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Dual-vote referendum splits even these two

Building contractor Alan C. Bomstein and Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard are friends. They've known each other for years and rarely find themselves on opposites sides of an issue.

But when it comes to proposed changes to the county's charter, in particular a provision to eliminate a municipality's right to opt out of certain kinds of countywide rules when its voters reject them, the two draw a line in the sand.

Bomstein says the dual-vote referendum has never been used and isn't necessary; Hibbard is part of a coalition of municipalities that fears the change would grant the county expanded powers at the expense of cities.

Clearwater is among 21 Pinellas municipalities that filed a lawsuit in August, seeking to have the proposed charter amendments removed from the Nov. 7 ballot.

The suit is making its way through the courts, with the next date set for Oct. 20.

Bomstein and Hibbard faced off on the issue Wednesday at the Rotary Club of Clearwater's luncheon meeting at Belleair Country Club.

The nearly 30-minute exchange highlighted the importance that both the cities and the county have awarded the issue.

"No protective gear is necessary," Bomstein told the group. "Hibbard and I are friends and always have been. In my 33 years in Clearwater, he's the best mayor the city has had."

The Charter Review Commission, of which Bomstein was the chairman and one of its 13 members, decided that seven proposed changes to the county's charter should be presented to voters on Nov. 7.

The one that has raised the temperature of municipalities the most is an amendment that would eliminate what's known as the dual referendum provision. No other county in Florida has this provision.

"It's been in place seven years, and it's never been used," Bomstein said. "It's never been tested. The county has never tried to usurp city authority. Why the fear now?"

With the dual vote, a municipality can opt out of a countywide regulation if its voters reject it.

Hibbard said the ballot question concerning the elimination of the dual vote as it's written is "ambiguous."

"It's difficult for citizens to understand what they are giving up," Hibbard said. "They are giving up a right. I don't own a gun, but I don't want to give up my right to have one."

The coalition of cities also alleges that the review commission violated procedures and broke the state's Sunshine Laws when determining and crafting its proposed amendments.

Hibbard said county municipalities have yet to use the dual vote procedure because the county knows that when it implements changes, it has to reach a "high bar" in order to get everyone to sign on.

Attendees Wednesday saw mailers both supporting and opposing the proposed charter amendments. There were two other handouts: one with the proposed charter changes as they would appear on the ballot and another that summarized the changes.

After Bomstein and Hibbard debated the issue for about 25 minutes, luncheon attendees were allowed to ask questions of the two.

One person wanted to know if it was a waste for the municipalities to spend money suing the county.

Hibbard said that because of the process, once the commission makes a recommendation, it goes directly to the voters.

"This was the only way to stop them," Hibbard said.

If the coalition of cities isn't successful in its legal fight to have the proposed changes removed from the ballot, Rotary Club member Scott Swope offered that one way or another, the matter will be settled on Nov. 7.

"I thought the only way to defeat this is by voting," Swope said. "If (the charter changes) are voted down, then it's not an issue."

Demorris A. Lee can be reached at dalee@sptimes.com or 445-4174.

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