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Stew Lilker’s

Columbia County Observer

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County Attorney Joel Foreman Authorizes Illegal Advertising for "Yes" Votes on Charter Amdts 

Columbia County Attorney Joel Foreman's Facebook page where he is in a circle in front of Abraham Lincoln. The copy reads: What was he thinking?

COLUMBIA COUNTY, FL – County Attorney Joel Foreman, Florida's only elected county attorney, recently gave his encouragement and approval of a clear violation of Florida Election Law: the County advocacy "Vote Yes" of paid political advertising for the County's Charter amendments.

Background


This advertisement, across the front page of today's Lake City reporter, is against the law.

Every eight years, the County is authorized by law to review the County Charter. Although County Attorney Foreman had no demonstratable experience with county charters, he nominated himself to be the legal counsel and charter consultant for the Charter Review Commission. The County 5 (County Commission) unanimously approved his suggestion, and sometime later, the Charter Review Commission (CRC) approved the County 5's appointment.

However, Former County Commissioner and CRC member Jody DuPree balked. The CRC hired the well-connected Tallahassee law firm's Nabors-Giblin-Nickerson's (NGN) Lynn Hoshihara to act as a conflict counsel for Attorney Foreman. Ms. Hoshihara had a previous working relationship with Mr. Foreman, as did the firm with the County.

Over time, Mr. DuPree came to regret this decision.

The CRC broke up into committees, which met in the middle of the day, with the result that the working public was shut out of the meetings.

The County's infamous, de minimis minutes were not prepared in any timely fashion. What really went on in these committee meetings will never be known, as there are also no recordings of the meetings.

In the end, the CRC came up with four unnecessary Charter amendments.

October 12, 2020 County/CRC Attorney Foreman:
Tell the public to vote "Yes"

The October 12, 2020, CRC agenda called for a review and approval of messaging strategies for the amendments.

Columbia County paid advertisement for advocating voting for Charter amendments.
This advertisement, in the Lake City Reporter, advocating amendment of the County Charter, is against the law.

County Attorney Foreman provided no supporting material regarding these "messaging strategies" other than an Op-Ed for the year-end funds amendment, an amendment which even the CRC members didn't understand.

County Attorney Foreman told the CRC how to advertise: "It's my recommendation that if you are going to advertise, you would advertise something to the effect of, 'Vote Yes on CRC Amendment 1; Vote Yes on CRC Amendment 2, and then maybe a little informational blurb saying, 'These initiatives appear on page 4 of your ballot.'"

CRC member Sandra Buck-Camp asked, "Are we allowed to do that? Are we allowed to tell people, 'Please vote yes?'"

Attorney Foreman answered, "Yes, you are, absolutely."

The CRC voted to expend public money to hawk the amendments.

CRC member Ron Foreman, Attorney Foreman's father, offered to help his son educate the public.

CRC member Skinner said she was opposed to Amendment 1 and would like to write against approval.

CRC member Foreman told Ms. Skinner if she wrote against the amendment, it would "confuse people."

Charter Amendment Advertising Advocacy Violates Florida Election Law

Since the October 12 CRC meeting, the County has advertised – hawked – all four of its Charter amendments by advertising a big "Vote Yes" for them in the local mainstream print media and on the County website.

The Florida Department of State has consistently ruled against local governments advertising a political position on a ballot amendment.

Florida Statute 106.113, "Expenditures by local governments," expressly prohibits the expenditure of public funds for political advertising.

The law, in relevant part, is clear: A local government or a person acting on behalf of local government may not expend or authorize the expenditure of ... public funds for a political advertisement or electioneering communication concerning an issue, referendum, or amendment, including any state question, that is subject to a vote of the electors..." (emphasis added by the FL Department of State.

The Answer is Rejection

The Washington Supremes (the Supreme Court), in the famous case of Buckley v. Valeo, developed the "magic words" standard which defined whether or not an advertisement was a political advertisement by its advocacy words. "Vote Yes" is advocacy.

This blatant advocacy is a violation of Florida Statutes by Columbia County, inspired by Attorney Joel Foreman, and meant to influence both the CRC and the public.

That the CRC blindly followed Mr. Foreman's advice, who has a habit of shooting from the hip, does not eliminate the fact that the CRC approved the illegal action and violated the rights of the public to be educated without prejudice.

The public should reject the amendments, not only because of the illegal advertising, but because the amendments are unnecessary.

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