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Fla. rail recall petitions challenged

(The following article by Bill Rufty was posted on the Lakeland Ledger website on June 3.)

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Lakeland businessman C.C. "Doc" Dockery filed suit against Secretary of State Glenda Hood and her staff in circuit court in Leon County on Wednesday over what he said are election law violations in the petitions to recall the high-speed rail amendment.

The suit asks for an injunction that would disallow 50,000 voter signatures on petitions to put the amendment requiring the state to build a high-speed rail system back on the ballot.

Gov. Jeb Bush has opposed the bullet train since voters passed the amendment in 2000. He has said that the project would be too costly.

Recently he appointed Chief Financial Officer and potential 2006 gubernatorial candidate Tom Gallagher to head an organization to get the issue back on the ballot and to ask voters to repeal it.

Known as Derail the Bullet Train (DEBT), the organization is trying to collect the necessary 488,722 signatures by Aug. 3 required to place the repeal amendment on the ballot during this election year. DEBT hired ARNO Political Consultants Inc. for $150,000 to gather the needed signatures.

But Dockery and his lawyer, John Frost III, said ARNO broke state election laws during the petition gathering process.

Under the law, they maintain, the name and address of the person or company gathering the signatures must be on each petition. None of the more than 50,000 signatures already turned into the state Division of Elections had that notation, they said.

Attached to the suit were several examples of petitions, most of which are from Dade and Polk counties, that did not have the notation of the company.

"We really, really want them to follow the law," Dockery said.

Asked whether the purpose of the suit was to stop or drastically slow down the DEBT signature drive, he added, "That would be very nice."

DEBT spokesman Mark Mills implied that was the sole motive for the suit.

"This is a politically motivated, frivolous lawsuit intended to slow our momentum," Mills said. "It was our legal team's opinion that the petitions are correct as we are doing them and that they follow the law."

Dockery, who became a millionaire pioneering workers' compensation insurance for businesses, spent $3 million of his own money to get the high-speed rail amendment on the 2000 general election ballot. It passed with 53 percent of the vote.

So far, the Division of Elections has certified 56,520 signatures. Dockery said DEBT has collected 200,000.

Gallagher said 260,000 signatures have been collected.

The petitions must be certified by the supervisor of elections in the counties in which the voters reside. Those certified signatures are then sent to the Division of Elections to be counted toward the amount needed to get the proposed amendment on the ballot.

Dockery said high-speed rail supporters have checked with the supervisors in all 67 Florida counties and found that at least 70,000 petitions yet to be certified do not have the notation of who gathered the signatures or the address of the company.

"I would say that it would be very difficult for them to get the measure on the ballot anyway, and this violation will make it even harder. But the governor has surprised me before in his ability to do the impossible," said Dockery.

An early supporter of Bush, Dockery and the governor have been at odds over the bullet train issue.

Dockery sits on the current Florida High Speed Rail Authority and chaired its predecessor, the High Speed Rail Commission, under then-Gov. Bob Martinez.

When he took office in 1999, Bush killed the program, and Dockery began his successful drive to force the state to continue the bullet train project.

The authority has already selected a vendor and contractor for the first leg of the rail route between Tampa and Orlando. The second phase will be from Orlando to Miami.

DEBT supporters said they aren't worried about the attempt at injunction or that the signatures will have to be redone.

"We are confident that we are going to meet the Aug. 3 deadline," DEBT's Mills said.

Thursday, June 3, 2004

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