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Sarasota Thursday, Feb. 18, 2010 8 years ago

Election challenge denied

by: Robin Roy City Editor

An elections challenge to the March school-tax referendum has been denied.

The creator of a new political-action committee, Better Sarasota Schools for Less, filed a complaint with the Florida Division of Elections two weeks ago.

Walt Augustinowicz claimed that the Sarasota County School District violated state law by pushing voters toward a different political-action committee — one that supports the referendum.

The school district is seeking a renewal of a 1-mill property tax that generated more than $200 million since the last time it was renewed in 2006.

The referendum is billed as a way to help the district offset the $38 million in budget cuts it projects next year.

Last month, the school district sent fliers home with students, which provided talking points on why the referendum should be approved.

It also contained a sentence that read: “An independent citizens group called Citizens for Better Schools is managing the referendum campaign. More information about CBS is available online at”

Augustinowicz claimed that sentence violated Florida statute 104.31, which states that officers or employees of state or local governments cannot use their position to influence someone’s vote.

“CBS is not an independent citizens group. It’s a PAC,” he said. “That’s our biggest gripe.”

Augustinowicz said he has e-mailed School Superintendent Lori White and each school board member several times to ask them to either remove the CBS Web site from all of its information or to add his group’s Web site. He said he never received a response.

State elections officials briefly investigated the complaint before dismissing it, citing a subsection of Statute 104.31, which states that the law “shall not be construed to limit the political activity of elected officials in a referendum election.”

Augustinowicz was not pleased.

“I think it’s a shame that they wrote a law and then created a loophole,” he said.

When asked about the ruling, school spokesman Scott Ferguson said the district believes it was the right decision.

Augustinowicz said he may file another elections complaint, this time citing Florida Statute 106.113, which prohibits local governments, including school districts, from using public funds for a political advertisement concerning a referendum.

He said he would not oppose the referendum if he felt the school board was using the money wisely, but when he looks at recent school construction, he can’t support how it’s being spent.

“Yes, they’re beautiful, but do they help provide a better education?” he asked. “All the money they’ve wasted on that, they could easily pay higher teacher salaries.”

The national group Americans for Prosperity, which advocates for reducing government and taxes, is helping those who oppose the school-tax referendum to let their feelings be known through a letter-writing campaign.

It is providing people a blank “letter to the editor” to write their thoughts about the referendum. The letter is then e-mailed to Sarasota newspapers.

In just one day this week, The Sarasota Observer received nearly 50 e-mails from Americans for Prosperity. Most were anti-referendum. A few were pro-referendum. And four read like this:

Dear Editor Sarasota Observer,
[insert your message here]

Florida Statute 104.31
Walt Augustinowicz’s complaint cited the following passage in the Florida statutes:

(1)  No officer or employee of the state, or of any county or municipality thereof, except as hereinafter exempted from provisions hereof, shall:

(a)  Use his or her official authority or influence for the purpose of interfering with an election or a nomination of office or coercing or influencing another person’s vote or affecting the result thereof.

In dismissing the complaint, state elections officials cited this subsection of the same statute:

(4)  Nothing contained in this section or in any county or municipal charter shall be deemed to prohibit any public employee from expressing his or her opinions on any candidate or issue or from participating in any political campaign during the employee’s off-duty hours.

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