A reluctant vote for Amendment 4, an emphatic vote against corruption

We can't trust politicians with development; is it time to trust ourselves?

An Article Courtesy of the Sun Sentinel

By Michael Mayo

Published June 20, 2010 

If I asked 100 people what a comprehensive land-use plan is and if they'd want the chance to vote on it every time their local government changes it, I'm pretty sure the response would be, "Com-pre-what?"

But when I ask South Floridians if they'd like to have a direct say in approving big new projects that would change their towns say converting a golf course into condos, or a cow pasture into a mall usually the answer is, "Yes."

Which brings us to Amendment 4, the hot-button initiative that's coming to ballot booths in November.

If at least 60 percent of Florida voters ratify Amendment 4, all future land-use changes would have to be approved by voters in local referendum.

In theory, the idea sounds reasonable. It's an understandable reaction to rampant growth and the feeling that local governments have given away the store to developers and lobbyists.

But in practice, I don't know how it's going to work.

For every big and controversial project that will have to pass voter muster, the proposal could add a handful or scores of arcane matters to ballots already teeming with candidates, amendments and local items. And it could end up stifling plenty of worthwhile developments.

Even with the amendment's potential for unintended consequences, a Mason-Dixon poll released last month showed support at 61 percent. And 21 percent of voters said they were undecided.

That tells me two things:

1) Amendment 4 has a serious chance.

2) The level of disgust and distrust with the Developer-Lobbyist-Politician Vortex has gotten so intense, voters are willing to gamble on the unknown.

"Even if I had to vote on 900 things, I'd rather do that than have things the way they are now," said Bett Willett, of Deerfield Beach. "We need a seat at the table."

Willett is an Amendment 4 supporter and Broward County Planning Council member who's been active with the Hometown Democracy movement.

Headed by Palm Beach attorney Lesley Blackner, Hometown Democracy got Amendment 4 on the ballot with a lengthy petition drive that snagged more than 700,000 signatures.

The initiative scares the dickens out of developers, business interests and local politicians.

Naturally, they're coming out against Amendment 4 in full force. Opposition groups have raised nearly $5 million, with big money still pouring in. Expect a barrage of attack ads heading into November.

And expect a host of anti-Amendment 4 "educational" efforts sponsored by local governments. On Thursday, for example, the Broward League of Cities hosted an event that featured an Amendment 4 opponent. The opening reception was sponsored by Ruden McClosky, the big law firm that represents many developers locally.

Some opponent concerns are valid, but there's going to be plenty of distortions and hype. After all, current land-use plans allow Florida to grow from its current population near 19 million to 80 million residents. Perhaps landowners will just have to figure out a way to deal with the constraints.

When I first wrote about Amendment 4 last year, I was leaning against it. My rule of thumb: If I don't fully understand an amendment or its consequences, just vote no.

I still have my misgivings, but the more I see the power brokers squirm, the more I think, "What the heck maybe it's time to try something different."

Especially after seeing the spate of corruption convictions in Broward and Palm Beach County politics in recent years, including the one where former Broward Commissioner Josephus Eggelletion admitted to taking a bribe from developers who wanted to build condos on a golf course.

When the game is stacked like that, what chance do ordinary citizens have?

Maybe Amendment 4 runs counter to the basics of representative democracy, in which we vote for officeholders and they make the decisions.

But when representative democracy turns into a kleptocracy sold to the highest bidder, constituents be damned maybe it's time for a radical correction. Maybe it's time for voters to trust themselves more than the limited pickings they put into office.

Amendment 4 would provide one more check and balance on a system that has swung too far out of balance.

If it passes, the politicians, lobbyists and developers have only themselves to blame.