A call to support the right to clean water in Florida

By Kafi Benz
Guest Columnist

I became interested in the Orange County initiative for clean water in 2020, as its campaign was wrapping up. The Orange County Charter Review Commission had placed on the ballot a charter amendment guaranteeing that the waters in its county had a right to be clean and free of pollution. The amendment also granted all county citizens the right to clean water. It passed with 89.2% voter approval.

Shortly after placement on the ballot, however, the state legislature preempted the authority of local governments to pass such laws. Because of this, a lawsuit using the new amendment to protect wetlands in the county from development was challenged by both the developer and the state. The lawsuit was dismissed, but the appeal is being prepared.

Work began immediately on a state constitutional amendment because the constitution can’t be circumvented. Leaders of the organization wanted to include five issues in the new statewide campaign, ranging from water to critters. A campaign to get them on the 2022 ballot began, a daunting task in less than a year. Knowing its importance, a redesign of the logo was the best contribution I could make to the clean water campaign and I submitted a high-visibility proposal. The board of directors was divided, but those who wanted to retain the original logo prevailed and the campaign took off. The pandemic made large gatherings inadvisable; organizations stopped meeting, and typical opportunities to gather signatures vanished. The five initiatives were unable to meet the tight deadlines and failed to qualify for the next ballot — but interest among environmental and civic leaders throughout the state had been garnered.

The 2024 ballot was a feasible goal. Many new venues, such as virtual meetings, now were available for our organizational meetings and presentations to members of organizations supporting the effort. Consensus developed quickly to focus on one amendment and leadership changes occurred. The Florida Right To Clean Water campaign for a state constitutional amendment began coming together both in its legal form and development of the statewide network that would function in each county or region.

Working more closely with the new leaders, I mentioned my proposal for a redesign of the logo that would be important for attracting voters who were not committed participants in “things environmental.” In recent years, our legislators have made things more difficult for those pursuing citizen initiatives at the state level, by making significant changes to some of the rules governing the process. Therefore, we needed to make our objective as clear as possible to all Florida voters in order to get the number of signatures needed to qualify the amendment for the 2024 ballot. High visibility was going to be important.

Joseph Bonasia, our new leader, had been second in command when I previously offered the redesign. He said that he had supported the change then and would bring it up again with the board of directors, describing it as “a new and improved logo, for a new and improved amendment” — and it was approved.

Quickly, I had to provide electronic files for the campaign. Although I occasionally provided designs for friends — their organizations, companies, or yard signs if they were running for political office — I hadn’t worked professionally in graphic design for more than 20 years and didn’t have the appropriate computer programs! Friends recently made in town volunteered to convert my designs into the files needed, overnight.

With several local organizations endorsing the amendment, the Sarasota area was becoming involved in the campaign. Now with redesign of the logo we may claim a strong influence throughout the state, but we also need to provide our fair share of the required signatures on petitions. That is where you come in. We need your signatures on the petitions and we need your help getting others (at least five friends).

In your computer browser search window, look up Florida right to clean water. To the right will be a link to a Wikipedia article about the campaign. When you select the link to our site (Floridarighttocleanwater.org) you can get the petition to sign — then mail it to the Fort Myers address on the petition. Find answers to questions about the campaign, and see the growing support: League of Women Voters, VoteWater.org, Florida Wildlife Federation, and Waterkeeper chapters among them. You also can join the volunteer effort in any way convenient for you — become an ambassador or a captain. Even if you are not a Florida voter, with a little volunteered work or a donation you can participate in this clean water effort.

It is up to us to get this question before the voters — so they may decide whether to guarantee that we have the clean water we have been pursuing fruitlessly for decades — instead of things just getting worse.