Activists to Sue County to Force Campaign-Finance Reform Onto November Ballot

When an activist group called Accountable Miami-Dade sent the county 127,000 petitions, each demanding the government reform its campaign-finance laws to help stop public corruption, the county — by law — had 30 days to start counting up the signatures.

But so far, neither the commission nor the mayor will actually start that that process. Instead, activists say the government, led by County Mayor Carlos Gimenez, is just making up excuses to avoid reforming its campaign donation rules. So today, Accountable Miami-Dade officially upped the ante: The group says it will sue the county to get the petitions counted.

At 11 a.m. today outside County Hall, the group will hold a press conference to announce the suit.

Gihan Perera, who chairs one of the groups that makes up the Accountable Miami-Dade coalition, tells New Times via phone that the lawsuit is designed to force Gimenez to just start counting the petitions already.

"He can make this lawsuit go away very easily," Perera says. "He can make the cost of getting this done much cheaper if he just orders the count."

Accountable Miami-Dade's lawsuit could force Gimenez's hand. Altough the county denies that the mayor can fix the impasse without a commission vote, the commission's rules give Gimenez broad powers to handle "funds that will be put in jeopardy" during the commission's summer recess.

Perera says that, once his group files suit, that should give Gimenez authority to finally order the count, since the litigation will start cost the county more as the days pile up.

"The costs will get higher day by day just operationally," he says. "Basically, we think the act of suing will then give the mayor the power to act."

According to county rules, citizens can force the government to adopt a law or put it up for a vote if they get more than 4 percent of the population to sign petitions demanding change. Beginning in April, Accountable Miami-Dade started collecting petitions to lower maximum campaign donations from $1,000 to $250 per person, as well as to ban some company representatives and lobbyists from giving to political campaigns. The group delivered two U-Haul trucks full of petitions on August 2.

Once the government gets those petitions, county bylaws say the government must start counting them within 30 days.

But despite Accountable Miami-Dade turning in the petitions on time to get the measure on the November 2016 ballot, the county has tried to table it until the next county-wide election in 2018.

The County Commission tried to hold a special meeting earlier this month to order a petition count, but at the last minute, one commissioner dropped out. Gimenez, meanwhile, has refused to act without the commission. County Attorney Abigail Price-Williams also claims the county charter bars Gimenez from ordering the count on his own.

Perera says the mayor can simply tell the Board of Elections to authorize the count, and that Gimenez is just adding unnecessary legal steps to avoid letting the county vote on the measure.

"The charter says the Board must order the vote within 30 days," he says. "It doesn’t say they have a choice to not order it, and it doesn’t say they have a choice to put it off. This is the only option the Board has."

The squabble comes as Gimenez is locked in a contested reelection campaign against School Board member Raquel Regalado. Gimenez has raised $1.6 million to defeat her. (Regalado has $323,936 in her accounts.) Many of the mayor's deep-pocketed donors sent Gimenez the $1,000-maximum donation, activists point out.

"If you say you now are the 'strong mayor,' put one knuckle into this," Perera says. "This is the time you say you don’t have power to do something? It's pretty clear the other commissioners are not going to sue you for doing this."
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Jerry Iannelli is a former staff writer for Miami New Times from 2015 to March 2020. He graduated with honors from Temple University. He then earned a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University.