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Fla. planning amendment nearing ballot

TALLAHASSEE — A petition drive that would give voters a say in the development of their communities may lose even if sponsors win a favorable Florida Supreme Court ruling — if the justices don’t act soon.

To prevent that from happening, Florida Hometown Democracy asked the high court Monday to expedite a decision on a new law that lets signers take back their signatures. The case has been before the justices for more than a year.

Unofficially, the group has enough signatures to put its proposed state constitutional amendment on the 2010 ballot if the justices agree with an appellate court and strike down the revocation law.

The Legislature passed the law in 2007 at the urging of business and development interests.

They argue that Hometown Democracy, which would require voter approval of changes to local comprehensive plans, would block growth and further stifle Florida’s already sagging economy.

The problem for Hometown Democracy is the Florida Constitution gives initiative signatures a four-year shelf life. The group began its petition drive four years ago June 22.

That means Hometown Democracy will begin losing signatures if the Supreme Court delays a decision beyond that date.

“In effect, this court’s failure to expeditiously decide this case has the unintended consequence of diminishing a fundamental constitutional right,” Hometown Democracy lawyer Ross Burnaman wrote in the group’s motion to expedite.

The state plans to file a response Tuesday.

The Division of Elections’ unofficial count gives Hometown Democracy 705,176 statewide signatures after subtracting 13,280 revocations collected by opponents. That’s more than enough to meet the requirement for 676,811 signatures statewide — equal to 8 percent of the votes cast in the last presidential election.

Initiatives, though, also must meet the 8 percent requirement in at least half, or 13, of Florida’s 25 congressional districts. Hometown Democracy will be one district short if the Supreme Court lets the revocation law stand.

If it is stuck down and revoked signatures are counted, the amendment would meet that criteria in one more district — the 7th — and it could be certified for the ballot.

The math, though, changes if the court rules after June 22. Hometown Democracy then would have to collect new signatures to replace those that expire due to the four-year limit.

One of the first signatures that may be erased is that of Hometown Democracy president Lesley Blackner, a Palm Beach lawyer.

“To add insult to injury, I cannot legally sign the Florida Hometown Democracy petition again even if it has become invalid solely by the passage of time,” Blackner wrote in a sworn statement. The same goes for other signatures that expire.

If the Supreme Court should uphold the revocation law, things would get even worse for Hometown Democracy.

Instead of certifying the amendment as soon as it meets the signature threshold, the challenged law would delay possible certification until Feb. 1, 2010.

Besides losing the signatures currently revoked, opponents would have until then to seek additional revocations and more signatures would expire under the four-year time limit. Burnaman said he was unsure how many would be lost under that scenario.

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