Hometown Democracy a way to fight over development, corruption

An Editorial Courtesy of the Sun Sentinel

By Lesley Blackner

Published July 18, 2010 


Just look around Broward County, with commissioners being investigated for corruption, one commissioner in jail for taking favors from developers, and now 12 people arrested in a massive mortgage scam and it is clear we need change.

Sometimes when things get so out of whack, citizens need to join together to make things right again. This is what Florida Hometown Democracy hopes to do with Amendment 4 on the statewide ballot Nov. 2. We are a nonpartisan, grassroots group of Floridians from all walks of life who simply want some common-sense oversight to prevent these political shenanigans.

Amendment 4 will give us citizens a seat at the table a vote on future development in our communities. We hope more Floridians will join us to pass this important reform.

We believe that our homes and our communities are just too important to leave in the hands of these politicians and lobbyists. What's happening in Broward happens all over the state. In Palm Beach County, Commissioners Mary McCarty, Warren Newell, and Tony Masilotti all went to jail for corruption. Too many of our commissioners are for sale. We have the outright bribing involved in the Massilotti and Newell cases. But there are more subtle forms of corruption as well: the job for the family member; the donation to the pet non-profit. These cases are just the tip of a big old iceberg.

Florida now ranks as the number-one state in America for public corruption, according to a New York Times analysis of federal statistics. From 1998 to 2007, 824 Florida politicians were convicted of public corruption about seven a month for 10 years straight!

If we pass Amendment 4 in November, citizens will have a check-and- balance on these destructive backroom dealings.

We believe that since voters have to pay taxes to extend the schools, police, fire, water, sewer and roads to all these new developments that politicians keep approving, we should get the chance to vote on it. Is a new development affordable for our community? We should get a vote since we are the ones who have to pay sales and property taxes to support new development.

Even when developments sit empty, taxpayers still foot the bill for the infrastructure. Just go out to the edge of the Everglades and take a look at Tao Sawgrass, the ridiculous luxury 26-story tower that sits empty, a poster child for the busted real estate bubble and the permissiveness of our politicians.

To hear Hometown Democracy Amendment 4's opponents hysterical wailing, you'd think we want to tear down society as we know it. No, we just want a vote. Big Business and its politician friends are horrified of the possibility that citizens will have oversight over their sweetheart dealings. So far, the very people who crashed Florida's economy with over-development and real estate speculation have spent $6 million to try to deny us our right to vote!

They trot out a bunch of desperate claims the most insulting is that we voters are just too easily confused and dumb to vote.

Amendment 4 is simply an add-on to the existing process, and here is exactly how it will work: Local city or county commissions will study, hold public hearings, and vote on proposed changes to the community's master blueprint for development (called the local comprehensive land-use plan) just like they do now. The new Amendment 4 step is that once a commission approves a plan change, voters will approve or veto it at the next regularly scheduled Election Day. That's it. No special elections required. If you agree with the commission's decision, vote for it. If not, vote against it.

Amendment 4 only applies to changes to the local comprehensive land use plan. It doesn't require votes on minor changes like re-zonings, variances, or individual development approvals. You won't vote on every new grocery store, but you will vote, for example, when someone wants to convert farmland to apartments or turn a residential area into a commercial one.

The bottom line is that only real estate speculators who insist on building outside the already-approved areas will face a vote of the people. It is important to note that there is plenty of land already set aside in the existing comprehensive plans right now to allow building far into the future enough, in fact, to increase Florida's population to 100 million people five times more than we have today.

If we pass Amendment 4 in November, Tamarac voters, for example, will get the final say over whether they want Tamarac's last green space the golf courses bulldozed into condos or shopping centers. Same for Deerfield Beach, Pembroke Pines, Ft. Lauderdale and the rest of Broward County voters in each municipality will be able to decide whether these land use changes make sense and are in the community's best interest.

Voters in Sunrise would have a seat at the table a vote over whether they want boondoggles like the ghost towers at Tao Sawgrass.

It's a sad fact that too many commissioners just can't seem to say no to the irresponsible over-development that has stuck taxpayers with the housing meltdown, crazy traffic, empty strip malls, foreclosed condos, lost green space and rising taxes.

The ongoing Broward "pay-to-play" corruption scandal, in which it appears that developers basically bought votes for their projects, underscores the sorry state of business as usual.

We believe that the status quo works for politicians and real estate speculators, but it isn't working for the people. That is why fed-up Floridians like me started Florida Hometown Democracy.

We hope you will join us in voting Yes on Florida Hometown Democracy Amendment 4 Nov. 2, and that you will encourage your friends and family to do so as well. We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for real change that can break the grip real estate speculators have over local politicians.

The tidal wave of lies about Amendment 4 is running at a fever pitch, and it will escalate all summer. Our opponents may have the money and the power, but if people join together and stay strong, we can beat them at the ballot box.

If you would like to learn more, donate, or get involved, visit our website at http://www.floridahometowndemocracy.com .

Lesley Blackner, a resident of Palm Beach, is the president of Florida Hometown Democracy, the sponsor of Amendment 4.