Group suing Riviera on Ocean Mall project

RIVIERA BEACH The group pushing for a referendum on revamping the Ocean Mall sued the city Thursday, a day after the city council rejected its efforts to put the $280 million deal before voters.

The Public Beach Coalition wants a judge to order the city to put three questions on the March 13 ballot. The coalition wants voters to decide whether the city's 11-acre beach should be used only for tourism and recreation, and whether the beach lease should be limited to 50 years and the building height to five stories.

"They've been antagonistic from beginning," John Jorgensen, the attorney who represents the coalition, said of the council members. "Unfortunately, it's another example of a local government sticking it to its citizens."

If voters approve the measures, it would virtually kill the city's deal with builder Dan Catalfumo by reducing the height of the proposed hotel and preventing the sale of condominiums on the property. Earlier this week, the council agreed to lease its public beach to Catalfumo for 50 years in order for him to build a 28-story Marriott hotel-condo and 60,000 square feet of shops and restaurants.

They also agreed to give Catalfumo an option to lease the public beach for 99 years if the petitions failed.

Mayor Michael Brown said the city council made the proper decision to reject the petitions seeking to place the issues on the ballot, based upon City Clerk Carrie Ward's recommendation.

"The council's decision is based upon sound legal advice," Brown said.

The coalition and Ward are at odds over the number of signatures needed to get a referendum question on the ballot. They also disagree over who can circulate and sign-off on the petitions signed by voters.

Ward said the Riviera Beach charter requires that the three petitions contain the signatures of 15 percent of the city's registered voters. She also contends that only the five-member petition committee can circulate and sign off on the petitions.

The coalition disagrees. It points to state law, which says 15 percent is only needed on the petitions that ask voters to repeal the council's October vote increasing the beach lease from 50 to 99 years.

On the two petitions that deal with solely changing the charter, the coalition points to Florida law which requires only 10 percent of the registered voters sign petitions to put those questions on the ballot. On all three petitions, the coalition said it has more than enough signatures.

A 1988 Florida attorney general's opinion supports the coalition's position. That opinion holds that state law prevails over municipal law when changing city charters.

The coalition said Ward is misinterpreting the charter and that it allows for anyone to circulate the petitions.

Ward tossed out thousands of signatures because non-committee members circulated and signed off on the petitions. She also said that non-Riviera Beach residents signed the petitions. As a result, the coalition fell well below the number of needed signatures under either the 10 percent or 15 percent standard.

On Wednesday night, the council sided with Ward and voted 4-1 to accept her recommendation to reject the petitions. Councilman Jim Jackson, who represents Singer Island, was the lone dissenter.

Initially, Ward refused to accept the petitions and Council Chairwoman Ann Iles had to intervene and have them transported by police to Supervisor of Elections Arthur Anderson's office.

On Nov. 21, Anderson certified the signatures as belonging to registered voters in Riviera Beach. According to his count, on the question of repealing the ordinance upping the beach lease to 99-years, the coalition did gather the required 15 percent, or 2,944 signatures.

On the two questions that seek to change the charter, Anderson verified 2,646 signatures on the land use questions and 2,682 on the height limitation.

Ward, however, only gave the coalition credit for 413 signatures on the 99-year lease petition.

On the other two petitions, Ward said the coalition failed to meet the 15 percent standard.

Despite state law, cities vary on what percentage of registered voters must sign a petition to place an issue on the ballot. For example, in Palm Beach Gardens, the city abides by state and uses 10 percent, while in West Palm Beach, petitioners need only 5 percent.

Attorney Joslyn Wilson, director of the attorney general's opinion's division, said she could not comment on how the attorney general's opinion would affect the Riviera Beach case. A majority of the council would have to vote to request her office to provide an opinion, Wilson said.