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State senate proposal bolsters legal challenges to city and county ordinances

Sen. Dennis Baxley backs a bill that could bolster legal challenges to city and county ordinances.
Colin Hackley
The News Service of Florida
Sen. Dennis Baxley backs a bill that could bolster legal challenges to city and county ordinances.

The Florida Senate could quickly pass a proposal that would bolster legal challenges to city and county ordinances, with supporters saying it would help small businesses and opponents contending it would hamper local governments.

The Senate Rules Committee unanimously approved the proposal (SB 170), positioning it to be heard by the full Senate after the annual legislative session starts March 7.

Perhaps the most-controversial part of the bill would require local governments to suspend enforcement of ordinances while lawsuits play out. Also, plaintiffs who successfully challenge ordinances in court could receive up to $50,000 for attorney fees and costs.

Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Eustis, pointed to local proposals that can be the “death knell” for small businesses.

“It is emergency time when you realize, ‘If this goes through, I’m gone,’” said Baxley, a funeral director and former mayor of Belleview. “And the people I’m (serving), they won’t be served by me. I won’t be able to.”

But the bill drew opposition from environmental, labor and LGBTQ-advocacy groups and some local governments, including Miami-Dade County and Broward County. In part, critics said cities and counties would face increased threats of litigation if they move forward on issues.

READ MORE: Taking care of businesses: Lower profits could mean changing local laws

“What about people that are concerned with environmental issues, social-justice issues, fair-working-conditions issues?” Florida AFL-CIO lobbyist Rich Templin said. “All of those issues are now essentially going to be preempted when this bill passes.”

The Senate passed a similar bill during the 2022 legislative session, but the measure was not approved by the House. While some local governments expressed opposition to this year’s bill during Thursday’s committee meeting, the Florida League of Cities and the Florida Association of Counties said they supported it.

Rebecca O’Hara, a lobbyist for the Florida League of Cities, described the bill, sponsored by Sen. Jay Trumbull, R-Panama City, as a “highly negotiated product.”

Under current law, people and businesses can file lawsuits challenging ordinances and seek injunctions. But until judges rule on the injunctions, the ordinances can be in effect.

But the bill would require local governments to suspend enforcement of ordinances that are challenged on grounds that they are barred by the state Constitution or are “arbitrary or unreasonable.” The bill would call on judges to give priority to disputes about suspended ordinances and “render a preliminary or final decision on the validity of the ordinance as expeditiously as possible.”

In addition to that change and the possibility of plaintiffs recouping at least a portion of their attorney fees, the bill would require local governments to provide a “business impact estimate” before passing many types of ordinances.

“I do believe that this bill will help streamline some of the processes for local governments and give citizens a fundamental right to level the playing field for those trapped in litigation over arbitrary and unreasonable local laws,” Trumbull said.

Haley Busch, outreach director for the environmental and growth-management group 1000 Friends of Florida, said she appreciates small businesses, but “every local government can’t make every business happy all the time, and that’s what makes policymaking messy (and) requires a democratic iterative process at the local level.”

“Senate Bill 170 sidesteps this process and is a top-down approach handicapping our local governments,” Busch said.

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