Citizens fight City Hall and win; Tallahassee voters get ethics reforms on ballot

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Posted: Sep 02, 2014 12:37 PM
Citizens fight City Hall and win; Tallahassee voters get ethics reforms on ballot

By William Patrick | Florida Watchdog

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Add one more Tallahassee resident to the list of thousands who think voters should have a say in whether their city government needs stronger ethics requirements.

Photo courtesy of Leon County Florida

DISMISSED: Chief Judge Charles Francis ruled against a city lawsuit aimed at blocking a voter-backed ethics initiative.

Friday, Chief Judge Charles Francis ruled against the city’s attempt to block a voter-backed ballot initiative, despite proponents gaining more than twice the number of the needed signatures.

City Attorney Lewis Shelley sued Citizens for Ethics Reform, the bipartisan coalition group behind the amendment, calling the ballot language “unclear” and “misleading.”

The judge read it differently.

“Neither the (ballot) summary nor the title misleads,” Francis said. “It’s not confusing, deceptive or inflammatory or misleading.”

Translation: Capital city residents fought City Hall, and they won.

The decision is the latest setback for officials who have resisted the proposed charter amendment on grounds the reforms aren’t necessary.

“If you read the ballot title and summary you’d have no idea of the ethics measures that have been implemented already,” Shelley said.

The ballot title, which contains the term “anti-corruption,” invites an emotional response, he added. “Who can be against being anti-corrupt?”

But reforms by the city government only go so far, and that’s not the point, said the citizen groups’ attorney, Sandy D’Alemberte.

“This is a reserve exercise of the people,” he argued. “The city wouldn’t do it voluntarily, so disparate groups banded together to get them on the ballot and let voters decide.”

Those groups include area tea party chapters, the League of Women Voters and Common Cause Florida.

The proposed charter amendment would establish a citywide ethics and anti-corruption policy, an independent ethics officer, a $250 limit on campaign contributions and a small donor refund program.

“We are relieved that the judge has confirmed our ethics reform petition is legally sound, and we are excited that the voters will have an opportunity to decided for themselves this November whether to approve the measure,” Marilynn Wills, co-chair of CER told Watchdog.org in an email statement.

State law requires the city commission to place the amendment on the ballot. Wills said she expects the commission to do so at a Wednesday meeting.