Four years after the Orange County Commission was presented a citizen petition for a ballot initiative it wanted nothing to do with, officials are preparing stricter requirements for citizens to put ordinances on the county-wide ballot.
The Orange County Charter Review Commission Thursday will be voting to recommend a host of proposed charter changes that would require more petition signatures and a host of procedures before a citizen initiative could be placed on the ballot.
The commission’s Initiative Petition Work Group also is recommending taking the final say away from the Orange County Commission on whether a citizen initiative should be placed on the ballot.
That would absolve the commissioners of the kind of awkward political fight in which they found themselves in 2012 when, after the commissioners had rejected a mandatory sick-time pay ordinance for Orange County, a petition drive brought the measure back to them as a ballot initiative. The commission then refused to put it on the ballot until a judge ordered them to, and it went on the August 2014 ballot as a non-binding vote.
The issue sparked the most controversy the commission has seen in many years, with progressive groups seeking to institute workplace reforms accusing the commission of short-circuiting democratic measures, while businesses charged outside groups were trying to exploit Orange County’s home rule charter. A scandal erupted within it all as some commissioners were found to be receiving voting advice via text messages during the commission meeting on the topic.
Yet in the last 20 years, there have been only two occasions in which citizen initiatives made the ballot. Why is the commission’s Charter Review Commission now taking up proposals to tighten citizen petition drives?
“We all know why, it was the sick pay petition that caused them to do that,” said Orange County Supervisor of Elections Bill Cowles, who said he’s not taking a position on the proposals because it’s his office’s duty to enact them if they pass.
The measures are expected to generate plenty of opposition from both public advocacy groups and elected officials, including Orange County Comptroller Martha Haynie, and also to generate plenty of support from other elected officials, including Mayor Teresa Jacobs, and businesses.
BusinessForce, a political action committee associated with Orlando’s chamber of commerce, the Central Florida Partnership, expressed strong backing Tuesday, saying the proposals “will prevent out-of-state special interest groups from influencing our local charter review process and using our county’s governing document to advance their respective political agendas.”
“Like the Florida Constitution, the Orange County Charter is intended to set forth the basic framework for county governance and it is not intended to be cluttered with the agendas of Washington, DC-backed special interests. We must uphold its integrity by safeguarding it with these pragmatic and well-defined reforms,” Robert Agrusa, executive director of BusinessForce, said in an issued statement. “Close examination of each reform demonstrates that the Orange County Charter Review Commission methodically and deliberately drew upon tested best practices to bring clarity, transparency and fairness to the initiative process.”
Haynie, who last month helped stop another Charter Review Commission proposal that would have turned state constitutional offices like hers into county charter offices, was blunt in her opposition.
“I think they’re to make the petition process so difficult as to be unworkable,” she said.
Among the proposals:
— In order for citizens to get an initiative on the Orange County ballot, they must collect signatures from at least 10 percent of the registered voters in every county commission district. Currently they need do so in only a majority of the districts. This could prevent gatherers from working only those districts with favorable demographics, but would increase the minimum number. The difference, Cowles’ office reported, is that currently a petition could qualify for the ballot with just 44,247 signatures, while the change would require a minimum of 68,995.
— Initiatives would be limited to single subjects.
— Once an initiative reaches 1 percent, it must be submitted for legal review and financial analysis. If it passes legal muster, the Comptroller Office would write a 75-word financial impact statement that would then have to be part of the petition for 75 percent of the signatures gathered.
— The Orange County Commission no longer would decided whether the initiative would go on the ballot; that would be done automatically by the Supervisor of Elections once the initiative qualifies. But the commission must hold a public hearing to discuss the issue.