State vs. local: Cities accuse Florida lawmakers of trying to strip power

By Julie Gargotta, Reporter
Last Updated: Monday, March 12, 2018, 6:33 PM EDT

The Florida legislative session ended over the weekend with the passage of a nearly $88 billion budget. But local leaders are still frustrated by growing attempts from state lawmakers to take away their ability to govern.

  • Winter Park, other cities angry about bills stripping home rule
  • Say state legislature working in last 2 years to take power from local cities
  • Cities say residents need to get involved

“Rarely do you see things get better with more government involved, so they want to insert themselves into the process," said Mayor Steve Leary of Winter Park. “We have the truest sense of what’s important to the residents of Winter Park.”

Leary said that several bills before the state legislature pre-empted home rule, or local governments’ decisions.

In recent weeks, Winter Park officials sent a letter to residents, railing against the application of what they deemed “one-size-fits-all” statewide rules.

The letter focused on bills allowing short-term rentals despite local ordinances against them, regulating local Community Redevelopment Agencies, and even telling cities what they can do with their trees.

“We’ve spent tens of millions of dollars maintaining our canopy in Winter Park. To have someone at the state level say, now you have to follow rules everyone else has to follow, doesn’t seem really justified," Leary said.

He also bemoaned that the bill is allegedly born out of one legislator's frustrations about where he lives.

“It’s a little bit scary, to be quite honest, that someone who has got a bone to pick with his local municipality would think about imposing statewide legislation," he said. “If you talk to any of the state legislators, they’ll tell you they hate when Washington gets involved in their business. And yet, this session and last session especially, under current leadership, it seems like it’s something they’ve taken pride in doing to us.”

All three bills in Winter Park's letter died in the legislative session.

But, it’s not just Winter Park crying foul.

In Maitland, City Council just approved sending a letter to neighbors about home rule, reading, “Who do you want making decisions about your neighborhood, about your community?”

The city called the same bills highlighted by Winter Park an “assault on home rule.”

And one Orange County commissioner tried to fight a bill regarding state universities.

“People need to know what’s really happening," said District 5 Commissioner Emily Bonilla.

Bonilla said that she took issue with an amendment to HB 883, which stated that state universities need room to expand and areas within three miles around would be classified as urban— not rural.

In earlier versions, Orange County’s University of Central Florida would be potentially affected.

“In Gainesville, that’s probably fine, but here we have the Econ River within that three-mile radius," said Bonilla.

Bonilla knows all about that fight, joining east Orange County neighbors over the last two years to rally against their rural land seeing big developments.

“A lot of the people invested in here because they wanted a rural lifestyle, such as myself," she said.

HB 883 also never made it out of the legislative. It included other provisions that would have regulated local governments.

According to the commissioner, this is bigger than one amendment or bill.

“If people pay attention, they can call their elected officials and let them know how they feel. If they don’t, these things get passed, and we’re affected," said Bonilla.

“It’s about going on the record, saying 'hey, we elected you. We sent you to Tallahassee to represent us. Don’t get lost in leadership, don’t get lost in party, don’t get lost in lobbyists,'" said Mayor Leary. “We need to make sure all of our residents and constituents stay involved, stay aware of this and let their legislators know.”

News 13 spoke on the phone with a State Rep. Barbara Watson, a Democrat who sits on the Government Accountability Committee and saw amendment after amendment proposed relating to HB 883.

“I think when you take the ability for local governments... and give that power to legislators in Tallahassee, I think you’re infringing on local government’s ability to regulate their areas," she said.