Are Amendment 4 foes crossing line with workplace efforts?

Coercion or education? Depends on your perspective

Article Courtesy of The Sun Sentinel
By Michael Mayo

Published September 19, 2010 


If your boss tells you to clean your desk, finish a project by next Thursday or use Orbitz for all business-related travel, that seems reasonable.

But what if your boss calls you to a company-wide "town-hall meeting" and wants you to become a "campaign advocate" for an issue on the November ballot?

Is that crossing a line?

And if you didn't have the same view on the issue, would you be foolish or brave enough to open your mouth and object?

I ask because this sort of thing is happening with Amendment 4, the hot-button Florida ballot initiative that would require local referendums to allow certain development projects.

If at least 60 percent of Florida voters ratify Amendment 4, future projects that require changes to local land-use plans would have to be approved by voters, not just politicians.

Not surprisingly, developers, builders and politicians hate the idea. They say it would be a logistical nightmare, hinder any economic recovery and lead to more job losses.

Earlier this month, Fort Lauderdale-based builder Terry Stiles wrote an e-mail to South Florida corporate leaders urging them to galvanize workers to oppose Amendment 4.

Stiles' e-mail went to more than 100 members of the Broward Workshop, a coalition of business and civic leaders that includes Sun Sentinel CEO Howard Greenberg. Greenberg is against Amendment 4 and has voiced his opposition to employees. The editorial board opposes the measure.

"We need to work fast and take important measures to mobilize our employees and convert each one of them into a campaign advocate," Stiles wrote.

He asked CEOs to hold town-hall meetings "to explain Amendment 4 and emphasize the importance of voting NO with your employees."

Stiles also asked them to send an e-mail to employees urging them to register with the website so workers could "stay informed…and spread the word within their peer groups and families."

The suggested e-mail to employees concluded: "As our company faces unprecedented economic challenges, the last thing we need is Amendment 4…Most importantly, please consider taking a few minutes to help our company, industry, economy and state by registering."

It's not unusual for businesses to get involved in political issues and donate to candidates.

But I don't know if there's ever been this level of business coordination and workplace involvement on a ballot question.

Lesley Blackner, the Palm Beach attorney who spent $1 million on the successful petition drive to get Amendment 4 on the ballot, said, "It looks like workplace coercion to me…I wouldn't want to say anything to contradict the boss in this job market, would you?"

Ryan Houck, executive director of the No On 4 group opposing the amendment, said, "We're not talking about workplace coercion, we're talking about First Amendment rights. Business owners have an obligation to share information with their employees, especially on an issue that could have such a big impact on their businesses."

Houck said workers' advocacy efforts would be voluntary, and "at the end of the day, we all go to the ballot box and we all make our own decisions."

I left a message for Stiles through his secretary, who said he was out of town, and I didn't hear back.

Florida has had many contentious amendments on the ballot in the past decade, covering everything from slot machines and class size to gay marriage and bullet trains. But this might turn out to be the most hard-fought of all.

Blackner, whose Hometown Democracy movement gathered more than 700,000 signatures to get on the ballot, said she's not surprised.

"It shows the lengths the pro-development forces will go to defeat this issue," Blackner said. "It also shows they're nervous."

Houck said the amendment would cause such chaos that it has spawned an opposing coalition that includes business leaders, unions, university presidents, Republicans, Democrats and independents.

"There's an across-the-board impact," Houck said.

I've gone back and forth on the issue and will give my final opinion before the election.

Sun Sentinel journalists will cover the issue fully and fairly, and columnists can still form their own opinions. Right, boss?

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

But in practice, it could be a nightmare.

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.

Amendment 4 might be an overreaction, but the level of disgust and distrust with entwined politicians, lobbyists and developers has gotten so intense, voters might be willing to gamble on the unknown.

Especially after 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 townhomes on a golf course.

Blackner calls the upcoming vote "a true David-and-Goliath struggle…our opponents are pulling out all the stops, including fear tactics and distortions. Amendment 4 will not stop building or construction. Current growth plans allow for 80 million residents [in Florida]…What they're worried about is losing control."