Palm Beach County cities take fight to Legislature on home rule bills

Palm Beach County cities fight Florida House on home rule limits

Royal Palm Beach Mayor Fred Pinto (center) and Councilman Jeff Hmara (right) have spoken in opposition to several bills that would limit local governments’ current powers. (Allen Eyestone / The Palm Beach Post)

TALLAHASSEE —

Officials from Palm Beach County towns and cities are rallying against a flurry of Florida House bills that they say are attempts to strip them of governing powers.

This session, lawmakers have filed bills that would ban cities from declaring themselves as sanctuary cities, restrict the collection of local impact fees, prohibit sports franchises from building on municipal and other public lands, and give the state rather than local governments the power to regulate vacation rentals of homes.

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There’s even a bill that would shift regulation of tree trimming and timber removal to the state and prevent local governments from creating ordinances mandating what private property owners can do with their tree trimmings.

It’s all too intrusive, and state lawmakers should back off, local officials say.

“For some reason the Legislature in Tallahassee has been embarking on bills that would strip away the ability for local cities and counties to make their own decisions,” Mayor Fred Pinto said last week, adding that state lawmakers seem to have gotten “very aggressive” over the past two years.

Similarly, Wellington Mayor Anne Gerwig said said efforts to shift local control from municipalities seem to stem from House Speaker Richard Corcoran, whose term as speaker run covers 2017 and 2018.

Palm Beach legislators would not say directly that the efforts directly point to the political ambitions of Corcoran, a Republican who is considering a run for governor.

However, it’s no secret that the speaker strongly supports the idea of restricting local control, said Rep. Lori Berman, D-Lantana.

Pinto said there are two major effects on local governments when the state government tries to take away local powers.

“It creates in many cases what we call unfunded mandates, where bills are passed by legislators and the burden of paying for implementation falls on cities and counties,” he said.

He added that it also can affect the “unique quality” of cities and counties that want to define how and where development can happen in their area. “It takes away the ability for local cities to maintain the quality of life,” Pinto said.

Gerwig will be among the 20 members of the Palm Beach County League of Cities driving those points home at the Capitol Tuesday and Wednesday during the Florida League of Cities’ Action Days.

State lawmaker’s actions are tantamount to “micromanaging local government,” said Richard Radcliffe, executive director of the Palm Beach County League of Cities, who also will be in Tallahassee for the league’s Action Days.

“They pass laws for 60 days; we pass them all year,” Radcliffe said. “Who do you really want controlling your neighborhood – someone there all the time or someone who meets 60 days a year?”

Corcoran and other Republican leaders in the House have said the state is better positioned to handle many of these issues.

The attempt to blur the lines between the levels of government to create one homogeneous Florida is disconcerting in a state where municipalities located right next to each other can differ greatly, said Palm Beach Gardens Councilwoman Rachelle Litt.

“Each city is different,” she said. “The character of our cities is different from Boca (Raton) to Delray Beach.”

But Rep. Rick Roth, R-West Palm Beach, said there are issues – such as the taxing of businesses – on which the state may need to intercede.

“I think the motivation is clearly a belief by not only the leadership but also the conservatives of the House that the (local) government has gone too far and maybe the cities and counties have been too hard on businesses,” he said.

Roth, however, said he’s opposed to legislation that would strip cities of the right to handle matters within their jurisdiction, such as establishing zoning laws or regulating vacation rentals. He also said legislators who write up bills that suggest statewide regulations on tree trimming are “probably going too far.”

Democratic Rep. Matt Willhite, of Wellington, also said there are times when the state has to take the lead — like when providing workers compensation benefits to first responders, he said, referring to the bill he co-sponsored with Rep. Rene Plasencia, R-Orlando.

The bill, which had a first reading earlier this month, provides workers’ compensation benefits for mental or nervous injuries regardless of whether such injuries are accompanied by physical injuries.

Local governments have decried the bill, but it’s a move that’s necessary to protect firefighters, police officers and paramedics, Willhite said.

“We have an obligation to the entire state of Florida to do these things,” he said. “When it benefits (local governments), they’re happy. When they don’t like it, they throw up home rule.”

The power struggle between state lawmakers and local officials could be rooted in differences between the interpretations of home rule and Dillon’s rule, said Charles Barrilleaux, LeRoy Collins Professor and chair of Florida State University’s political science department.

The latter is based on an 1868 court case that establishes that all power flows from the state downward, while home rule is defined as vesting local municipalities with the authority to govern themselves.

The fight between legislators and local government officials boils down to “ideology,” with lawmakers believing they are in control of everything, Barrilleaux said.

“It’s complicated,” he said. “Florida is a home rule state but there’s conflict over Dillon’s (law) here.”

Local commissions and councils are fighting back in a few different ways.

Several local boards, including those in Boynton Beach, Royal Palm each and Wellington have passed resolutions supporting home rule and opposing legislative efforts to impede on local officials’ ability to govern.

Royal Palm Beach Councilman Jeff Hmara saying he would take his city’s resolution with him to Tallahassee for the League of Cities Action Days.

“I think it’s prudent that we continue again to express our concern and be very specific about what we think in regard to some of these proposals as bills,” Hmara said.

A number of local governments — including Palm Beach County, Boynton Beach and Royal Palm Beach — also have employed lobbyists to help them in the battle over home rule.

“We have our city lobbyist working on the city’s behalf to protect our CRA,” Boynton Beach City Commissioner Christina Romelus said of a bill (HB 17) that would overhaul how Community Redevelopment Agencies are run.

CRAs are optional districts the Legislature created to help local governments combat blight and slums and build affordable housing within their boundaries.

Under the bill, CRAs would have to conduct ethics training, open competitive bids and file annual performance reports. The bill also would phase out active CRAs by 2038 or earlier and require that the Legislature rather than local governments approve new CRAs.

It’s among the top home rule concerns of their cities, Boynton Beach Mayor Steven Grant and West Palm Beach Mayor Jeri Muoio have said.

Berman said local officials should realize they aren’t alone in their efforts to combat state overreach and should work in concert with allies in various coalitions, associations and other groups.

Radcliffe concurred, saying it’s not enough to just talk to lawmakers; local officials also must engage their citizens on the home rule issue.

“We’re trying to educate our constituents and people on what’s going on,” he said. “We’re trying to get the word out to the people.”

Staff writers Bill Dipaolo, Tony Doris, Sarah Peters, Alexandra Seltzer and Kristina Webb contributed to this story.

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