By Michael Salerno
For Hometown News
Ballot Title: Amending the Charter to require a Referendum on City formation of electric utility.
Ballot Summary: The proposed amendment to Article 6 would require that a referendum of the city's electors be held prior to the city's formation of any municipal electric utility and the delivery of municipal electric service. Further, the proposed amendment would require a majority vote of the city's electors for approval of such formation and delivery of municipal electric service, and a schedule for holding the referendum.
SOUTH DAYTONA - Confused?
This is how the charter amendment referendum requiring a public vote on the creation of a municipal-run electric utility will appear on the ballot on Aug. 14:
Although a judge recently dismissed a legal challenge to the language of a ballot referendum requiring a public vote on the creation of a municipal-run electric utility, opponents of the referendum remain concerned the language is misleading, unclear and ambiguous. But supporters of Florida Power & Light, which is fighting to maintain the city's electric customers, believe the language is clear enough.
One political expert believes it's not uncommon for some referendums to be drafted vaguely.
"Sometimes it would appear the language is drafted to be legally precise," Dr. T. Wayne Bailey, a political science professor at Stetson University, said in a phone interview. "(But) sometimes the petition group hasn't subjected it to careful legal scrutiny. Sometimes it's designed to look confusing."
The ballot language is important, he said, because it must be clear enough for the voters to understand. He added it would be difficult for voters to make an informed decision if they misunderstand the question asked on the ballot.
Empowering South Daytona's Future, a political action committee that opposes the referendum, filed the court challenge of the ballot language in May. Committee members were concerned mainly because the ballot summary states the charter amendment would require "a majority vote of the city's electors" to pass, but the charter amendment language states "a majority of votes cast by those persons eligible to vote in a referendum."
City leaders approved placing the referendum on the ballot after Take Back Our Power, a political action committee backed by over $40,000 from FPL, collected over 1,100 signed petitions from South Daytona residents that were validated by the Volusia County Supervisor of Elections. To get a referendum on the ballot, the committee needed valid signatures from over 10 percent of the city's registered voters.
City Attorney Scott Simpson clarified the City Council's decision to place the referendum on the ballot for the Aug. 14 election was a "ministerial action," meaning city leaders were required by law to do it. He said the action should not be interpreted as an approval or validation of the ballot language.
Take Back Our Power was responsible for drafting the language because its members proposed the ballot referendum, Mr. Simpson said.
Volusia County Supervisor of Elections Ann McFall would only comment that what goes on the ballot is what the city approves to be placed on the ballot, and the language cannot be changed now because the ballots for the August election are currently in the printing process.
"The only thing a judge could do (now) is tell us not to count votes in the race," she said.
The referendum language had to be finalized by June 8, the deadline for qualifying of candidates for this year's election.
Pat Mozden, chairwoman of Empowering South Daytona's Future, said the electric utility debate is such a complex and confusing issue in the community that she felt the referendum "should be right" before it appears on the ballot.
"This isn't an issue that can be summarized in a couple of sentences," she said. "When the ballot language isn't extremely clear, why are we adding another difficulty for our voters?"
Mr. Simpson believes the language that will appear on the ballot is too vague. He added that the language in this instance was designed to look confusing on purpose - to prolong litigation between city leaders and FPL and stall negotiations on the terms of separation.
"There is no reason the charter amendment language could not have clearly stated the true purpose and intent, which is to require voter approval to acquire the assets," he said.
But Raymond Lawrence, chairman of Take Back Our Power, said he believes the ballot language is clear enough. He had three different attorneys review the ballot language before his committee collected petitions, and "there was nothing said about the language being ambiguous."
He added he believes it would be "foolish" for the city to move forward with acquiring FPL's assets before the public has a chance to voice their say in the purchase.
"If the people vote for the charter amendment, then turn around and vote again for FPL to continue operating ... it's not keeping in the public will to say the least," he said.
FPL spokeswoman Alys Daly said she is glad the referendum will take place.
"The court dismissed all questions about the clarity of the ballot language," she said. "We're proud to support our customers who have fought for the right to be heard on this important issue."
Mr. Simpson and City Manager Joseph Yarbrough have both previously said the referendum would likely have no effect on the city's intent to purchase FPL's assets because it would be retroactive to the City Council's July 2011 vote in favor of exercising the purchase option.
The City Council voted 4-1 to approve the purchase of FPL's assets, originally valued at $15.5 million. That price is expected to drop to about $12 million because the city and FPL agreed to let FPL keep one of its two substations that serve the city's customers.
City leaders considered establishing a municipal-run electric utility beginning in 2007 after learning if they renewed their franchise agreement with FPL they would lose a valuable purchase option in their previous franchise agreement. City staff said a municipal-run utility would benefit the city because profits from electric bills would stay in the community and service would be more reliable.