Local Clean Water petition heads to November ballot, despite possibly being illegal

After collecting nearly 4,000 signatures to place a referendum on the ballot that would guarantee residents of Titusville a right to clean water, city officials say the petition might be illegal, according to a Florida Law sign by Governor DeSantis in 2020

The City’s concern is that a “right to clean water” could possibly be void with the Clean Waterways Act, signed into law by Gov. Ron DeSantis in 2020, which prevents local governments from protecting the “rights” of nature — something that has frustrated many local environmental activists. 

Titusville City Council member Robert Jordan described the tension between the ballot measure and the law as complex, “Based on the information we got, we believe to add this to our ordinances would be illegal. But on the other hand we have a problem because our responsibility as duly elected officials is we have to follow the law” that says the city is obligated to place the charter amendment on the ballot, Jordan said. 

Kate Perez is a member of Speak Up Titusville, the group behind the petition and a city council candidate, said seeking a declaratory judgment was a waste of taxpayer money. “It seems to me like you guys let the tail wag the dog in this situation. Laws get struck down all the time. You know that,” she said.

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Orange County put a right to clean water charter amendment on the ballot in 2020, which won 90% of the vote, in hopes of protecting the Wekiva and Econlockhatchee rivers. Last month, circuit judge ruled the Clean Waterways Act trumped the Orange County charter amendment. The plaintiffs in that case are planning to file an appeal.

Tom Perez spoke at Tuesday’s meeting, citing what he called a key difference between Titusville’s referendum and Orange County’s: where exactly the language assigns rights. 

“Orange County’s law said ‘water has the right to be clean’,” Perez said. The specific contradiction between that and state law is that the Florida statutes say rights cannot be assigned to nature, including bodies of water. 

“Now our bill says the people are entitled to clean water. We have the rights to clean water. We’re not saying water has the right to be clean. We’re saying the people are entitled to clean water to drink, to swim in, to fish in,” Perez said.

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