By Michael Salerno
For Hometown News
SOUTH DAYTONA - A referendum that could decide the fate of the city's decision to purchase Florida Power & Light's electrical distribution system will move forward after a judge upheld the ballot language approved by city leaders.
Circuit judge Richard Graham rejected an argument that the ballot language city council members unanimously approved Aug. 20 is "subjective and misleading."
The Nov. 6 referendum will ask citizens whether the city should form a municipal-run electric utility.
Council members said recently they are pleased to see the referendum will move forward after citizens voted to amend the city charter to require a public vote on an electric utility purchase.
"I'm praying there will be some resolution," Mayor George Locke said. "(The referendum) is what the people wanted."
Take Back Our Power, an FPL-funded political action committee that fought for the public's right to vote on the electric utility, filed the legal challenge on Aug. 23. Its chairpersons, Raymond Lawrence and Rosemary Iocco, claimed text stating the city spent "substantial funds" to pursue the purchase of the electric utility is intended to mislead voters into believing a government takeover of the electric utility "provides great benefits with no risk."
But Mr. Lawrence and Ms. Iocco believe those benefits represent the city's opinion and have been "highly questioned."
"The people of South Daytona demanded the right to vote on a referendum, not a sales pitch," Mr. Lawrence said in a news release.
Take Back Our Power has now filed an appeal to Judge Graham's ruling.
Originally the ballot language was to read that city leaders spent $2.3 million to pursue the purchase, but that figure was removed after Ms. Iocco voiced concerns at the Aug. 20 meeting where the language was approved. She did not speak to support or oppose the rewording of the language to "substantial funds."
Besides the "substantial funds" statement, the ballot summary also states a municipal electric utility would be profitable while meeting FPL's rates and revenue would be reinvested back into the city with no new taxes, and the city would have control of electric rates and services.
Commenting on the judge's ruling at a recent city council meeting, city attorney Scott Simpson said simply, "As of right now we're having the election on Nov. 6."
The referendum Aug. 14, in which voters approved amending the city charter to require a citizen vote on an electric utility, was also faced with a legal challenge. The political action committee Empowering South Daytona's Future, which supports the purchase, challenged the clarity of the ballot text and summary proposed by Take Back Our Power members.
In a previous Hometown News story that explored the issue of how ballot language matters in referendums, political science expert Dr. T. Wayne Bailey said referendum language must be clear enough for the public to understand because if voters misunderstand the question asked on the ballot they cannot make an informed decision.
City leaders first became interested in buying FPL's assets in 2007 when their franchise agreement was up for renewal. Upon realizing they would give up valuable purchase language that would be lost forever if they signed a new contract with FPL, they researched the feasibility of buying the electric utility.
Under the terms of the previous city charter, the City Council voted 4-1 to purchase FPL's electrical distribution system. City staff said the citizens were not initially given the right to vote on the purchase because the public voted in 1982 to delegate decisions regarding the renewal of FPL's franchise agreement to the city council.