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FFRP Opposes Amendment 4 on Policy and Process

March 8th, 2010

Floridians for Responsible Policy Opposes Amendment 4 – “Hometown Democracy”

BACKGROUND: The proposed “Amendment 4” to Florida’s constitution would require a public referendum on any amendment to a local government’s Comprehensive Plan. Amendment 4 was drafted by a group of activists under the banner “Hometown Democracy” with the stated goal of “giving voters veto power over changes to a local community’s master plan for growth.”

Florida’s Growth Management Act of 1985 required every local government to adopt a Comprehensive Plan to serve as its framework for managing growth and making land use decisions. Comprehensive Plans are regularly amended to accommodate new and expanded businesses, protect environmentally sensitive lands, establish public parks, address state and federal requirements, and to implement public improvements such as commuter and high speed rail.

Amending a Comprehensive Plan requires multiple public hearings, review by the Florida Department of Community Affairs (“DCA”), and adoption by local government. Amendments require balancing a variety of interest – most importantly the public interest – by analyzing complex, interrelated issues involving urban planning, the environment, traffic, utilities, schools, public facilities, economic development, and the law.

While many feel that the current growth management framework lacks public involvement and critical input, Amendment 4 would exacerbate the very problems it seeks to fix and likely further alienate citizens who seek to participate in the growth management debate.

ANALYSIS: At first blush, a movement touting direct democracy (in which governmental decisions are made by public referenda) might seem consistent with traditional American democratic principles. However, America’s Founding Fathers established a representative democracy because it allows for thoughtful consideration of complex issues and requires elected officials to balance competing interests, rather than simply relying on popular opinion. In short, it protects long-term individual rights against the whim of a temporary majority.

While we respect the initiative process as an important aspect of self-government, we believe that complex and far-reaching issues like land use management are best adjudicated through the traditional protections afforded to us by the legislative process. If more than 200 years of American history is not evidence enough, California presents a real-time case study in direct democracy. Governing by referendum ensures decisions that are short-term in focus, inconsistent with existing goals and laws, and based on sound bites and other incomplete information.

Growing public frustration over the perception that their interests are not being protected is understandable and the fear that in too many cases the development community has exercised undue influence over the process is justified. However, Amendment 4 is the wrong solution to a legitimate problem. Our opposition is predicated on the following:

• Elected Officials and Professional Staff Serve a Purpose: Amendment 4 ignores this fact. In order to make informed decisions in the context of growth management, elected officials rely on professional staff to educate themselves on complex issues using information from multiple sources including staff, applicants, and the public. Too few citizens will take the time necessary to fully understand each important aspect of every complex issue. Amendment 4 will marginalize the thoughtful consideration of issues necessary for a balanced process in favor of the popular “opinion of the day”.

• Amendment 4 Will Further Empower Special Interests: Amendment 4 would be a boon to campaign strategists and media consultants. Applicants and ultimately the general public would bear the cost of funding the political-style campaigns necessary to educate or persuade the public. By shifting the decision to a referendum, Amendment 4 would tilt the playing field in favor of applicants with the financial resources to fund such campaigns. Small business owners or individual property owners would face a distinct disadvantage.

• Popular Opinion WILL NOT Protect Common Interests: As our cities, counties and state grow, so too do the demands for programs, facilities and new technologies. What is the likely outcome of a “popular vote” for the need to change future land use to accommodate a landfill, a prison or a homeless shelter? The “not in my backyard” mentality will halt any and all thoughtful and fair planning. What does the future bring for new technologies? While we may be discussing high speed rail and nuclear power today, “popular vote” will not allow the creativity and flexibility to plan for the unknown.

• Less Accountability: Elected officials would no longer be accountable for their decisions on growth issues, because they would no longer make the final decisions. While the current system has its flaws, it maintains the power to elect or remove the decision-makers. The existing process gives the public ample notice and multiple opportunities to participate. In fact, each Comprehensive Plan amendment requires four (4) public hearings: two prior to the proposal being transmittal to DCA, and two prior to adoption of the amendment by the local government. In addition, many jurisdictions require applicants to meet with neighbors and other interested parties before proceeding with the amendment process. The public needs and deserves a greater role in the entire process, not an “all or nothing” vote at the ballot box.

• The Ends Don’t Justify the Means: There is hardly another topic so complicated and important in Florida than growth management. While it would be easy to point to specific projects or localities that have made poor decisions, the PROCESS is still the best tool to address the complexities of growth management. Amendment 4 would seek to abandon an imperfect process with an imperfect and inflexible policy. This “guilty until proven innocent” approach will not serve us well.

SUMMARY: Managing growth is hard, and there are no easy answers. This is why a seemingly simple proposition like Amendment 4 is deceptively dangerous. Floridians for Responsible Policy believes that growth management decisions require multiple levels of government to address complex, inter-related issues and make decisions in the best interests of the public. It cannot be done without experience and expertise in areas like traffic engineering, the environment, schools, and economic development. Amendment 4 would require Florida to abandon thoughtful analysis and replace it with a “guilty until proven innocent” policy.