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Judge: Stacy White can't challenge transit tax as commissioner, but can as citizen

Chris Altenbernd argues in Hillsborough Circuit Court on Thursday for his client, Hillsborough County commissioner Stacy White, who is challenging a one-cent transportation tax voters approved in November. Judge Rex Barbas ruled White does not have legal standing as a county commissioner, but granted Altenbernd’s motion to amend the complaint with White as an individual citizen. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times])
Published Mar. 14

TAMPA — A judge ruled Thursday that Stacy White can't challenge a one-cent transportation sales tax in his capacity as a Hillsborough county commissioner, but that won't end his legal case against the voter-approved increase.

"I think if we open the door for any legislator in any legislative body who does not get the outcome they prefer to bring a lawsuit against their body, we create chaos," David Smith, attorney for the county's transit agency, said during the hearing.

Hillsborough Circuit Court Judge Rex Barbas agreed that White does not have legal standing as a county commissioner to bring suit, but granted White's attorneys 10 days to file an amended complaint. That would allow White to continue his argument as a citizen.

White said he intends to move forward with the lawsuit. He has also appeared in a related bond validation hearing for the sales tax as a citizen, raising identical concerns.

"This is an important issue regarding the rule of law and the validity of this new article in the county charter must be addressed," White wrote in a statement after the hearing.

The defendants in the case — 11 parties, including the county commission, transit agency and clerk — will have 10 days after receiving the amended complaint to update their motion for summary judgement.

"We assert that this is sort of a rose-by-any-other-name argument," Pamela Cichon, attorney for the city of Temple Terrace, said during the hearing. "Unless he's willing to give up his official capacity and not be a county commissioner any more...he would still be violating that because he is a county commissioner."

Attorneys for all parties agreed to extend the time of an already scheduled May 3 summary judgement hearing, with Barbas clearing his morning schedule. The judge quipped that he'd hear arguments into the evening and even the weekend, if necessary.

All For Transportation, the citizen group who helped pass the sales tax and filed the motion to dismiss, called Thursday's decision a win.

"This is certainly not the obvious victory today ... but any kind of win is a good win," attorney Ben Hill said.

White filed his lawsuit in December, nearly a month after 57 percent of voters approved the one-cent sales tax to raise revenue for transit and road improvements. White's attorney, Chris Altenbernd, told the court the charter amendment "was created in a back room by a private group and put on the ballot really the last day it could pass."

White's complaint argues that the charter amendment is inconsistent with Florida law, leaving him as a county commissioner unsure of which legal document to follow.

"He reads the general statute...he reads the material that was inserted by the citizens group that places total restrictions...on all of this money for 30 years, and he says 'I don't know which one to follow,' " Altenbernd said.

White's concerns center around the pre-set formula that dictates what types of projects the money can be spent on and on the creation of an independent oversight committee that he says usurps the power of the county commission.

Contact Caitlin Johnston at cjohnston@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8779. Follow @cljohnst.

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