Eminent domain has local angle: South Florida Sun-Sentinel, 10/29/06

Pines gives voters chance to change city charter

By Joe Kollin

Voters, that isn't a mistake. The same question is on the ballot in two different places.

Whether you're voting early or waiting until Election Day on Nov. 7, what you're seeing is two parts of a triple-pronged effort by city and state officials to make sure the power of eminent domain can't be used to seize a person's home to give to a private developer so he can make a profit.

Governments traditionally use the power to confiscate property needed for a public purpose, such as a road, hospital or airport. Exceptions include Hollywood, which tried using it so a developer could build a hotel and office complex to spur economic development in an area considered rundown.

Then came last year's U.S. Supreme Court ruling that said it is legal for governments to seize property for a developer.

Saying they are dead-set against using the power for that reason, state and city officials took steps to help make sure they can't use it.

The state Legislature in May passed a law making it illegal for Florida cities to use their power to do it. The law is on the books.

But laws adopted by the Legislature can be undone by the Legislature. Wanting to make it more difficult to undo the restriction on eminent domain, legislators also went a step further by ordering a question on the November ballot asking voters to make it part of the state constitution.

Because only a vote of the people can take out of the constitution what they voted to put in, removing the ban would be more difficult than a vote of the Legislature.

The question is one of the constitutional amendment questions on the ballot.

Pembroke Pines commissioners, although they were aware that the state law already applies to them and that the constitutional amendment also would apply, wanted to make sure they can't use their eminent domain power to benefit private developers who want to build stores, condos, hotels, offices or anything else.

So commissioners agreed to ask voters to change the city charter.

Just as the constitution serves as the basic framework of state law and can only be changed by voters, so the city charter serves the same function for city law and also can only be changed by voters.

City commissioners in September, at the urging of Vice Mayor Iris Siple, unanimously agreed to put the question on the ballot even though they didn't all agree on the need. Mayor Frank Ortis and Commissioner Angelo Castillo said the state law already makes it illegal for the city to use its power for private use.

But Siple persisted.

"It will provide an extra level of protection for our residents," she said. "Residents have told us that's what they want and they are the ones who will vote it up or down."

Castillo said he agrees with the concept but doesn't think the prohibition belongs or is needed, calling it "a totally unnecessary provision in our charter" because it is a state issue.

Ortis agreed with Castillo that the measure doesn't belong in the city charter, but Commissioner Carl Shechter said he agreed with Siple that it should "go to the people."

City Attorney Sam Goren said the new state law already prohibits cities from using eminent domain to seize property for private use and had recommended against putting it in the charter.

South Florida Sun-Sentinel: http://www.sun-sentinel.com