Florida League of Cities affirms its opposition to solar power amendment

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More than a year away from the 2016 elections, one of the most divisive issues in Florida continues to be the fight over a constitutional amendment regarding solar power.

Floridians for Solar Choice is attempting to get an amendment before the voters that would allow homeowners and businesses to sell up to two megawatts of solar power and prohibit the state from erecting any barriers to a rooftop solar market in Florida.

But an assortment of government and industry leaders are fiercely opposing that measure, with some of them filing a legal brief urging the Supreme Court to reject the measure. One of those groups is the Florida League of Cities, which alienated some elected officials around the state. In protest, last month 16 mayors and/or city council members penned a letter to the League, calling for a vote at their annual meeting this week that would have the organization withdraw its legal brief.

But the proposal brought forward by Village of Pinecrest Mayor Cindy Lerner went down to a crushing defeat today with the League’s resolutions committee in Orlando.

“I’m obviously disappointed,” said Lerner. “Clearly, the League is going to end up on the wrong side of history. It was very clear to me that the utilities were out in full force, lobbying all the members of the committee, misleading and misinforming all of the them.”

Ron Sachs, a spokesperson for the Florida League, says that approximately 40 people authorized to sit on the committee participated in a voice vote, with Lerner being the sole vote opposing the League’s action.

“There was a robust discussion,” he said. “Everybody who wanted to speak had a chance to speak, including the mayor, and a vote was taken, and other than the mayor’s single vote in dissent, the resolutions committee supported the League’s filing, and voted down any effort to withdraw it.”

Among the 16 elected officials who wrote to the League earlier this summer included St. Petersburg City Council members Karl Nurse and Darden Rice. Their letter said that the submission of the brief was filed outside of the appropriate League protocol and that the arguments presented in the brief were “alarmist, unsupported and speculative.”

“The League for more than 30 years has selectively looked at constitutional amendment issues, and has been very careful and select when it files any kind of brief regarding a ballot item or a constitutional amendment,” Sach said, adding that’s what happened in this case.

Although relatively minor in the scheme of things, the League’s vote was just another indication of the suddenly uphill battle that Floridians for Solar Choice appears to be up against leading up to its ballot language being reviewed by the Supreme Court next month.

Organizers, which include an amalgam of progressive and conservative groups, started quickly at the beginning of this year in collecting signatures to qualify for a Supreme Court review, but have been met with significant opposition along the way, much of it led by the power utilities themselves. Florida Power and Light, Duke Energy, Tampa Electric and Gulf Power all filed a brief in June opposing the proposed ballot initiative, saying that the initiative’s goals of eliminating barriers to solar power installation are “contrary to Florida’s comprehensively regulated system for the provision of safe, efficient electric power.”

Then came Consumers for Smart Solar, the alternative ballot measure that organizers admit was created in opposition to Floridians for Solar Choice.  Their amendment — also in the process of collecting the more than 68,000 signatures to qualify for a Supreme Court review — calls for  establishing a right for consumers to own or lease solar equipment installed on their property to generate electricity for their own use.

Lerner says she finds it hard to believe that other members of the resolution committee could oppose giving their constituents to vote on the proposal at the ballot box next year. She said one member told her that it would look like they were flip-flopping to support Lerner’s proposal for the League to back off from opposing the measure, but says the vote shouldn’t be taken that seriously outside the walls of the World Center Marriott in Orlando.

“I’m really not dismayed, because when it’s all said or done, I don’t think that people throughout the state know or care very much about what the Florida League of Cities says and does,” she said.

Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served as five years as the political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. He also was the assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley. He's a San Francisco native who has now lived in Tampa for 15 years and can be reached at mitch.perry@floridapolitics.com.