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Community Voices: Brandes’ amendment undermines transparency efforts, will of local people

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TALLAHASSEE, FLA.10/25/17-Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, reads a document during the Senate Appropriations Committee meeting at the Capitol in Tallahassee. COLIN HACKLEY PHOTO

Welcome to the Catalyst’s Community Voices platform. We’ve curated community leaders and thinkers from all parts of our great city to speak on issues that affect us all. Visit our Community Voices page for more details.

In a shocking attack on the sovereignty of his own hometown’s government and the will of local people, Sen. Jeff Brandes has sneakily added an amendment to an otherwise innocuous election bill (SB 1372).  His amendment would overrule St. Petersburg’s Defend our Democracy ordinance.

Passed by the St. Petersburg City Council in 2017 at the behest of more than 30 community organizations and thousands of individual citizens who continually attended municipal meetings, called and wrote to local elected officials, collected petition signatures and rallied over a series of 18+ months, the Defend our Democracy ordinance was a significant campaign finance reform victory. It forbids Super PACs in St. Pete elections. That is, candidates cannot collect so-called dark money, or get unlimited amounts of money from unnamed contributors. Brandes claims his amendment is about transparency. This is laughable and a clear misinformation talking point! His ordinance promotes secrecy, the infusion of large amounts of untraceable money, and invites outside monetary interference in our local elections. Transparency is exactly what the St. Pete ordinance is about.

When large corporations want to “invest” in local elections, it is because they want something from the local politicians. They might want to build a higher building than would normally be allowed; they might want to put a dumping station in your neighborhood, or they may want to rack up future favor, etc. The money they donate purchases expectations; the St. Pete City Council understood that and overwhelmingly passed the ordinance to protect the voice of the people and the sovereignty of the city. City Council elected to make decisions in the genuine best interest of the people.

Further, if the Brandes amendment becomes law, St. Petersburg’s ability to keep foreign influence out of city elections once again becomes an issue. We worry about developers eyeing our beautiful waterfront, especially the boatyards in the Old Southeast area and other vulnerable neighborhoods.  Under the current ordinance, large development corporations would have to prove that they don’t have more than five percent foreign investment money.

We had expected a legal challenge, and we are prepared for that fight for our sovereign rights; we do not want moneyed interests drowning out the voice of our citizens or clouding the judgment of our elected officials. We are confident that the ordinance will hold up in the courts. If the ordinance gets far enough, it would take a big bite out of Citizens United. What we didn’t expect was an attack from our own state senator.

The original voter bill is innocuous enough, updating a law sought by the Florida Association of Supervisors of Elections, and would be very difficult for state senators to vote against, even with the onerous amendment. Brandes is cleverly underhanded. 

Now that we understand what Brandes intends to do and we are alert, we must advocate for the amendment’s removal.

 

– Karl Nurse, Former St. Pete Councilmember

– Linsey Grove, President, League of Women Voters St. Pete Area

– Karen Lieberman, Chair, Defend our Democracy Ordinance Committee

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