County awaits Chief Judge’s ruling on alcohol referendum

Chief Circuit Judge Christopher Patterson is expected to soon rule on whether a local citizen has standing to challenge the legality of the liquor referendum.

A hearing Wednesday in the Washington County courtroom adjourned without a ruling as Judge Patterson considered arguments presented in the case filed by attorney Jeremy Mutz on behalf of Ted Spangenberg, Jr.

Spangenberg’s complaint takes issue with political action committee Advance Washington County presenting the certified petition to county commissioners during the Nov. 23 meeting – 159 days after the petition was filed with the Clerk of Court on June 17.  Statute requires that the petition be presented to the Board of County Commissioners within 120 days of its certification by the Supervisor of Elections Office; otherwise, the board is required to hold it invalid. Signatures on the petition were certified by the Elections Office during the 120-day time frame, however.

Washington County Attorney Matt Fuqua, who was named in the original complaint but later dropped from the case as a defendant under the amended complaint, argued for dismissal, citing in part what he says is a lack of the required legal standing to bring the action.

“[Spangenberg] claims the right to bring this action as ‘a resident and registered voter of Washington County’ … The complaint should be dismissed because of [Spangenberg’s] failure to allege facts supporting his standing to bring and action challenging the holding – as opposed to the validity – of the election, based only on alleged statutory violation,” stated Fuqua in his motion for dismissal.

Fuqua went on to point to Supreme Court case law that illustrates the case could only be considered if it were filed on a basis of constitutional violations.

“…the Florida Supreme Court held that the courts had the authority to consider the constitutionality of a proposed municipal autonomy amendment in advance of an election called to enable the electorate to express its approval or disapproval of the amendment, and to enjoin the election of the proposed amendment was found to be unconstitutional in its entirety,” he stated. “However, in this instant case, [Spangenberg] does not bring a constitutional challenge to the referendum proceeding. The complaint refers generally to [his] ‘constitutional rights and protections’ but cites no specific provision of the state or federal constitutions which are implicated by this referendum. There is, for example, no assertion that the alleged failure to comply with Section 657.01 gives rise to federal or state procedural due process or equal protection concerns.”

Mutz argued that the standing can be found in the law itself.

“The rule of law has to mean something,” said Mutz. “It is not discretionary. The law says the petitions have to be presented within 120 days. We would submit that the election is illegal under 567.01,” he concluded. “It was not timely. It should not be counted.”

“If the election was supposed to be done by January 21 and people were turning in ballots and the Supervisor of Elections counted them on January 22, 23, 24, 25 30, it would be appropriate for injunctive relief to stop that counting. It’s the same principle,” he added.

The approximate hour-and-a-half hearing focused greatly on the issue of standing as Judge Patterson is unable to move forward with considering Spangenberg’s request for injunctive relief unless standing is established.

“I have to address standing before I can go anywhere else,” said Judge Patterson.

Judge Patterson adjourned the hearing with telling counsel he would take their comments “under advisement;” however, he did not state when he anticipated making his ruling.

The election, which is set to end Friday, has already seen about 4,000 ballots returned. Of that number, about 2,000 have been tabulated.