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Constitution commission adopts rules but rift and power struggle continues

CRC signAfter a bitter and contentious debate, the powerful Constitution Revision Commission that will place amendments on the November 2018 ballot ended the impasse that has hampered its work for months and adopted a new set of rules on Tuesday.

The panel voted 20 to 11, with six members absent, to approve a set of guidelines for how they will decide on what amendments will go directly on the November 2018 ballot. Drafted by Brecht Heuchan, a Tallahassee political consultant and appointee of Gov. Rick Scott, the proposal uses as its framework the rules adopted by the CRC when it last met 20 years ago.

But the seemingly simple task of writing rules in the absence of rules created rifts in the Republican-controlled panel, exposed power struggles between the governor's appointees and everybody else, and quickly became a show of personalities.

Carlos Beruff, the Bradenton businessman appointed to the panel by Scott -- who hopes to also be on the November ballot as a candidate for U.S. Senate -- flexed his muscle.

During the two-hour meeting, several commissioners raised a “point of order,” asked a question or offered a alternative approach to letting Heuchan’s proposal be the only one before the commission.

But, Beruff declared: “there are no rules.” When he was challenged, he then made up and applied his own set of rules as he went along.

"It seems like we have rules when some people like them, but we don't have rules when some people don't like them," said an exasperated Bob Solari, an Indian River County commissioner appointed to the CRC by Senate President Joe Negron. "If I was watching this from the public, I would be incredibly depressed and dismayed."

The commission is convened every 20 years and has the power to put proposals directly on the November 2018 ballot. It met for the first time in March but the original rules, drafted on behalf of Beruff, were rejected by commissioners because they gave the chair extraordinary power to control what amendments will actually make it to the ballot and allowed commissioners to dial in for meetings.

Bob Martinez, a Miami lawyer appointed by the chief justice of the Florida Supreme Court, presented the first amendment to the rules -- a proposal that would require the commission to adhere to the open government and public records laws of the state constitution.

"It's something that I feel very strongly about,'' Martinez said. "Since we're doing the work of the public, the public should see what we're doing." Story here. 

But because a broader more comprehensive proposal by Sen. Tom Lee and former Sen. Don Gaetz was to be voted on later, Martinez withdrew his amendment, saying he preferred to add it to the Lee and Gaetz amendment when that came up.

He never got another chance. Heuchan offered his amendment as a substitute amendment to another one offered by Sherry Plymale, a Palm City retiree appointed to the commission by Negron.

Gaetz objected. He referred to the Mason’s Manual, a rule book used as the foundation for most legislative bodies, and challenged the amendment for not being “germane” because it expanded Plymale’s amendment beyond it’s intended scope. Beruff disagreed.

“There are no rules,’’ he said. “It is my understanding that without rules, there is no germanity standards.”

“If we are to take the position that there are are no rules, that is extraordinarily unusual,’’ Gaetz countered. “It's unprecedented and it will lead to chaos.”

It didn’t matter. Beruff moved on. For 90 minutes, the commission debated provisions in Heuchan’s amendment many of which mirrored amendments offered by members of a rules working group that was disbanded by Beruff. He refused to accept the recommendations and ordered a meeting of the whole to vote on the rules.

But some commissioners complained that Heuchan’s rules excluded other provisions that were agreed upon by the working group and did not impose any additional rules on people who lobby the commission.

Many of the provisions by Heuchan, who handles the political committee for the governor, minimized some of Beruff’s power over the process but make him the sole authority to appoint committee members.

Heuchan’s rules also gave the governor’s appointees a numerical advantage on the Rules Committee, in proportion to their appointing authority, and allow for no vice chair to Beruff.

In the face of these provisions, the power struggle between Beruff and other members of the commission continued to intensify on Tuesday.

“I know this is messy but such is public life,’’ said Lee, R-Thonotosassa, who was appointed by House Speaker Richard Corcoran. “The only reason we’re here is because someone took the time to transfer the power of this commission to the chairman. I saw this coming.”

He pointed to the rules from 20 years ago, which have been hailed as a bi-partisan consensus arrived by by commissioners appointed by former Gov. Lawton Chiles, a Democrat, and Republican-controlled Legislature. The rules then “gave the governor a plurality,’’ Lee said. “It didn’t give him autonomy.”

In addition to Beruff, the governor appoints 14 commissioners, 9 are appointed by the House speaker, 9 by the Senate president, and 3 by the chief justice of the Florida Supreme Court. Attorney General Pam Bondi is automatically a member.

The commission voted 19-11 to replace Plymale’s amendment with Heuchan’s. After it was adopted, Beruff determined no other amendments would be considered, and he adjourned the meeting.

Several commissioners raised the point that agreeing to an equitable rules framework was the most important decision they could make, because it would inject credibility and fairness to the work the commission does.

Heuchan, who worked on the House staff during the 1997-98 CRC, disagreed.

“What we're doing today, it does appear messy and that’s OK. It was messy before,’’ he said. “In the end, when we look back, I don’t think this will be the most important thing that we did.”