Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Voters can bring politicians to heel

Voters can bring politicians to heel
By Kenric Ward
TC Palm
Friday, July 25, 2008

By the time you read this, Florida Hometown Democracy may have gathered enough petitions to make the ballot. As of Thursday, 607,961 signatures were validated by the state, with thousands more in the pipeline. A total of 611,009 is needed.

In the face of a hostile Legislature, well-heeled corporate opposition, erratic counting procedures by supervisors of elections, questionable emergency rules from the secretary of state and inexplicably blasé (or non-existent) news coverage, FHD marches on.

Martin County activist Joe Florio epitomizes the undaunted spirit of the grass-roots campaign that would empower Floridians by requiring voter referendums on all comprehensive plan changes in their communities. Florio has spent more than two years collecting signatures for FHD, volunteering untold hours of time for the cause. Last week, he and Lloyd Brumfield, another Martin County resident, were in Vero Beach to push the petition drive along.

Setting up shop outside the Indian River County main library, the pair gently approached patrons, asking if they were registered voters. Of those who were, most signed the petition. Florio and Brumfield wrapped up their three-hour stint with 53 signatures, a decent rate of about one every three minutes. 

Surprisingly few people had heard of Hometown Democracy until that moment. For all the supposed political “polarization” over growth in Indian River County, these local library-goers — presumably well read — were unaware of the statewide citizens’ campaign addressing that very issue.

Once explained, FHD (floridahometowndemocracy.com) struck a responsive chord with the passers-by. If the Florio-Brumfield team’s experience is any indication, there remains a vast reservoir of untapped angst about out-of-control growth in this state.

The development industry and the business writers, meantime, have abandoned their unrealistically rosy outlooks for a sober gloom. Where a turnaround was once just around the corner, Floridians now are told that things will get worse before they get better. Bottom line: Growth isn’t a problem anymore. It’s under control. The market is straightening things out.

Don’t drink that Kool-Aid.

Indian River and St. Lucie counties are still cranking out new single-family homes every day. Based on residential permits issued through June, the two counties are on track for more than 1,400 new dwellings this year.

That’s down, of course, but these stucco boxes will be stacked on top of seven to eight months of standing inventory of new, vacant homes.

Martin County isn’t much better off. Analysts at Boca Raton-based MetroStudy report that the “slow-growth” county has more than an eight-year supply of subdivided lots waiting to be built. 

Whatever their rationale, builders keep building — and corporate marketers do whatever it takes to goose the market.

Over in Cape Coral, near Fort Myers, an equity investment firm is selling new homes starting at $86,000.

“They got the creditors to agree to sell at a 40 percent discount across the board. Since then, virtually all the homes have been sold, indicating there are buyers out there for Florida real-estate, but at the right price,” market analyst Jack McCabe told Florida Trend magazine.

Do you feel your property value plummeting?

Michael Grunwald, writing recently in Time magazine, quoted a Miami real-estate sharpie who runs an outfit appropriately named Condo Vultures.

“Eventually, Florida is going to grow again,” predicted Peter Zalewski.

To which Grunwald muses: “The question is whether Florida will grow up.”

The Sunshine State’s relentless boom-and-bust economy has been fueled by real-estate speculation, starting when land was sold by the gallon (a subject with which Grunwald, author of “The Swamp,” is intimately familiar).

Now that there are 18 million-plus Floridians — most of them living south of Orlando — it’s increasingly obvious that a construction industry on steroids is as unhealthy and unsustainable as a mountaintop coal mine. Relying on residential development for continued prosperity is like building a house of cards in a hurricane. 

Few politicians will admit this. Their go-along-to-get-along attitude enables the scrape-and-sell game to continue. They depend on it for their financial support.

Florida Hometown Democracy is the “growing up” Grunwald speaks of. It’s the realization that pliable politicians — incumbent or newcomer — cannot be the ultimate answer. It should be painfully apparent by now that our elected officials are neither endowed with special insights nor unique intelligence.

The voice of the people, ratifying or rejecting via referendum, is the purest form of local governance. Hometown Democracy is the check and balance that’s been missing. That’s why fed-up Floridians keep signing. They’re tired of being treated like children.

Click on the picture below to visit Hometown Democracy where registered Florida voters can sign the petition and get involved:

Click here to visit Hometown Democracy on MySpace.
Not registered to vote? Click here.

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