Florida Hometown Democracy, the ballot initiative that sought to slow growth, fell 65,182 signatures short of the 611,009 needed to make the ballot, thanks in part to a double-barreled business lobby effort that changed state law and raised nearly $4million to crush it.
The tactics show how powerful interest groups with money at stake could wage war against future citizen petitions.
The Florida Chamber of Commerce raised $3million through a political arm called Floridians for Smarter Growth to run a similar-sounding initiative petition and hire away Hometown's paid petition-gatherers.
And in the weeks before Friday's deadline for counties to verify signatures — a time when elections offices were also processing early voting and absentee ballots for Florida's Jan.29 presidential primary — the chamber's group flooded key counties in South Florida, Sarasota and parts of the Panhandle, where Hometown was gathering signatures.
"Everyone got buried," said Volusia County Elections Supervisor Ann McFall.
The main objective: Slow the processing of Hometown signatures and ensure the chamber's own amendment would make the 2008 ballot only if Hometown's did too.
"Clearly, there's a block-and-tackle strategy," said Chamber Vice President Mark Wilson, who oversees the business group's political operations.
Hometown co-founder Lesley Blackner, a Palm Beach land-use lawyer, said her group got bogged down when its signature-gathering firm quit late last year after the chamber-backed group had driven up the cost per-signature for her paid petition-gatherers.
Blackner conceded the people she hired as replacements submitted "some bad signatures" last year "and it took me a while to catch on to that."
Had it passed in November, the initiative would have required that cities and counties allow the public to vote on changes to the comprehensive plans that are supposed to guide growth in a community.
In the aftermath, the business-backed campaigns argued that Hometown Democracy failed for one overriding reason: Voters didn't agree with it. "The people just didn't support this," said Wilson, who pointed to other environmental groups such as Audubon and 1,000 Friends of Florida that refused to support it.
Blackner, though, said the business groups changed the rules to suit their purposes. "They really don't care about fair play," she said. "They will do anything to win."
Indeed, alarmed developers, home builders and business groups had argued the amendment would throw sand in the gears of Florida 's economy.
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