TITUSVILLE, FL – A recent decision by a judge in Florida has been hailed as a major victory for a grassroots organization called Speak Up Titusville, who has been fighting for clean water for their community. The ruling was made by Judge George Paulk on November 16, 2023, at the Brevard County Courthouse in Titusville, FL. The judge’s order requires the City of Titusville to approve a change to their laws that guarantees the right to clean water for all residents. This landmark decision marks a significant milestone for the citizens of Titusville, as they are the first in the state to have such a law passed successfully.
The Right to Clean Water charter amendment, approved by an overwhelming 82% of Titusville voters in November 2022, compels the City of Titusville to take concrete steps to protect the city’s precious water resources. These measures encompass identifying and reducing pollution sources, intensifying water conservation and restoration efforts, and investing in innovative water treatment technologies. “We all worked tirelessly to make this a reality for the citizens of Titusville,” asserted Tom Perez, Secretary for Speak Up Titusville.
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Driven by a profound sense of urgency, over a dozen concerned citizens assembled for the much-awaited hearing. These passionate advocates had witnessed firsthand the catastrophic consequences of sewage spills, the alarming deterioration of water quality, and the perilous plight of the endangered manatee. For over six decades, the government has shirked its responsibility to safeguard these vital waterways, leaving a trail of irreparable environmental damage.
The City of Titusville dispatched its general counsel and a specially retained attorney to represent its interests at the hearing. These legal representatives, financed by taxpayer dollars, were tasked with contesting the citizens’ efforts to uphold the validity of their 2022 Right to Clean Water votes. The implications of the case were profound, the stakes were high, and tensions were running even higher.
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The attorneys for the city made several arguments, including their concern with the definition of “clean water.” They argued the term should be more specific so voters can better understand it and argued that the phrase could include different types of water, such as drinking water, stormwater, or all water resources, creating uncertainty and potential conflicts with existing laws and regulations. The City felt that the description of the change needed to be clearer about which types of water it would affect. They were worried that this confusion could cause legal issues later on.
The opponents of the charter amendment also raised concerns about its potential financial ramifications. They asserted that implementing the proposed changes would impose a significant financial burden on the city, straining its already stretched budget. Additionally, they expressed apprehensions about the potential surge in lawsuits that could arise from the amendment, further exacerbating the city’s financial woes.
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However, the judge presiding over the case ultimately ruled in favor of Speak Up Titusville, deeming the City’s arguments insufficient grounds to invalidate the charter amendment.
While acknowledging the inherent complexities in defining “clean water,” Judge Paulk asserted that the term was not politically driven or unconstitutional. He further determined that the ballot language and summary was neither vague nor ambiguous, effectively conveying the ordinance’s primary purpose. Additionally, he ruled that the summary and ballot language need not explicitly define whether the charter amendment applied to drinking water, stormwater, or all water, as the charter amendment itself clearly defines clean water to encompass all water resources. Moreover, Judge Paulk dismissed the City’s concerns about lawsuits as unfounded legal arguments.
Building upon the decision of Judge Charles Holcomb, who previously decided the case, Judge Paulk has upheld the mandate to certify the charter amendment. He has denied the City’s requests for a rehearing, confirming the validity of the citizens’ 2022 votes to enshrine the right to clean water in the City’s charter. In his final judgment, Judge Paulk will incorporate the language from Judge Holcomb’s previous order, solidifying the City’s responsibility to uphold the charter amendment and protect its precious water resources.
Upon the judge announcing his decision, the atmosphere in the room changed dramatically. There was an explosion of emotion, with people bursting into tears, others feeling overwhelmed with joy, and many individuals hugging each other in celebration. The room was filled with an electric energy as attendees could hardly contain their excitement and happiness.
“This is a win for the Citizens of Titusville and our future,” said Michael Myjak, Chair of Speak Up Titusville, the non-profit organization responsible for initiating the referendum. “Now, your Right to Clean Water should be enshrined in your City’s Comprehensive Plan, and that should flow down into all the appropriate land development regulations. We deserve clean water, and the city should fight for that!”
Mel Martin, Environmental Florida Attorney, commented, “Moments like these are rare, a true win for those who dare to believe that we should be able to protect ourselves and our families from the harms of preventable pollution. I’m honored to have worked with such warriors on this fundamental aim.”
When asked what she hopes will now happen, Martin responded, “I do hope the City of Titusville sees the light and lets the jurisprudence of this issue take its natural course. Local governments should be supporting, representing, and defending their citizens, not suing them for exercising their 1st Amendment right to petition by initiative.”
Martin went on to say, “The Right to Clean Water is necessary because the executive branch has failed to enforce laws already on the books to protect Florida’s waters. Now, the residents of Titusville have the ability to hold polluters accountable and say, “No more – not in my community, not in my home.”
Chuck O’Neal, Chairman of the Right to Clean Water Political Committee based in Central Florida, was pivotal in passing the Orange County Rights of Nature charter amendment in 2020. However, the Florida legislature preempted it by passing the 2020 Clean Waters Act, which prohibits local governments from recognizing or granting legal rights to the natural environment. Despite this setback, they continue to explore legal challenges to the preemption law. “Congratulations to all the hard working citizens of Titusville who moved this measure to victory, at the polls, at the first hearing, at the second hearing, and beyond,” announced O’Neal upon hearing the verdict.
“Tonight, two local governments in Florida have the right to clean water in their governing documents. The City can appeal today’s judgment, but how much more do the voters of Titusville want to spend to have their rights denied?” said O’Neal.
O’Neal isn’t the only one questioning the City of Titusville’s next step. Jim Durocher, East Central regional director of FRONN, asked, “Will the City Commission waste more citizen’s money and their will?” Many taxpayers wonder if their officials will spend money to appeal the decision or accept the judge’s ruling.
“We are thankful and pleased with Judge Paulk’s close attention to the legal briefing and arguments in the case, and of course, for his ruling,” said Richard Grosso, attorney for Speak Up Titusville. “The result was a decision that correctly ruled that the Right to Clean Water Charter Initiative complies with and isn’t preempted by state law. The hard work and dedication of everyone who worked to get this local Right to clean water initiative approved overwhelmingly by the citizens of Titusville was vindicated today.”
Richard Grosso is a public interest environmental and land use lawyer dedicated to advising, advocating, and litigating on behalf of clients seeking to use the law to promote and protect the public interest in preserving our natural resources, communities, and planet.
“Our attorney, Richard Grosso, is a valiant defender of Florida citizens’ Right to a healthy environment. We are determined to support his efforts in defending our Right to Clean Water,” stated Toni Shifalo, Treasurer of Speak Up Titusville. The organization is asking for help and donations to support this crucial work.
The decision in the case of the City of Titusville v. Speak Up Titusville is a major victory and a significant step forward in the fight for clean water in Titusville and for environmental advocates across Florida. It is a reminder that communities can fight back against polluters and protect their Right to clean water. The City is now legally obligated to take steps to protect its water resources, and this decision could have a ripple effect across Florida, inspiring other communities to take similar action.
As proponents mobilize to secure the Right to Clean Water as an amendment to Florida’s Constitution in the 2024 election, the Titusville case emerges as a beacon of hope. This groundbreaking initiative has the potential to hold polluters responsible for their actions, ensuring the preservation of Florida’s economic vitality and natural splendor. It is widely recognized that existing regulations and standards are inadequate, enabling polluters to jeopardize the environment and the livelihoods of countless Floridians. The unwavering determination of Titusville’s citizens to safeguard their precious waterways has ignited a statewide movement to enshrine the Right to clean water into the fabric of Florida’s Constitution.