Thursday, March 3, 2011

An Essay by John Hedrick

(I wonder what the numbers would look like if we polled Deerfield Beach Voters?)

Towards restoring citizen control over their governments in Florida
By John Hedrick

Signs abound of citizen dissatisfaction with their local and state governments. Look at the recent Sunshine State poll. Almost half of Floridians say their state is worse off than 5 years ago. 65% say it will get worse or stay the same in the next 5 years. And 21% are seriously considering leaving the state. 71% think their government leaders do the right thing only some of the time or never do the right thing, and only 23-33% of Floridians think their government does a good or excellent job. Yet we have elections every year, two years, or four years. We've tried Term Limits for state politicians and some local governments, and we're about to try Fair Districts at the state level, but that's likely not enough either.

So what can bring government decisions back in line with people's needs and desires? Back in the early 1900s, when Americans faced similar concentrations of corporate and economic power, reformers managed to expose and remove political machines and bosses. The parallel today is the division between the Insiders and the rest of us.

A century ago, reformers sought to enable the citizenry to rule more directly, and thus they developed political safeguards called Initiative, Referendum and Recall. These three safeguards of citizen control have since been adopted, in various models, in about 25 states, including Florida . Yet existing safeguards have not gone far enough to give citizens a way to counteract undue money and insider control. What is needed are the following Constitutional Amendment initiatives:

(1) A “Legislative Initiative” at the state level and then, similarly, “Legislative Initiative” for all local governments. Only in this way can citizen voices be truly heard: citizens can petition and put an proposed law on the ballot, for their fellow citizens to decide.

We have “Constitutional Initiative” currently at the state level, which is very difficult to utilize, with its high percentage requirement of petition signatures and its 60% passage threshold. This “Constitutional Initiative” also results in measures such as Class Sizes being put into the Constitution instead of being made a statute. (And I might remind everyone that most state Constitution votes these days are the result of what the Legislature itself has voted to put on the ballot.)

Previous attempts to get our state legislators to create “Legislative Initiative” for citizens have gone nowhere. Years ago Don Tucker, the former Democratic Speaker of the Florida House, told me that a bill I was able to get out of committee creating “Legislative Initiative,”, would go no further -- and it didn't -- since it threatened politicians’ power.

For the Legislative Initiative, we should make the percentage of required signatures lower than for Constitutional Amendments; require only a simple majority to pass the statute; and provide that any statute created this way must be submitted to the voters a second time in the future, to alter or repeal it (to avoid the legislature simply passing something themselves that potentially thwarts the will of the voters). And locally, all citizens of local governments should be able to initiate ordinances, not just Cities or Charter Counties . Local governments should be allowed to set a lower percentage of required signatures, if they don’t want to follow the state-set percentage.

(2) Create expanded “Referendum powers” for all local governments. Citizens need a mechanism to be able to effectively challenge decisions by their elected officials.

(3) Enable citizens to Recall elected officials more easily. Astonishingly, there are various officials to whom recall does not currently apply, and it needs to. And, for all officials, though the percentage of signatures necessary to accomplish Recall needs to remain somewhat substantial, the primary reasons why you can recall an elected official need to be loosened. It's simply too difficult to make Recall fit the usual "misfeasance, malfeasance, etc." categories. I've had citizens gather signatures from 15% of registered voters within 30 days, only to have a court say they couldn't make their issues properly fit the Recall definition. If citizens are outraged enough at a decision that their elected official makes, they should be able to try to remove them right away. We should also lengthen somewhat the time frame within which the signatures can be gathered, to make it possible to use Recall.

Some would say that I haven't mentioned one obvious reform that would help citizens curb the influence of Big Money: it’s called “Clean Elections/Public Financing.” For example, we’ve just seen the grassroots Florida Hometown Democracy crushed by Big Money, and the same could well happen to a proposed ban on Offshore Oil Drilling. Unfortunately, unless and until the U.S. Supreme Court has its makeup changed to overrule the recent Citizens United and older Buckley decisions, or unless a federal constitutional amendment is enacted to overrule those decisions -- decisions that have both unleashed unlimited Big-Money influence on our politicians, the Supreme Court is currently composed to eviscerate any “Clean Elections/Public Financing” reforms.

It's important to note that Initiative, Referendum and Recall themselves are content-neutral and can be utilized by any citizen or organization. Enactment of the above reforms will go a long way toward restoring the power of the citizenry, curbing the influence of insiders, and moving Florida towards a better place than where it is currently headed.

John Hedrick has been an activist for 40 years, an attorney for 25 years; lobbied, been a candidate, run campaigns, studied Political Science and is chair of Panhandle Citizens Coalition and President of People's Transit Organization. He can be reached at .

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