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Patrick Slevin

 
Moderation, Thy Name Is Not Amend. 4

 

Written By Patrick Slevin

Phone: 850.906.9888

 

 

It’s the quiet before the storm at city hall. Commissioners take their seats, scanning a packed chamber full of anxious citizens. Rows of signs punctuate the crowds’ sentiments, “Say No to Big Box Developers” and “Vote for the People”.

 

The knocking of the gavel begins the meeting.  The developer’s attorney leads off an hour long presentation seeking approval of a comp plan amendment that would allow a super-center. 

 

The mayor opens up the meeting for citizen input.  While the first speaker takes the podium, the mayor cautions the audience that each citizen has “3-minutes” to speak and an egg-timer will track them.

 

Emotions begin to run high after the mayor interrupts homeowners who have exceeded their allotted time.  Several homeowners demand answers to their questions:  Will property values decrease, traffic increase, and environment polluted?  Nine out of every 10 citizens’ plead for the commission to protect their quality of lives from urban sprawl.

 

It’s midnight and the mayor finally calls for a vote.  The gasps and groans in the audience reveals the super-center was approved. Dismayed and angered, homeowners file out shaking their heads feeling frustrated their elected officials sided with “greedy developers” over constituents. 

 

What happened at city hall has happened to countless Floridians who have experienced the gasps and groans at city hall. It represents the countless Floridians who have read the news about their elected officials siding with Goliath. It represents countless Floridians frustrated by daily traffic congestion, overcrowded schools, shrinking natural resources, and aging infrastructure.

 

Environmental lawyer Lesley Blackner, founder of Florida Hometown Democracy, has responded to the public’s frustration by offering Amendment 4.  Amendment 4 requires any comp plan amendment approved by elected officials to be placed on the ballot.  Ms. Blackner has characterized her amendment as a solution that creates more citizen participation.

 

As a professional who helps corporations adopt sustainable citizen engagement practices, I commend Ms. Blackner for highlighting a failing system that everyone agrees is broken. 

 

However, does her amendment fix or exploit  the problem?

 

If a comp amendment goes on the ballot, it becomes a YES or NO political campaign. Political campaigns are the antithesis of citizen participation. St. Pete Beach, the first city to adopt Hometown Democracy, was torn apart by polarizing political rhetoric.

 

Amendment 4 would overload your ballot with hundreds of amendments.  Are you going to study and vote on every single amendment?  Me neither.  Amendment 4 proponents are counting on our apathy, which makes it a wolf in sheep’s clothing. This scheme is a “community veto” that allows anti-growth fringes to target amendments with “no votes” creating what James Madison termed the “tyranny of the minority.”

 

When you think about it, Amendment 4 is really a “Catch 22”.  Vote YES, you have community vetoes creating a “tyranny of the minority.”  Vote NO, you approve a failing system that marginalizes its citizens. 

 

Floridians deserve better than a “Catch 22”.  Floridians deserve a constructive debate that seeks to level the playing field for citizens.

 

In 2001, the Department of Community Affairs recommended “bold” citizen participation reforms in response to the public’s frustration.  The proposed reforms required developers to sponsor citizen participation initiatives, but a lack of “political will” killed it.  Ironically, there wouldn’t be Amendment 4 had the reforms became law. Today, we would have a citizen-centered growth management system effectively separating the wheat from the chaff.

 

Elected officials, environmentalists, and real estate professionals should re-examine the DCA’s 2001 growth study report. It can underwrite a constructive debate on how we can break the “Catch 22” facing voters before November 2010.

 

If we fail to offer a moderate solution and simply ask Floridians to “Vote No on Amendment 4”, then frustrated voters will likely pass Amendment 4. We have a legislative session and special sessions to restore credibility and more importantly, regain the confidence of the people of Florida.

 

The egg-timer is running.

 

Patrick Slevin is a former mayor of Safety Harbor, FL and civic engagement consultant helping corporations achieve sustainable citizen participation outcomes. He is CEO of the Slevin Group, Inc. headquartered in Tallahassee. Go to www.SlevinGroup.com.

 

 

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