Neighborhood associations encouraged to join Florida League of Cities initiative on local government control, as legislators ramp up efforts to pre-empt ‘home rule’

City Commissioner Ahearn-Koch organizes presentation to city and county association leaders

Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch makes a statement during the Aug. 17, 2020 City Commission meeting conducted via Zoom. File image

A text that Sarasota City Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch sent to neighborhood leaders on St. Armands and Lido keys this year appears to have played a key role in the launch of a new grassroots initiative of the Florida League of Cities (FLC).

During a May 13 meeting at the Lido Island Grill, which Ahearn-Koch organized for neighborhood association leaders, C. Scott Dudley, the League’s director of field advocacy and federal affairs, emphasized the power of citizens in efforts to maintain what is known as “home rule” — local government bodies making decisions for their constituents.

“The Legislature has quit listening to what the average citizen has to say,” Dudley pointed out.

During a May 17 telephone interview with The Sarasota News Leader, Ahearn-Koch explained that she has been active with the League ever since she was elected to the City Commission in May 2017. Each week the Legislature is in session, she said, League members receive texts that alert them to the status of bills related to municipal issues. The texts also provide contact information for legislators backing the bills. Thus, Ahearn-Koch added, city and town leaders have the opportunity to contact those legislators with their views on the proposed laws.

“This year, like every year, vacation rentals was a big bill,” Ahearn-Koch told the News Leader. As legislative work was nearing a crucial point for the vacation rentals issues, she forwarded the League text to her constituents. She was especially concerned that neighborhood association leaders on St. Armands and Lido keys, who have been fighting what they have dubbed “hotel houses,” knew what was happening, Ahearn-Koch added. (Such residences have been built to accommodate 20 or more people, as neighbors have complained to the City Commission.)

Later, she continued, she received a call from a member of the League’s staff, who asked if Ahearn-Koch was the one who had alerted the associations. Ahearn-Koch said she acknowledged that she had and asked whether she should have refrained from doing so. Then she learned how much of an impact the neighborhood leaders’ opposition had had on the legislators.

“It was amazing,” Ahearn-Koch pointed out.

Telling the News Leader she had no way of knowing how many other municipal leaders might have done exactly what she did, Ahearn-Koch downplayed her action.

Scott Dudley (right) of the Florida League of Cities congratulates state Sen. Jason Pizzo, D-Miami, for winning the 2020 Legislative Appreciation Award for efforts to protect home rule authority. Image from the Florida League of Cities via Facebook

Nonetheless, as Dudley noted during his May 6 presentation, individuals “flooded the state legislators with emails,” making their opposition to the bills very clear. In fact, Dudley related to the group at the Lido Island Grill, one legislator told him, “‘Turn it off. I get it. I’m on your side now.’”

Addressing the neighborhood association leaders on May 6, Dudley added, “You folks have a lot more power than you may think … but legislators need to hear it.”

He has been on the road about two weeks out of every month, he noted, working to encourage neighborhood associations to band together to exert their power. His goal, he said, “is to get people fired up.”

In response to News Leader questions, Dudley noted in a May 17 email that League representatives had given 15 presentations “and plan to significantly expand those efforts in the coming months.”

He also explained, “In 2020, the League launched its grassroots advocacy effort as part of FLC President Ortiz’s (Orlando Commissioner Tony Ortiz) initiative, Building Stronger Cities, and through the launch of a dedicated Field Advocacy department. These efforts will increase engagement from city officials and create a large network of citizens who join us to advocate for local voices making local choices.”

Asked about the response, Dudley added, “We’ve had amazing reception so far. Our message clearly resonates: People want to be able to make decisions about their own city, and not have those local decisions made by a distant lawmaker who doesn’t live, work or play in their hometown. At the end of our presentation, people have a better understanding of the specific actions that the legislature is taking to override local self-government and how those actions impact our daily quality of life. Overall, citizens and neighborhood groups appreciate this education and the ability to get more engaged in a very simple way.”

Underscoring the need for the new effort

During his May 13 presentation in Sarasota, Dudley stressed, that Florida House and Senate members are “basically running roughshod” over local government leaders. “We want [the legislators] to understand that the citizens are paying attention.”

In the past, Dudley said, he did not believe British historian John Dalbert-Acton’s famous quote, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” However, he continued, a few years ago, he did finally realize that that is true. Legislators have told him they pass bills because they can, Dudley pointed out.

The vacation rentals issue is far from the only one in which state leaders have tried to wrest control from local leaders, he added, a process called “pre-emption.”

This is a graphic that Chris Goglia, president of the St. Armands Residents Association, showed the city commissioners in January 2020 to emphasize the difficulty of determining who the owners of ‘hotel houses’ are. File image

For another example, Dudley talked about the fact that the City of Key West held a November 2020 referendum during which voters agreed with a proposal to limit the size of cruise ships that can dock at the island. (Key West leaders talked of environmental damage and crowd issues that have resulted from the thousands of visitors arriving by the much larger ships that have been added to cruise line fleets in recent years.)

Yet, Dudley pointed out, “[The legislators] overrode what the citizens of the City of Key West want …” That, he said, was “a pure power grab” in Tallahassee.

“Lobbying every year gets worse and worse” for local governments, he continued. More and more legislators see city and county governing bodies “as basically the enemy,” he added.

Referencing the fact that Republicans are in control of the Legislature, Dudley noted, “The Republican platform used to say local decisions should be made locally. … Well, they literally have erased that from the platform.”

“The Legislature is going to have to pay attention,” he repeated his earlier point. “We’re going to hold them accountable.”

This is a banner on the Florida League of Cities website.

“We’ve got really active neighborhood associations,” Ahearn-Koch told the News Leader on May 17. The Coalition of City Neighborhood Associations (CCNA) and the Sarasota County Council of Neighborhood Associations (CONA), in representing city and county groups, just add to that strength, she pointed out. The new League effort, Ahearn-Koch added, “is a very power tool for citizens and neighborhoods to have a voice.

The legislators need to understand that “they are elected by the people to represent the people.”

Dudley asked leaders of neighborhood associations who want to participate in the new initiative to text Home Rule to 50457.

Positive responses

Following the presentation, the News Leader asked Kathy Kelley Ohlrich, a long-time CCNA leader and past chair, and Kafi Benz, president of CONA, for their thoughts on Dudley’s presentation.

In a May 15 email, Ohlrich wrote, “I’m hopeful for the success of the network being organized by the Florida League of Cities. Neighborhood Associations are built by citizens who are neighbors. Those associations last because neighbors care about where they live. In Sarasota, the Coalition of City Neighborhood Associations (CCNA), which recently celebrated its 30th anniversary, has made a significant difference in how citizens participate in our local government.

Kathy Kelley Ohlrich. Image from a video produced for The Bay Sarasota in November 2014. Image from YouTube

“The network being developed by the Florida League of Cities will be like CCNA at the state level. Citizens will be able to learn details of what’s happening in real time so they can more easily communicate with their state legislators about issues and pending legislation that’s important to them and their neighbors. The same issues are not important to all municipalities or even all neighborhoods within a municipality. “Through the network’s tailored outreach,” Ohlrich continued, “legislators will be hearing a variety of points of view from citizens around the state, not just from the voices they listen to on a regular basis.

“It is disappointing that citizens must witness some elected officials representing their personal wishes rather than that of the common good. Elected officials who boldly ignore their constituents are exactly those who should hear from them. We can’t stop trying to communicate; we can’t give up or give in. The network being organized by the Florida league of Cities is a previously unexplored avenue of citizen participation. It might work.  I’m hoping it does! I encourage neighbors, those with and without a neighborhood association, to join in this effort and at least try to communicate with elected officials about issues that matter to them and their neighbors. If you’re interested in participating, text “home rule” to 50457,” Ohlrich concluded her statement.

Benz wrote, “The Florida League of Cities home rule strategy may become an effective option in the toolboxes of citizens struggling to fend off the menacing, rising tide of efforts to concentrate power through preemptive legislation and recrafting of comprehensive plans. If the methods suggested by the league are embraced widely and implemented down to the neighborhood level, this organized approach may enable recovery from losses already suffered and, enable the reassertion of the will of the people — strongly enough to prevent further advances by those seeking such power. Citizens must fight to retain their role in the direction of elected officials in an unending battle against those who seek to eliminate that role and seize power. Closing ranks and uniting to combat the problem seems to be pretty good advice at the moment.”