Sunday, May 22, 2011

Red Light Cameras: The Next Lawsuit Nightmare for St. Pete Beach

Like many St. Pete Beach residents, I am pleased and relieved that our city has enjoyed a few months respite from the caustic and divisive rhetoric about condo canyons and the Right to Vote.  We deserve a break.  We need a break.  And with any luck, the present state of relative tranquility will become the New Normal in St. Pete Beach.

The staggering legal costs of the St. Pete Beach development war has taken a huge toll on our city's resources.  The last thing we need is a whole new issue that will cost the city even more legal fees.

That's why I was more than a little disturbed when I saw this morning's May 22, 2011 St. Pete Times Story about the rising number of successful and costly legal challenges to Red Light cameras.  This story reveals that clever lawyers are successfully challenging Red Light Camera fines/tickets, and are causing cities that have installed those cameras to incur substantial legal fees defending those fines/tickets.  As a result, city legal fees relating to red light cameras are increasing, cities are being forced to hire additional personnel to review the camera videos, and the increased number of legal challenges is taxing city resources and causing a backlog of unprocessed tickets, which leads to more tickets subject to legal challenge, which leads to more lawyers and lawsuits, which leads to more legal fees....

It is my understanding that Red light cameras have been marketed to the St. Pete Beach Commission as not only a means to reduce accidents, but also as a source of revenue from the traffic fines the cameras generate, and that the last city commission approved an ordinance allowing the installation of red light cameras in our city. 

I was not able to attend the commission meeting when this ordinance was debated.  However, I'd bet my fiddle that the commission wasn't aware of the alarming trend of increased legal challenges and legal costs associated with the implementation of Red Light Cameras.

I think the new commission needs to thoroughly examine the potential for increased legal fees and expenses before taking any action to install and implement Red Light Cameras on St. Pete Beach.  Otherwise, we may be adding Ted Hollander to the list of lawyers who make their living suing our beautiful city.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

I Believe

Last night I received a telephone call that, in a single heartbeat, brought sharp and clear perspective to many of the things I've been seeing and hearing lately.

Late last week, my father, KayMane Lew Hing, began to feel unwell, and on Friday he was hospitalized for a serious medical condition that will be the primary focus of my attention for the foreseeable near future.

Since I'm not sure what is in store in the coming weeks, and how much time and energy I will have to devote to this blog, I wanted to take a moment from the travel arrangements and other details I'm dealing with this morning to say a few brief, incoherent and hasty words of closure regarding the topics I've been discussing.

The clarity and substance of my father's values, and his unwavering dedication to creating a life for his family and community that is sustained and enriched by those values, is the standard by which I have strived to live my own life. 

It is from him that I learned to fight for what you believe, for what is right, and to do so in a way that is fair and true. 

And that is what I've done, to the best of my ability, on this Blog.  Regarding the March election, folks can vote however they want...unlike many who are involved in this debate, I'm not trying to sway votes one way or the other.  But I have developed some strong beliefs along the way that I think Dad would expect me to express.  These things are not about an election.  They are about what I believe is right.

So, with the clock ticking, and in a much more abbreviated than I had ever intended, here is What I Believe about St. Pete Beach:

  • I believe St. Pete Beach is one of the World's most beautiful places to live.
  • I believe the residents of SPB share a love of and dedication to the future of their City unlike the residents of any other city in the state of Florida.
  • I believe that the Bill Pyle and the CRG folks have the right to have used the legal system to preserve and protect what they feel is right.   I know many folks in town strongly disagree, but the American legal system is something I believe in unconditionally, and it is a fundamental element of American Exceptionalism that my Dad fought and sacrificed dearly for in Korea.
  • I believe that the SOLV folks also care deeply about the quality and future of our city, and, like Pyle, had every right to use the legal system and the terms of the city charter.
  • As such, I believe that attacks on the person and character of anyone involved in this debate, SOLV, CRG or anyone else, are base, unwarranted and accomplish nothing but undermining the very foundation of our precious community.
  • I believe that it was not possible to create 75 word ballot summaries for the 2008 Comp plan, or any comp plan, that would satisfy Florida law and the standards set by Judge Demers in the Pyle decision.
  • I do NOT believe that any member of the past or present City commission lied, deceived or acted with malice or ulterior motive in the drafting and approval of the 2008 ballot summaries.  I believe the commission did the best it could to satisfy a impossible standard, and the failure of the ballot summaries to satisfy the standards set by Judge Demers are more a reflection of the flaws in the City Charter than the actions and motives of the commission.
In short, none of the folks on either side who are the subject of the scathing rhetoric lately are deserving of such comments. 

It isn't right.  That's what Dad would say, and I've made every effort to say it as as clearly, as honestly and fairly as humanly possible.

Thanks for reading and commenting...everyone!

Sunday, February 13, 2011

The St. Pete Beach Paradox - Part 2

I was very pleased that a comment to my last blogpost was posted by "Ken", whom I believe (but I'm not certain) is Ken Weiss, the attorney for the plaintiffs in the ballot-challenge litigation against St. Pete Beach.  In his comment, Ken proffers a suggested alternative 75-word ballot summary that inserts some new language about building height.

First of all, it's really great to get this kind of feedback...especially if Ken really is Ken Weiss...because this would be the first suggested ballot language that I've seen from folks who had issues with the City's ballot language.  Hopefully now we can have an informed, reasoned discussion about these ballot language issues and the challenges that these issues raise for the City.

Anyway, before I share Ken's suggested ballot language, let's take a look at the original ballot summary the City used in 2008 (the language that started the lawsuit and that the Plaintiff argued was deceptive):
OK, so now here is the new ballot summary language suggested by Ken:
Ken's suggested ballot language adds language that opponents of the City's 2008 comprehensive plan have frequently emphasized as being, in their minds, critical to full disclosure:  a specific disclosure of 146 feet as an increased building height.

I certainly can appreciate that folks who abhor the height increases included in the 2008 comp plan would want to have language such as that proposed by Ken included in the ballot summary.  However, after reviewing Ken's proposed revisions, it seems to me that Ken's revision leaves unresolved many of the fatal problems that I discussed in my last blogpost, as well as raising new problems.

Let's start with the "easy" stuff, i.e. the unresolved problems.

In my last blogpost, I discussed the fact that, in his ruling in the St. Pete Beach Ballot Challenge litigation, Judge Demers ruled that the City's 2008 ballot summary needed additional information describing the legal effect of the proposed Comprehensive Plan. 

Specifically, Judge Demers ruled that the summary needed additional language explaining that the proposed plan intended to incentivise commercial redevelopment, would allow increases in building height and shifts in residential and commercial density without further voter approval, and created incentives for affordable housing.  

After reviewing Ken's proposed ballot summary revisions, it seems to me that his revisions have the same deficiencies that Judge Demers found in the City's ballot summary.  To better illustrate the problem, I've taken Ken's proposed ballot language and I've added all of the additional language that, in my view (and as discussed in MUCH greater detail in my last blogpost), would be necessary to satisfy Judge Demers' requirements as stated in his ruling (my best effort at crafting the briefest possible Demers-mandated additional language is highlighted in blue):

Final wordcount:  132 words (76.0% over the 75 word limit).

Thus, by my reading of Judge Demers' ruling, and using the fewest possible words, it seems to me that Ken's proposed ballot summary language does not contain all of the disclosure required by Florida election law and Judge Demers, and when the additional language required by Judge Demers is added, Ken's proposed ballot summary is 76% over the 75 word limitation imposed by Florida election law.
It seems to me that there are other problems with Ken's proposed ballot language.  It's my understanding that the City's proposed 2008 Comprehensive Plan did not allow increased building heights up to 146 feet throughout the City;  it's my understanding that such height increases were only allowed in the 1.0 mile zone known as the Large Resort District. 

Thus, even if Ken's proposed summary, (as revised by Judge Demer's additional language), could somehow be made to satisfy the 75-word rule, Ken's ballot summary would still be subject to legal challenge as being deceptive and misleading.  Why?  Because Ken's language fails to specify that the height increases are not city-wide and are limited to a specific area, and in fact might create the false impression that 146-foot building heights would be allowed everywhere in St. Pete Beach.

Of course, these are just my own personal views and observations of this very complex issue.  However, I think this illustrates how extremely difficult (if not impossible)  it is apply Florida's election rules and regulations to the review, approval and implementation of a city's comprehensive plan(s).

Finally, thanks very much to Ken for proffering his suggested ballot language.  If there are any errors or inaccuracies in my analysis, I welcome any and all constructive comments and corrections...I've always tried to be the first one to acknowledge my mistakes.  Though I remain convinced that it is not possible to craft a 75 word ballot summary of a comprehensive plan that satisfies Florida law, I hope this is but a beginning to an ongoing, reasoned and respectful discussion about this important issue. 

The St. Pete Beach Paradox

As most St. Pete Beach residents know, our City was sued after we voted on a Comprehensive Plan in 2008: the main charge against the City was that its 75 word ballot summary describing the Comp plan was misleading.

When Judge Demers issued his ruling in the case, he ruled partly in favor of the City and partly against the City. When ruling against the City, the Judge found that the City's 75 word ballot summaries describing the City's 100 page comprehensive plan needed to include more information to satisfy the disclosure requirements of Florida election law.

After Judge Demers' decision was issued, some folks have said they think the City deceived the voters...that the City could, and should, have drafted 75-word ballot summaries that provided all of the necessary description of the City's proposed 100 page comprehensive plan according to Florida law.

I wasn't so sure. My gut says it would be next to impossible to create a 75-word ballot summary of a comp plan that cannot be challenged in Court, but since Judge Demers made some very specific comments in his opinion about what he thought was missing from the summaries, I decided to find out for myself whether it is possible to follow Judge Demers' opinion and revise the ballot summaries to include all of the missing disclosures and still satisfy the 75 word limit imposed by Florida law.

The more I looked into this the more I saw what I'm now calling The St. Pete Beach Paradox: Our City Charter requires that we vote on comprehensive plans and amendments, but Florida law requires that putting those plans on the ballot requires a 75 word ballot summary...yet putting Judge Demers' rulings into practice forces the city to add more information than can be condensed into 75 words.

In other words, adding sufficient words to a ballot summary to provide full disclosure in satisfaction of Judge Demers's standards causes the City to violate the 75-word rule, and attempting to satisfy the 75-word rule by deleting words from the ballot summary causes the City to violate Judge Demers' disclosure rules...thus creating an endless loop of election law violations that the City cannot ever hope to avoid.

Please click on the video link below to see a short video where I describe what I found:

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Election Season in St. Pete Beach: The Game is Afoot!

Campaign season has begun in St. Pete Beach.  Lawn signs have begun to sprout like April flowers, and candidates have begun the time-honored pursuit of voters at public debates, private meetings and the checkout line at Publix.

Fliers and discussion have also begun to circulate regarding the ballot measures that will appear on the March 2011 ballot to repeal provisions of the City Charter requiring a vote to approve changes to our comprehensive plans.  Unfortunately, as the March 2011 election draws near, it seems some folks want to revive the debate about the 2008 Comprehensive Plan, as if the Comp Plan is what's going to be on the ballot.  It clearly is not.

The plain truth is that the March 2011 ballot issue(s) are not about the 2008 Comp Plan.  They are about whether, after having attempted to implement the 2006 Charter Amendments, we the People of St. Pete Beach want to continue voting on our comprehensive plans, or whether we want to restore to the City Commission the approval power for such matters.

I believe all this talk about what's right or wrong about the 2008 Comp Plan creates the false impression that the March 2011 ballot measures are a vote to accept or reject that particular comp plan, when in fact their scope is much broader and more important.

The March 2011 ballot measures are not about the details of a specific Comp plan, but rather about the PROCESS of how our city reviews ans approves our comprehensive plans, i.e., whether we should continue to implement the novel, unprecedented Hometown Democracy-style provisions we adopted in 2006, or whether it is best to repeal them.

The issues addressed by the March 2011 ballot measures clearly transcend the limited, narrow and irrelevant focus of any discussion about the 2008 Comp plan.  I believe that anyone who uses the March 2011 ballot measures as a means to either support or block the 2008 Comprehensive Plan is exploiting our electoral process to the detriment of the best interests of the people of St. Pete Beach.

In order to walk the true path to Unity, we must set aside the agendas and begin an honest, informed discussion about these ballot measures.  Arguments about the 2008 Comp Plan (as a reason to vote either for or against the March 2011 ballot measures) have no place in such a discussion.

The people of St. Pete Beach deserve better than that.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Bob Manning (1940-2011): An Irreplaceable Voice in St. Pete Beach's Development Debate

Bob Manning - THE St. Pete Beach Insider

Of the many voices raised on both sides of St. Pete Beach's ongoing debate on development, few (if any) were as determined, ubiquitous and influential as that of Bob Manning. 

Bob manifested his deep love of the City of St. Pete Beach and his fervent hope for its revitalization by crafting and tirelessly exercising his own distinctive style of grassroots activism...most notably, as a keen observer of our city's political events, as Editor and Pundit in Chief of the St. Pete Beach Insider, and as an ardent supporter of Save Our Little Village (the pro-development PAC). 

There was no mistaking Bob's views regarding the numerous lawsuits by residents Bill Pyle and Bruce Kadoura challenging the city's efforts to redevelop, and the impact of the City's self-imposed, Hometown Democracy-style requirement that all changes to the city's comprehensive plan be approved by a vote of the people.  As Bob often said to me during our many conversations about the St. Pete Beach litigation:  "My City is now broken because of our experiment with Hometown Democracy.  We need to fix it."

I honestly can't decide which is a stronger tribute to the power of Bob's advocacy:  1) the numerous residents who found in Bob's commentary a clear expression of the frustration they themselves felt with the costs and delays caused by the litigation against the City, or 2) the fact that Bob's work on the St. Pete  Beach Insider inspired the recent formation of a new "limited growth-oriented" PAC (the St. Pete Beach Chronicle) which will strive to present a response to the views and perspectives expressed in Bob's newsletter.

For my part, I have always regarded Bob with a deep sense of respect; not because we shared the same views (we disagreed as often as we agreed in matters of city politics), but because of his dedication to researching the many arcane details of the city's development plan, the meticulous care he devoted to insuring that his commentary was always solidly grounded in fact, and his willingness to devote so much of his time to sharing his views with his community.

It is true that Bob was often sharply critical of those whose words or deeds did not satisfy his personal measure of that which is in the best interests of the City, but in my eyes he was by no means a negative person.  In a village that has long suffered from unrestrained discord and vitriol, Bob was one of the few whose uniquely wry wit and mischievous humor often tempered his harshest criticisms. 

Most important, Bob Manning deeply loved St. Pete Beach, and he was a man who spared no expense of time or effort to do what he felt was needed to help his city attain its full potential as the most beautiful place on earth.    And for that, in my eyes, he was and will always be a true friend of St. Pete Beach.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

St. Pete Beach Commission Gives Residents a Chance to Vote on Development Issues

The St. Pete Beach Commission Discusses Voting Rights
In March, 2011, the people of St. Pete Beach will have a chance to vote on whether to keep, or to scrap, several key provisions of the City Charter that have been the crux of controversial litigation that has cost city taxpayers nearly a million dollars.

As reported in the St. Petersburg Times (1/9/2011: SPB Voters Face Big Question in Development Wars), the St. Pete Beach city commission has agreed to put four items on the ballot in March which, if passed by city voters, would put an end to the city's controversial and unprecedented experiment with "Hometown Democracy"-style voting rights.  Click Here to See the Text of these newly-passed Resolutions.

Among the Charter provisions up for possible repeal will be Charter Section 3.15 (which requires voter approval of certain comprehensive plans and plan amendments), and Charter Section 3.18 (which requires voter approval of development code changes to height of structures).

Commissioner Jim Parent Disputed Info from Plaintiff Bill Pyle
Much was said during the Commission meeting both for and against putting these charter provisions on the ballot.  Here's my take on what was said:

Arguments raised by folks in favor of giving SPB residents a chance to vote on these provisions included:

  • The provisions sparked costly litigation when the City tried to implement them by putting a comp plan  on the ballot in 2008
  • A majority of St. Pete Beach voters (64.2%) voted against Amendment 4 (the state-wide "Hometown Democracy" that would have given similar voting rights to all Florida voters), thus clearly indicating that the people of St. Pete Beach have had second thoughts about such provisions.
  • It is virtually impossible to craft 75-word ballot summaries of 100 page comprehensive plans/amendments in compliance with Florida election law, and unless they are repealed, the Charter amendments will subject the city to further ballot challenge lawsuits when the city needs to make future changes to its comprehensive plan.
  • The city's ability to redevelop has been severely impaired by the impact of these provisions.
  • By enacting the resolutions, the City Commission is not taking voting rights away from citizens, but rather is giving citizens an opportunity to vote on whether to make changes to the City Charter regarding the city's land use rules.
Plaintiff Candidate Bruce Kadoura opposed the resolutions
Here is my understanding of the arguments made by folks who opposed giving St. Pete Beach residents a chance to vote on these provisions:

  • The City Commission should not put the provisions on the ballot because:
    • If the ballot measures pass in March, it would terminate the right to vote that was created by those provisions.
    • Terminating the right to vote on comprehensive plans would be like impairing a fundamental and constitutionally-endowed right to vote.
  • The belief that it is possible to craft simple, clear, effective 75-word ballot summaries regarding comprehensive plans, but that the litigation resulted because the City commission was unable or unwilling to do so.
  • Putting these provisions on the ballot will cause more division amongst city residents.
  • Instead of putting these provisions on the ballot, the City should reach a settlement with the two local residents who had filed lawsuits against the City.
I've shared my take on the pro and con arguments made at the January 6 meeting because I think these arguments will probably be among the major themes and topics of discussion/debate between now and March, and I for one will be very interested to observe how the debate will unfold.

For my part, I hope the ongoing debate and discussion will be grounded in reason and fact...a tall order when hot-button issues like land development and voting rights converge.