Despite claims by city “leaders” that voters have been duped into signing petitions, and despite offers to remove those signatures upon request, no requests to remove signatures from a citizen petition drive have been received by the City of Madeira Beach.
Unnamed city leaders claimed last week that they “are receiving angry calls from residents” who say that petition signature gatherers are “misleading” people into signing. Apparently, those “angry callers” have yet to seek removal of their signatures.
The recent column on SaintPetersBlog (SPB) with the headline asking “Are petition gatherers in Madeira Beach playing dirty tricks”reported on these alleged calls from angry citizens, and on a bitter battle over the city’s future that has turned in to a food fight. The Guardian decided to dig deeper because these construction projects involve several hundreds of millions of dollars of investment into a just a few acres of land.
The issue at hand is a citizen petition drive by Madeira Beach United (MBU) to place a measure on the ballot to quash a city ordinance creating a “Planned Development zoning”. MBU wants to stop the building of two large hotels in the center of this once sleepy beach town. Both sides agree that the core disagreement is over what “downtown Madeira Beach” will look like in a few years.
MBU also seeks to stop another development on the old Leverock’s site at the southwest foot of the Tom Stuart Causeway. This project, named “Holiday Isle Marina”, is being championed by Jim Holton of Holton Companies.
MBU claims it now has the signatures of the required 25% of Madeira Beach voters, or about 800 voters. However, city clerk Aimee Servedio said in late May in a letter to MBU that the petition “fails to meet the requirements” of the city charter.
Sam Baker, the chairman of the petition group, disagrees and says they are “prepared to take it to court.” The proposed development on Madeira Way is in the core of the city, and is shown below. It would radically alter the character of the area and create what critics call “a concrete canyon.”
The bitter battle has generated seven ethics complaints, the threat of a lawsuit by a city council member against City Manager Shane Crawford, and an actual lawsuit by a city resident against the city. The lawsuit alleges that the city violated state statutes by failing to properly advertise changes in city land use regulations and comprehensive plan amendments.
One of the plaintiff’s attorneys, Ken Weiss, took on the City of St. Pete Beach for a client in a battle over similar issues and prevailed. Overall, that debacle cost the City of St. Pete Beach over $3 million, including paying the other side’s legal fees.
St. Pete Beach is now contemplating suing their own attorneys for malpractice. The whole hot mess has cost has cost each and every St. Pete Beach residents over $300 on average, and years of real estate redevelopment lost.
In the Madeira Beach lawsuit, Weiss and fellow attorney Tim Weber are seeking legal fees from Madeira Beach, just as they did from St. Pete Beach. Should they prevail, the petition drive will become moot and the City of Madeira Beach would have to more or less start all over again, just as St. Pete Beach had to.
Madeira Beach mayor Travis Palladeno (pictured right) told voters that “if you feel like you’ve signed one of these petitions and you’ve been misled, you can come sign an affidavit to have your name removed from these petitions.”
However, Madeira Beach city clerk Aimee Servedio told the Guardian via e-mail that she has “not received any ‘petition signature removal affidavits’ and in fact, was not aware of anything about it until I read the article you attached.”
The Guardian also found that no legal authority exists in the city charter or elsewhere to remove signatures from petitions. There is case law involving an analogous situation where the court said that “signature revocation is neither contemplated by the self-executing plain text of [the governing document], nor is it necessary to ensure ballot integrity and a valid election process.”
In the case of Madeira Beach, the “governing document” is city charter and the same reasoning could (and probably would) be advanced should any signatures actually be removed.
A public records request showed that the only “legal opinion” from city attorney Thomas Trask consisted of a text message in which he said that signature removal requests “should be sent to the city clerk to be considered.” Trask cited no legal authority in the city charter for the city clerk to engage in such “consideration”, nor has the city clerk claimed any such authority.
Looks like Madeira Beach will have a long, hot summer. Maybe even several of them before this is over. As always, the Guardian reports and the readers decide.