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The Mayor of Coconut Creek Gets Butterflies

A group of gritty citizens have organized a successful petition to put on the 2010 ballot in Florida an amendment to the state constitution called Florida Hometown Democracy. It is greatly feared by state business interests, including Associated Industries and the Florida Chamber of Commerce. If the amendment passes by a 60 percent majority– a new threshold for passage of amendments by petition proposed and passed specifically to counter Florida Hometown Democracy– then changes to local growth plans will be subject to local vote and not local elected representatives acting as zoning councils.

The implications are clear for a state whose tax revenues depend on the gears and levers of local zoning meshing up to the Wall Street Ponzi Scheme of credit creation through fraudulent derivatives. It was a perpetual motion machine. It is now dead and rusty: dormant in Florida’s economic ditch. In contrast Chamber of Commerce fictions, citizens in Florida–very nearly as a matter of last resort– organized for direct democracy to counter how the state’s astounding excess of housing supply occurred in the first place, by seeking a constitutional amendment that would separate the conjoined twins: local zoning officials and campaign contributors from sprawl industries. Naturally, the beneficiaries of this relationship– that include a key constituency in local Chambers of Commerce– consider this proposal to be blasphemy.

To Florida’s sober burghers and captains of industry, direct vote through Florida Hometown Democracy is portrayed as the end of the world. It is a nice cushion shot off the velveteen banks of Florida’s shaken Christian Right. But there is no slice of the demographic in Florida that is untouched by the cratered economy tied to unsustainable growth.

This dreadful news has citizens casting about for targets to blame. The state’s business interests—especially the development sector tied to suburban sprawl—has a lot to fear. Zoning changes in cheap wetlands, farmland and open space is the mother’s milk of sprawl. The recession in Florida is biting harder than any other state in the nation because the total reliance on conversion of wetlands and farmland and open space to cheap, crappy housing and crammed, traffic-clogged cities. It is the legacy of Florida; showing how local government transformed under the pressure of revenues generated from real estate transfer taxes from protecting public health and welfare to serving development at any cost.

These forces represent a status quo that is unmoveable even under the duress of the worst collapse in housing values since the Depression. Still, they will spend an unlimited amount of money to “persuade” the electorate in Florida, nurtured to voting age during the Age of Stupid, that “complexities” of regulations governing growth are the appropriate responsibility of representative democracy.

What Florida Hometown Democracy would do is break the immutable bond between campaign contributors from sprawl industries, lobbyists, and local zoning officials; often city and county commissioners in Florida. Buckets of campaign cash are firmly fastened to sprawl like chairs on a ski lift. The notion that Florida Hometown Democracy could force citizens directly into its operation threatens to bring down the whole contraption.

Florida Hometown Democracy would also force a change in the business community itself; segmenting interests of sprawl developers and speculators from the broader business community representing as I like to call it, Chamber of Commerce values. If Florida Hometown Democracy passes, what happens is that the business community, represented by those card-carrying, dues paying, hard-working members, no longer has to fight for what developers want when it comes to zoning changes in wetlands, farmland and open space. Developers will have to deal with voters directly. Florida Hometown Democracy would act as an ice-breaker against the rock-solid, dead wrong Chamber values that ran the economy off the rails in the Age of Stupid.

Consider Coconut Creek, Florida: “Butterfly Capital of the World“. The Broward County municipality, according to its website, “is a picturesque city of 50,000 with an abundance of trees, waterways, attractive landscaped roads, beautiful parks, and butterfly gardens throughout our neighborhoods.” It is also a city hoist by the foreclosure debacle and whose mayor is strongly opposed to Florida Hometown Democracy.

The Chamber of Commerce in Coconut Creek, like countless other Chambers in Florida, has cobbled together a 2020 Vision Statement, to meet the challenges of a future muddied by the economic calamity. Its extraordinary loopiness links butterflies, economic development and the Green Movement, reading as a manual of how confusing, awkward and conflicted small town “consensus” building efforts are. In the Age of Stupid, that is par for the course. It is not so different with “visioning” statements in large cities, too, like Miami where the oversupply of housing supply made a few Chamber members wealthy and serves, now, mainly to hold vultures aloft.

At least the Chamber 2020 Visioning gets the first part of process, right: lettering. Note how bread and butter bromides try to act as a solvent for the oil and water: incentives to streamline development and “relief from permitting” — the main constituency of the Chamber — and “green” initiatives that come across as orphans of process suited for “education”. It will take more than welcome packets to marry the two.

“A. The City should evaluate where it is currently and determine what is needed; then it can decide what it wants to do to attract businesses that appeal to all residents.
B. The Chamber of Commerce should be a partner in business recruitment and retention efforts. The City should encourage all businesses to be members of the Chamber.
C. The City should be clear about the types of businesses that it does not want to attract.
D. The City should initially incentivize developers who match the city’s concept (e.g., lower impact fees for water saving measures).
E. The City should explore what other communities are doing to see what business recruitment efforts have been successful.
F. The City can also provide relief from permitting fees and an accelerated planning review and inspection process.
G. The City should seek the All American City designation.
H. The City should explore using casino revenue for business recruitment.
I. The City could develop educational programs on the benefits of “green planning.”
J. The City could relax codes to allow different uses, such as allowing an empty retail store to be put to use by a cultural organization or day care facility.
K. The City should recruit businesses that are environmentally friendly.
L. In conjunction with the Chamber of Commerce, the City should encourage partnerships between businesses, schools, and non-profit organizations.
M. The City should ask businesses to provide more opportunities for high school students to get on-the-job training and “real world” experience.
N. The City could create a business incubator program to assist startup businesses in being successful.
O. The City should offer to deliver and redistribute the City’s welcome packets and utilize web-based methods.”

In the best of times, these sorts of consensus documents seem mainly to starve the imagination. In Florida’s specific case, the best of times haven’t shot up any green shoots lately. To read mainstream media accounts over the years, Florida has cooked its own goose so many times that it is scarcely recognizable except as feed for organized engineering cartels. “Green” might seem like a way out, but entrenched interests are so dug in that every suggestion that sounds like civic improvement adds up to nonsense. (This all reminds me of my recent drive through South Carolina and a detour into the town, Prosperity, where the main fixture was empty shopping malls.)

Twenty-three percent of home loans in Florida past due or in foreclosure in the second quarter of this year, leading the nation. (Miami Herald, August 21, 2009, “Florida foreclosures on rise”) In Broward County, home of Coconut Creek’s vaunted butterflies, 10165 homeowners were in foreclsoure or facing, “up 43 percent from August 2008” (Florida had the nation’s second-highest foreclosure rate in August, Sun Sentinel, Sept 10 2009) The county is on pace for 311 housing starts this year, “the lowest rate in more than a decade according to the Metrostudy research firm in West Palm Beach” (“Analyst: Housing starts are key to market’s health”, Sun Sentinel, August 28, 2009) During the boom years, 2000-2005, the Sun Sentinel reports that annual housing starts “peaked at well above 10,000”.

Turns out that James Freeman, editor of a community newsletter called The Paddle, and member of a group of civic activists has filed a complaint with the Florida Attorney General against the Mayor of Coconut Creek, alleging that the use of taxpayer funds for electioneering purposes was violated in conjunction with an anti-Hometown Democracy appeal by the good Mayor in a local magazine funded by the municipality.

Freeman’s letter to the AG is simple:

“As a resident of Coconut Creek, Florida, I wish to file a formal complaint against Coconut Creek Commissioner and Mayor Marilyn Gerber and Ryplin Industries, Inc. of Coconut Creek, Florida. In the September 2009 issue of Coconut Creek Life magazine, published by Ryplin Industries, in a monthly column entitled “A View From the Top”, Mayor Gerber engages in what I consider to be electioneering against the proposed Amendment 4 on the 2010 Florida ballot. According to the “About Us” section on Coconut Creek Life’s website: http://www.lifepubs.com/about_us.shtml, the magazine receives an annual taxpayer-based grant of $60,000. This would appear to be a direct violation of Florida SB 216, which specifically prohibits the use of taxpayer money for electioneering purposes. It is my contention that both Mayor Gerber and Ryplin Industries have violated state law in this instance. I also feel that with all of the media exposure for Amendment 4, this has the potential to be a highly publicized issue, and wonder if similar violations have incurred in any of Ryplin’s other publications. I urge your office to investigate this matter and take appropriate action. I find this misuse of public funds both highly disturbing and threatening to our democratic process.”

We’ll see how this development works out. Yesterday, Florida’s Governor and Cabinet– hearing the drumbeat of Florida Hometown Democracy– turned away from the sprawl lobby and an effort by zoning officials to put a big development in Ocala farmland without demonstrating need. It was an important decision but changes nothing of the equation that keeps local elected officials in the thrall of special interests who need their “yes” votes on zoning changes. In the meantime, what the Chamber hopes for is a return to the good old days, when all the formulas for growth worked just fine, the nail guns were spitting into particle board by the billions of square feet, lenders and borrowers were happy partners fluffing each other, and butterflies were free.

Coconut Creek’s Chamber of Commerce 2020 Visioning Statement reminds us that recovery is only visible as a dim, uncertain perspective, better than any warning from former Fed Chair Paul Volker:

The butterfly can be used as part of the City’s branding and the phrase “The Butterfly Capital of the World” or the butterfly logo can be used in a variety of ways to promote the City.

1. The butterfly logo can be put on street signs.
2. The butterfly logo can be put into the Promenade branding.
3. Explore whether the butterfly branding can be incorporated into the casino design (e.g., the sections of the casino parking garage can be named after different types of butterflies).
3. Butterfly topiaries can be placed at city entrances.
4. The City can host butterfly-inspired contests for students.
5. The City can develop butterfly art and sensory gardens for the community on shared use properties; these facilities would be open to everyone.
6. The City can issue an RFP for butterfly art (similar to Chicago’s cows) to be placed in public locations. Local businesses could sponsor this program.
7. The City could design bumper stickers.
8. The Garden Club should be reconvened.
9. City welcome signs should say “Welcome to Coconut Creek, the Butterfly
Capital of the World.”
10. Educational information on butterflies could be placed at bus stops.
11. Seek to make the butterfly brand more meaningful, capturing the symbolism
of the butterfly.
12. Educate residents on the presence of butterfly gardens in City parks.
13. The City should work with the Chamber of Commerce to host an annual festival in the summer or fall with a coconut theme.

ALAN FARAGO lives in south Florida. He can be reached at: afarago@bellsouth.net

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Alan Farago is president of Friends of the Everglades and can be reached at afarago@bellsouth.net

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