'They are not working with us'

Eileen Tucker is among the vocal opponents of the growth sweeping Palm Beach Gardens. She's one of five residents trying to fight concessions to developers with a citizens initiative, a petition to let voters restrict the city council's power.

After a few weeks trying to get information from the city about what they would have to do to put the petition on the ballot, Ms. Tucker became frustrated. "This is wrong," she told me. "They are not working with us."

Come on, Eileen. What makes you think that the city should work with you when you want to change the law? That's the city council's job. Please, give the city some credit. Like most cities in Palm Beach County, the elected officials know what's best for citizens. What makes you think that Palm Beach Gardens is different? You want to put something on the ballot? The city will fight you.

It's not as if Palm Beach Gardens is alone. The latest trend sweeping local government - West Palm Beach, Belle Glade, Riviera Beach - is the shunning of voters with petitions.

Blame the state, which recently took a step - by voter referendum, no less - to make it harder to pass constitutional changes. Blame the fact that voter referendums are easier to beat in court than at the ballot box. Or blame the high opinion elected leaders have of themselves. Whatever is to blame, the trend is spreading.

First, it was West Palm Beach, which took petitioners to court to block them from calling for a vote on moving city hall and the library. The city won at trial, and an appellate court upheld the ruling.

The citizens group is not giving up. It's asking the entire 12-member 4th District Court of Appeal to weigh in, saying, "There is no reported case in any jurisdiction that holds a city may refuse to submit a properly proposed, constitutionally based, initiative ordinance to its voters merely because application of the ordinance may be inconvenient." Undeterred, the city broke ground on the project this month.

Then came Riviera Beach, which at first refused to transport signed petitions challenging the Singer Island Ocean Mall project to the supervisor of elections office so they could be reviewed and verified, a critical first step in putting a question on the ballot. Then, they couldn't decide how many signatures were needed and threw out one petition because it fell short. Then, of course, the citizens sued the city, and the city sued the citizens, and the courts will decide if the voters can consider what the First Amendment seems to establish as an inalienable right.

Finally, there's Belle Glade, which is not messing around with differences over this project or that. In Belle Glade, the residents want to recall the mayor and vice-mayor. A judge blocked them, saying their petition had to more specifically list the reasons why the public officials deserved the boot. Rather than accept victory, the city commission voted to sue the petitioners to recoup the city's expenses. "We've got to set an example to stop this nonsense about all these lawsuits," said Vice Mayor Donald Garrett, himself a subject of the petition. "The mayor and myself did nothing wrong."

Clearly, Palm Beach Gardens can learn from this. The city is off to a good start. While City Cwlerk Patricia Snider said she stuck to the letter of the law when dealing with the petitioners' requests, that doesn't always translate well, as a single e-mail exchange reveals.

"How many signatures of registered voters are needed?" petitioners asked.

"The required number of signatures is governed by Section 166.031, Florida Statutes, a copy of which is included," Ms. Snider replied.

"How does it get verified and by who?" petitioners asked.

"The verification process is set forth in Section 99.097 Florida Statutes, a copy of which is attached," Ms. Snider replied.

"Are there any other items you believe we need to know?" petitioners asked.

"I can only provide answers to specific questions," Ms. Snider replied.

The trend toward citizen petitions emanates from the loss of faith among the governed in those who govern. When cities use the courtroom to avoid the ballot box, is it any wonder?