INITIATIVE FOR COUNTY MAYOR FAILS TO GET ADDITIONAL TIME FOR COLLECTING SIGNATURES-Andrew Stelzer

07/11/06

Monday was the deadline for supporters of the idea to create a mayor of Hillsborough County to submit their signatures to try and get the issue on the November ballot. The petition drive got a late start in the end of March, and they had asked county supervisor of elections Buddy Johnson for an extension, so they could have more time to collect the more than 77 thousand signatures needed for the two items. Only hours before Mondays deadline, Mary Ann Stiles, the leader of the petition drive, filed a legal action to extend the deadline, and she and the elections division were in court this morning, asking a judge to rule on the matter. WMNFs Andrew Stelzer was there and filed this report.

ACT-Stiles “Last Thursday after I read in the paper, I tried to call him…�

Mary Ann Stiles says although she sent elections supervisor Buddy Johnson a letter on May 11th, asking if it would be possible for her to be granted an extension, she never got a response. After reading in the news paper last Thursday that Johnson would consider granting an extension, she tried by several methods to get in touch with him, but was unsuccessful, and was told by one of his assistants that they would be meeting Monday morning to consider the issue. That meeting then got pushed back to Monday afternoon, and before 2 o’clock, she decided to file a petition for am injunction, to extend the signature deadline at least 2 weeks, and preferably a full month. Stiles has been at odds with Johnson throughout the petition process, and she says he has been unresponsive in her attempts to get a firm statement on when the deadline for submitting signatures actually is.

ACT-Stiles “We have never received notice in writing of July 10th, we’ve been told several times verbally…there have been several things mentioned, but we’ve never gotten a response to letter.�

Johnson calculated July 10th to be the deadline, because state law says the item must be approved 90 day before the election, and the county charter says the elections supervisor can have up to 30 days to conduct that certification process.. So that 120 day total counting back from November 6th, Election Day, comes to July 10th. But Stiles argued that since Johnson has the discretion to make the deadline less than 30 days before the certification date, he should do so in order to give voters more opportunity to participate in the process. Stiles told the judge that Johnson could choose August 6th as the deadline, 90 days before the election, but she would be pleased with just another 2 weeks for the purposes of this case. Attorney JB Donnely, representing the division of elections, responded to Stiles arguments by saying that Stiles had not proved a likely hood that she would succeed if given more time, a legal requirement for a injunction to be granted; he also argued that no one was being harmed by the current deadline.

ACT “No one will be disenfranchised..there will be no harm to anyone…if it fails, and no one knows..the only consequence is that it gets placed on general election ballot. No harm at all, and that they have to show and they cant.�

Donnelly’s assertion that the petition drive could last until September 30th, and the item could then be placed on the 2008 ballot, was the first time that theory was made part of the debate, and Stiles disagreed.

ACT-Stiles “He says there’s no harm here and we could use these petitions later…thats not true…charter say if we don’t have required signatures..the petition drive end sand that petition drive ends..in 6 months were out…its true that under constitution you can, but not under charter…we have to start over in 2008…�

Although the group only needs around 77 thousand total signatures, they have collected more than 84,000. But as some of those will surely be ruled invalid, they had hoped to collect 20% more than what was needed. The campaign has fallen short of that mark. Both sides noted that the county charter contains no deadline for the submission of signatures for a county wide initiative, but Donnelly asserted that the county charter says Johnson can have 30 days or less, and the decision to choose less than 30 days was completely up to Johnson.

ACT-Donnelly “Ballot access is what they are asking for, but you cant put that above ballot integrity..petitioners have asked you to interfere..that was the argument…you cannot maddemous an official to do a discretionary act..and they are asking you to make Johnson to use a request to gather signatures that they may not need…�

Stiles conceded that it was up to Johnson, but said he is being overly restrictive, and referenced an opinion issued last week by attorney general Charlie Crist, said that the supervisor should err of the side of giving more rights to the voters and be liberal in his interpretation of elections laws.

ACT-Stiles “This has never been done no petition has ever gotten this far..when he orders July 10th, he is creating a rule..he could have reduced his time frame, and we cooperated with him, we firmly believe that we are subject to the 90 days..whats wrong with splitting the difference?�

Judge Pendino ruled on the side of the elections office, denying the petition for injunctive relief..

ACT “the honorable Buddy Johnson has no more than 30 days to determine whether the petition contains required valid signatures..he has the discretion to do it in less time..thats his decision to make, I wont disturb his discretion..is he wants to extend it…that’s up to him..at the worst this could be brought up in 2008 election so I find no irreparable harm..�

After the ruling. Elections supervisor Buddy Johnson said he is still considering the request for an extension and would make a decision by the end of the day.

ACT-Johnson “we will consider all the facts and the people will get a response to that request..we were considering the request at the time when we got the notice of the injunction.�

Johnson also said he also supports the notion that signature collection can continue towards getting the issue on the 2008 ballot.

ACT-Johnson “the combination of those before and those after, and the combined number would go on the 08 ballot..�

Stiles said they are considering appealing the decision, but they will not continue to collect signatures, with the hopes that Johnson is correct about the issue having a chance to get on the 2008 ballot.

ACT-stiles “the ballot says mayor will be elected for 2008, so it’s not possible to have this again, so there is harm..�

For now, the campaign is hoping that the rejection rate is less than 15 percent, and that they have 8 percent of registered voters in two districts. Stiles said she personally has contributed more than half of the 160,000 which has been spent on the county mayor petition drive, but it’s worth it because it’s for an important cause.

ACT-Stiles “I think that people realize there is no vision..no one talks about growth management..they've only done all this after criticism..we are not going away, well be back in 2008, 2010, we need this�

To learn more about the take back Hillsborough county campaign, log onto www.takingbackhillsboroughcountypoliticalcommittee.com/

For WMNF news, I’m Andrew Stelzer

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