cross appeal. Weiss told Logan the city "acted in bad faith" by cross appealing and relying on that action's automatic stay to remove the item from the ballot. Weiss has filed other suits concerning that city action, but they are assigned to another judge.
Logan pressed Hyde on the city's timing and intentions and whether delaying the vote would allow the city to act on its plans before an election could be held. Hyde said it would be unwise for the city to move forward while these issues are in court.
Logan also asked Hyde what harm would result if he lifted the stay and allowed Weiss to pursue a special election. Hyde said Weiss needed to show harm because he brought the action, but offered that the city would be forced to mount a campaign against the referendum to protect itself should it later be ruled illegal.
"Isn't that the city's choice?" Logan asked.
"I think it's something you should be concerned with," Hyde responded. "The city is acting as elected representatives."
Hyde described to Logan how he felt CRG was trying to "thwart the city by any means it can."
Weiss said the city was trying "to stop citizens any way it can."
Logan said he had received many communications from the public about this case and is aware of its sensitivities, so he cautioned at the end that no one should take his pointed questions as an indication of his leanings. He also observed that the tactical actions on both sides are a typical aspect of such disputes.
"Sometimes the practice of law resembles a chess match," he said.
The city has spent $110,000 through December on lawsuits related to redevelopment.
Paul Swider can be reached at 892-2271 or email@example.com and by participating in itsyourtimes.com.