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We Already Have ‘Hometown Democracy’

Tom PattonAmong the items that will appear on the ballot in November is Amendment 4, also known as the Hometown Democracy Amendment to the Florida Constitution. Amendment 4 is a bad idea.

On its face, it might sound like a good thing, and that’s about as far as its supporters hope you’ll go. Basically, any change in a city’s comprehensive land use plan would be required to be put to a referendum, placed on a ballot and approved by voters. The result will be either expensive special elections, or a completely bogged down system with impossibly long ballots.

According to Florida statute, each of the state’s 67 counties and 410 municipalities must have a comprehensive land use plan. The plans “guide future growth and development. Comprehensive plans contain chapters or 'elements' that address future land use, housing, transportation, infrastructure, coastal management, conservation, recreation and open space, intergovernmental coordination, and capital improvements,” according to myflorida.com. It is also where the counties and municipalities set concurrency rules that require developers to provide for infrastructure when putting in a new development. There is a state comprehensive plan as well, and should Amendment 4 pass, every time someone asked for or needed a change in one of those plans applicable to your area, you’d be asked to vote on it. Meanwhile, the person or organization asking for the change would be required to sit on their hands until that vote occurred. If the vote went against them, no changes could take place. Thousands of business decisions would be subject to a popular vote. Development, already in the economic doldrums here in the state of Florida, could conceivably grind to a complete halt. Right now, that wouldn’t take much.

Supporters of the plan say that Amendment 4 would end Florida’s “Boom-Bust” cycle because developers needed to quickly put together new projects to pay for previous developments. While that might be true, it’s seems that the cycle would be ended because any development would become so risky that the “boom” would never come, and those “booms” create jobs, something we sorely need in this state.

Now, I’m not an advocate of unfettered development. I’ve written often enough about how much I enjoy being able to see undeveloped areas of the state and experience the natural beauty of my adopted home that I completely get that we can’t just allow anybody to build anything anywhere. But we already have Hometown Democracy … it’s called a Representative Democracy.

The entire basis of our system is that we elect people to represent us in governing bodies at local, state, and national levels. We hope that the people we elect will represent our interest in things like comprehensive land use plans. I shudder to think that I could be required to be knowledgeable enough to vote on a land use change for a single lot on the west side of town, many miles from where I live at the beach. Even if it came to approving new commercial development, is there any way beach residents could be well enough informed to know how a new strip mall would affect westside neighborhoods? And if a project here at the beach required a change in the county land-use plan, could I count on folks in other parts of town to be well enough informed to vote on something that would not have any impact on them what so ever, particularly if it was the 20th or 50th or 100th item on a ballot covering all the proposed county land use changes. This is exactly why we, with elections, basically hire people to take care of those things for us. They ask for the job, and we evaluate their ability to do that job and either give it to them or not.

Now, I know that the inevitable cry of “politicians are in the pockets of developers” is coming. There is no perfect system. But as well intentioned as Amendment 4 might be, it would most likely create a system that is redundant, byzantine, and cumbersome, to the point that businesses looking to relocate would bypass the state because they would have to mount a massive campaign to convince enough voters to approve a land use change so they could build a factory or distribution center. The small businessperson, meanwhile, might have to wait until voters approved a land use plan change before he or she could move forward with a business expansion. And a residential project might take an additional year or more to get off the ground. Some would say that last is not necessarily a bad thing, likely until it’s their ox that’s being gored.

But at the end of the day, we’ve hired people we hope will make the right decisions. Somebody always thinks they know better, that “those corrupt politicians never met a development they didn’t like,” but few take the time to learn all the facts of a proposed development before expressing their opinion. To which they are truly entitled, I’d hasten to add. Rather than pass Amendment 4, those efforts would be better focused on electing people who are willing to take the time to evaluate plans, listen to all sides of an argument, and make an informed decision based on facts.

That’s what hometown democracy is really all about.

10 Responses »

  1. The representative democracy you describe may work well from an observer's point of view, but I can tell you as someone who has been actively involved in the comprehensive planing process in my county for the last 6 years, it does not work that well in practice.
    The whole purpose of a comprehensive plan is to be a blueprint, a roadmap for future growth to follow, not an erasable chalkline.
    If the majority of land use changes made in this state in the last 10 years had been for legitimate growth needs and not just because it was more economically advantageous for a large landowner to grow homes instead of oranges, Florida wouldnt be in the financial mess we're in right now.

  2. You make some very good points on both sides.

    Amendment 4 is like term limits - we wouldn't need either if our elected officials followed the will of the electorate.

    But they don't. Amendment 4 is pretty draconian, but maybe that's what we need to actually get our politicians out the back pockets of developers (especially here in Jax).

    Just look at the legal notices and you will see that each year, here in Jax alone, there are literally hundreds of petitions for amendments to the comp. plan.

    What we're doing now doesn't work, so let's give Amendment 4 a try. After all, we can always repeal it later on if we, the people, desire to do so.

  3. Anytime I see people trying to change the Constitution, I remember the Democrats trying to institute an income tax in Florida.

    While there may be valid reasons to make a change, I think "whims" should be voted down. If there is already a process in place, that makes the attempt a "whim".

  4. I don't think Amendment 4 quite qualifies as whimsical. According to the dictionary, a "whim" is a wish to do something with no serious reason or purpose behind it, and often occurs suddenly. Amendment 4 has certainly not surfaced "suddenly" and, as pointed out by the other Larry, there are serious reasons behind it.

  5. Here's an example of 'representative democracy' in Seminole County. Our local commissioners just approved 89 acres of agricultural pastureland to be changed on the local comprehensive growth plan to 'residential development'. This passed across Commissioners desk and approved with very little discussion or reasoning as to 'why'. The County does not 'need' further residential development land, nor does it have the resources to support it. Who are the owners of this land ?...the ex-mayor and ex-commissioner. They are quoted to 'have no plans to develop the property anytime soon'...so what is the purpose of the Commission's approval...doesn't take a genius to figure it out. All they want is to get the approval BEFORE Amendment 4 gets on the ballot because they 'know' that voters would not approve more sprawl development. Yes, there-in lies the problem with representative democracy NOT representing the people because they have no 'backbone' to say 'no' to their cronies. You may not like amendment 4, but its the only solution to bring our representatives in-check.

  6. My definition of whim (or the intention of the word-use) was "based on a fleeting emotion" .
    Whether or not you agree with the definition, the point being made is changing the Constitution to accomodate a political prefference is a bit irresponsible: especially when the Constitution already addresses a concern.

    But you can keep playing word games if you like. It reveals an adolescent mentality. We bring our Representatives "in check" at the voting booth.

  7. "A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it the superficial appearance of being right and raises at first a formidable outcry in defense of custom." (Thomas Paine.)

    That a cheerleader for the status quo like Mr.Patton could sound reasonable just shows how hypnotized the masses he so underrates and dismisses are by bad habit. (i.e., letting an oligarchy run their state.)
    The "completely bogged down system and impossibly long ballots" Mr. Patton vows will haunt us if we lose our heads and (horrors) give ourselves a vote on growth only spotlights what junkies local bodies are that each year pass outlandish numbers of Comprehensive Plan changes against the peoples' will. The onus is on the elected to explain why they so flippantly have dissed the mandate and spirit of the Growth Management Act and of their own growth blueprints.
    Under A-4, we will only be yoked with as many amendment votes---land use deviations to sprawl OUTSIDE urban confines---as commissioners force on us. If there are "many", we must ask: Why have so many been approved? And if they are, thank heavens the grounded and diverse electorate can now temper pols' inebriation. Dangerous drunks need incarceration---by us, the sober wardens.
    The truth about how numerous votes would be under 4 is that far fewer applications would be put through in the first place since inveterate bottom-liners rarely take iffy risks that don't show a high % chance of big payoff (which they neatly get with beholden commissioners). They know that their own status, under voter review, would be reduced from bully to polite suitor, because they would actually have to convince a potentially impacted citizenry that their project is good. This, rather than an obstacle to economic health, would provide much-needed moderation in the pace and quality of growth---a moderation at this late date proven untenable under elected "representatives" bustling about serving moguls and LLCs instead of piddly us.
    Patton's dismissiveness toward Floridians distressed over turncoat "representatives" (as if the labeled knew the sense of the word) shows his true allegiance to speculators. There is no sound reason a Comp Plan should be changed often---and any business person gambling on a land use change to which he is by no means entitled, deserves what he gets. That's speculation: risk.
    So, if "thousands of business decisions" rest on distorting the growth blueprint of my town, I can guiltlessly vote them down. Such projects are most often too hastily considered by council members. Let biz whizzes brainstorm (and barnstorm) within the urban core and existing land use.

    Mr. Patton illogically disavows being an "advocate for unfettered development" yet proudly defends a system which fetters zilch, but instead has created a false sense of entitlement among speculators that we should just roll over and let them finish off Florida.
    No thanks. There is no "right" to a land use change, and no justification for systemic protectionism for gamblers wreaking heck on community stability, home values, and Florida's fragile ecology. Contrary to Mr. Patton's assertion, we DO allow "anybody to build anything anywhere". The venerable elected he paints as the bulwark of "representative democracy" don't blink in laying the groundwork for crazy-quilt land carnage with their votes: Votes evidencing palpable contempt for those who trusted and elected them and for these consituents' wants and needs.
    There is nothing "representative" about selling Florida's future---and taxpaying affected residents---down the river.
    With such reasoning, who needs genuine delusion?
    Come November, Amendment 4 offers a well-founded solution to a problem decades in the making, which---unbelievably---remians invisible to those clinging to the Ponzi template.
    We only have one state. Once it's lost, it's too late. Legislators and local goverments have been given countless chances---and blown them--- to shape up. Now, only WE can save Florida...with our votes.

  8. When representative government fails…

    By Robert M. Weintraub

    In the ongoing debate over the Florida Hometown Democracy amendment – Amendment 4 on the November 2010 ballot – the centuries-old debate between democracy and republicanism is being revisited. The question: How much power should the people have?
    The answer is our unique form of representative government. We elect our representatives who we expect will protect our interests and represent our views. But Thomas Jefferson warned:
    "The further the departure from direct and constant control by the citizens, the less has the government the ingredient of republicanism.”
    Jefferson further wrote: "The only orthodox object of the institution of government is to secure the greatest degree of happiness possible to the general mass of those associated under it . . . unless the mass retains sufficient control over those entrusted with the powers of their government, these will be perverted to their own oppression, and to the perpetuation of wealth and power in the individuals . . . selected for the trust."
    In the Hometown Democracy debate, opponents say “we are a republic, not a democracy,” so therefore land use decisions should be left to those elected to make those decisions. Proponents point out that elected officials have become a collective rubber stamp for every developers’ proposal put before them, the perversion of power Jefferson referred to.
    Jefferson called those who would bypass the public "rogues . . . who, rising above the swinish multitudes, always contrive to nestle themselves into places of power and profit . . . stealing the people's good opinion, and then steal from them the right of withdrawing it, by contriving laws and associations against the power of the people themselves."
    Opponents of Hometown Democracy say land use decisions are too complex for the public to understand. To them Jefferson said:
    “I am not among those who fear the people….I know of no safe depository of the ultimate powers of society, but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take if from them, but to inform their discretion.”
    When government abuses the powers given by the people, it is the people’s right to take those powers back as Jefferson so eloquently wrote in the American Declaration of Independence:
    “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it….When a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.”
    The Hometown Democracy Amendment follows Jeffersonian philosophy: it is conceived to restore a voice to people on community changes that affect them. Representative government has failed because those in power have ignored the will of the people. As Jefferson said: “The mass of the citizens is the safest depository of their own rights."

  9. If you have to change the Constitution, then the issue isn't a simple one that can driven by emotion or the here and now.

  10. In his January, 2010 article Tom Patton said if Hometown Democracy Amendment 4, passed it would bog down the system and thousands of business decisions would be subject to a vote. He praised politician’s ability to correctly handle comprehensive plan changes but not questioned his own and all citizen’s ability to make knowledgeable decisions on such matters.

    That thinking is apparent in all those opposing Amendment 4. They consistently rant about the need to have thousands of changes made to our comprehensive land use plans and about citizen inabilities.

    But why do we need thousands of changes to our plans if they are already state-mandated and created by local officials with input from the citizens, then fully reviewed and approved by all parties?

    Why would citizens not have the interest, time, or mental capacity to review and decide on a developer’s comp plan change request that could negatively affect their lives or increase their taxes for infrastructure and services?

    If citizens lack these abilities is it a foregone conclusion that our local officials possess them and will rightly apply them, without yielding to pressure from lobbyists or special interests? Florida’s history of development doesn’t support that conclusion.

    Mr. Patton implies all growth would stop if Amendment 4 passed. But, according to Florida Hometown Democracy, “Current land-use plans already allow development for over 100 million people in Florida which is more than 5 times the current State population ….even if not one more land-use plan change is approved”.

    He also predicted the inevitable “politicians are in the pockets of developers” cry. He is sadly correct because of powerful lobbyist firms like Associated Industries of Florida.
    They have tremendous sums of money behind them, employ previous political office holders and try to influence our legislator’s vote in an effort to secure the best interests of their clients. Senator John Thrasher worked there prior to reentering politics.

    Amendment 4 will be a hot issue for November. It will trigger a massive, expensive campaign by developers, realtors, and everyone dependent upon them to defeat it for their own self interest. The smoke-and- mirrors effort to deceive people has already begun, and their voices will get louder as we approach the vote.

    Citizens need truth to make an intelligent decision about this issue. They’ll find it at http://www.FloridaHometownDemocracy.com