The litigation team of Matt Mandel, John Quick and Ed Guedes scored a significant victory on behalf of Bal Harbour Village in a lawsuit and appeal raising significant election law issues. A group of Village residents who sought to amend the Village Charter by referendum submitted two proposals to the Village Clerk with what purported to be the requisite number of signatures of registered voters. One referendum sought to impose a super-majority requirement on public votes to approve the sale of any Village-owned lands, while the other sought to impose the requirement of a public vote on certain commercial development approvals, thus taking the approval process largely out of the hands of the Village Council. Both petitions arose from a proposed expansion of the Bal Harbour Shops. The Village Clerk declined to forward the petitions to the County Supervisor of Elections, contending that the Village’s requirements for a proper petition had not been met; and the residents filed suit under section 166.031, Florida Statutes, seeking mandamus, declaratory and injunctive relief.
In the trial court, Matt and John argued that the second of the two petitions sought to accomplish something that existing state statutes specifically prohibited, namely, a referendum on development approvals. They further argued that the other petition, while facially qualifying for submission to the Supervisor of Elections, was tied together in the complaint to the second petition, and since the second petition was illegal, the first one also necessarily failed.
At the summary judgment hearing (where permanent injunctive relief was sought), the trial court ruled in favor of the Village, agreeing that the petition to impose a referendum on development approvals was illegal, and further concluding that the plaintiff residents had not come forward with evidence to support their entitlement to injunctive relief under section 166.031. The residents appealed the denial of injunctive relief to the Third District Court of Appeal.
On the appeal, which was handled by Ed and John, we renewed our arguments that the Village could not be compelled to submit for referendum a proposal that state law made illegal. The residents continued to argue (1) that the illegality of one of the petitions was a determination to be made after the signatures submitted to the Village Clerk had been verified by the Supervisor of Elections, and (2) that it was incumbent upon the Village to institute a separate declaratory judgment action to halt the referendum from going forward once the signatures had been verified. In a case of first impression in the state, the Third District issued a 19-page opinion and agreed with the Village that it could not be compelled to submit the petition and signatures to the Supervisor of Elections when the end result of doing so would be an illegal referendum. As for the other petition, even though the Third District disagreed with the trial court’s conclusion of lack of evidence to support a claim under 166.031, it concluded that the residents had failed to disentangled the two petitions in the complaint and that it was not an abuse of discretion by the trial court to decline to do something that was not requested by the residents.