More than 300 attend forum for crash course on ballot amendments

— In November, voters can have their say in several constitutional amendments that affect some of Southwest Florida’s biggest issues, including development and schools.

Voters will be asked six questions: increasing class sizes, changing how developments are made, redrawing congressional districts, restructuring campaign finance rules and increasing tax credits for military personnel.

But ballot language can be confusing and more than 300 residents attended a debate on those issues Tuesday night at St. John the Evangelist Church in North Naples looking for clarification.

Lindy Bloom, of North Naples, said a couple of the ballot items were confusing.

“I wanted to be clear on all of these amendments we’ll be voting on,” Bloom said. “That’s what our responsibility is.”

Two of the amendments, 5 and 6, would impose new standards for redrawing congressional districts.

Ellen Freidin, a Miami civil rights attorney, who chairs the Fair Districts group promoting the amendments, said in the past six years and 440 elections for state legislators, three incumbents have been defeated.

Redistricting “is a political protection plan that is really working right now,” Freidin said. “There are people who are opposing this and they (are) incumbent politicians who do not want to have any rules.”

She said under current rules, essentially just that the districts are contiguous, legislators are selecting voters rather than voters selecting legislators.

State Sen. Garrett Richter, R-Naples, said he opposed the amendments because of who was behind them.

He said powerful liberal political groups, lawyers and labor and teachers unions raised $6 million to fund the effort.

“These highly partisan liberal groups did not invest millions of dollars for nothing,” Richter said. “They desire a more liberal congress and legislature.”

Amendment 4 would give voters the final say on changes to city and county comprehensive plans, which includes approvals for certain development.

Andrew Dickman, a Naples attorney who teaches land use and environmental law at Ave Maria School of Law, said such issues as building new parks in Naples or building houses on Keewaydin Island should be considered by the people, not governments who hold public meetings at times citizens may not be able to attend.

“The average person, the average organization that is trying to defend their community has very little opportunity to do that,” Dickman said.

Bruce Anderson, a land use lawyer, said the amendment was relevant in 2005 at the height of the building boom, but not in 2010.

“Amendment 4 was proposed as a way to slam on the breaks,” Anderson said. “That was then. This is now.”

Other debate revolved around Amendment 8, which would relax class size restrictions approved by voters several years ago.

Dennis Thompson, Collier County Public Schools superintendent, said studies have shown the most important factor in students’ success is not class size.

“It’s the teacher that makes the difference,” he said.

If the amendment passes, the district would have to spend $16 million to hire the required number of teachers, resulting in higher taxes and cuts to pay and programs.

But state Sen. Alex Villalobos, R-Miami, said the burden to fund small class sizes was on the state Legislature, and the state is anxious to stop the rule now that the implementation deadline has arrived.

The state has invested $16 billion, but is $353 million short.

“Why is it that the Legislature wants to tell the people of Florida that they are wrong? Villalobos asked. “Because they don’t want to pay for this.”

Two other ballot initiatives were presented, not debated.

Roger Green, a political science professor at Florida Gulf Coast University, explained Amendment 1’s proposal to repeal campaign finance requirements.

Currently, public matching funds are granted to candidates who agree to abide by spending limits. Those candidates can also receive emergency funds if their opponent is greatly outspending them.

Voting no on the amendment would keep this in place.

Finally, Abe Skinner, Collier County property appraiser, presented Amendment 2 and called it a “no brainer.”

“This amendment, if passed, is going to help our military personnel and their families by giving them an additional amount on their homestead exemption,” he said.

The forum was sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Collier County, the Daily News, the Greater Naples Chamber of Commerce and the Greater Naples Better Government Committee.

© 2010 All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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