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Dispute with signature gathering firm to doom Florida solar power amendment from getting on 2016 ballot?

A dispute with a signature-gathering firm makes it likely that the group attempting to expand solar power choice in Florida will fall short of acquiring the necessary signatures to qualify for the ballot next year.

Floridians for Solar Choice (FSC) needs to get 683,149 signatures turned in to state Division of Elections by February 1. Currently, the state has verified 262,499, but an additional 212,000 are being held in California and may never make it to Tallahassee, due to a financial disagreement between the group and PCI Consulting, a Southern California-based company hired to collect the signatures for the amendment.

Angelo Paparella, the CEO of PCI Consulting, claims that Floridians for Solar Choice owes his firm “several hundred thousand dollars,” and says he is preparing to go to court to sue the group for lack of payment.

Stephen Smith, Executive Director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy and a founding member of Floridians for Solar Choice, acknowledges that there is a dispute regarding expenses, but says that, in fact, FSC has paid for every single signature that has been gathered.

“What we are disputing is the fact that he arbitrarily added some $200,000 worth of unsubstantiated expenses on to this,” Smith says. “And those expenses were in addition to the cost of the petitions. So what happens here, and why this is so tricky, is these guys who do signature gathering, they get you going and going and going, and then they constantly move the goal posts on what it’s going to take to finish qualifying.”

Smith adds that if need be, his group is willing to go to court against PCI. “Floridians for Solar Choice is not going to be extorted,” he says. “We have a legally signed contract that basically does not include these added expenses. I welcome the day in court, and we look forward to that.”

“Stephen Smith is a liar,” Paparella said early Thursday morning. “Stephen Smith is a man with no scruples or integrity. Stephen Smith is engaging in an activity to stiff the very people who were working their butts off for him, by refusing to pay his final bill.”

Smith said he had no interest in getting in a name calling contest, but said simply, “That’s not accurate. I don’t believe in any way that Angelo was misled.”

What both men agree is that for at least a week, signatures gatherers for the petition were not getting paid.

Seminole resident Susanna Ford began getting paid to collect signatures for Floridians for Solar Choice from February until November 20 when she received a call from a local group called Elite Petitions saying that would be her last week of working.  But she wasn’t for that last week of work. “The scuttlebutt we got was that they ran out of money,” she said. But she didn’t get paid until she began complaining to the Tampa Bay Times and WMNF radio and Elite Petitions.

Ford said she wasn’t that upset for herself, but for the college students, grandparents. “That’s Christmas money. Rent money. Grocery money. How can they hold up the money?” She ultimately received a check for that last week.

The issue between the two groups appears likely to be the knockout blow against getting the solar power amendment on the ballot in 2016. Even with the additional signatures that are being held in California, the odds look formidable for getting the remainder in the next six weeks.

Floridians for Solar Choice is the proposal presented by a combination of conservative Tea Party activists and liberal environmentalists that would expand solar choice in the Sunshine State. It would do so by allowing customers the option to power their homes or businesses with solar power and who provides it to them. Many of the state’s biggest public utilities have fiercely opposed the proposal since it was introduced earlier this year. Duke Energy, TECO, and Florida Power & Light all filed a brief with the Florida Supreme Court opposing the amendment,  and many of those utilities have been funders of another solar power constitutional amendment called Consumers for Smart Solar.

That group has deep pockets behind it that have allowed them to raise more money than Floridians for Solar Choice, which means raising the level of pay for signature gatherers. Smith says that some donors to Floridians for Solar Choice were disheartened recently when they looked at the expenditures for Floridians for Consumer Choice in October, where they had spent more than $2 million to two different signature-gathering groups – National Voting Outreach and Silver Bullet. And that was even before the measure even made it onto the ballot.

Floridians for Solar Choice has been working with PCI Consulting from the beginning of the year. By all indications, relations between the two groups were fine until the disagreement last month.

Smith says that Paparella told him on November 18 that his expenses had gone up to $600,000, and Smith the told him the next day, “Angelo, I cannot do that. We’re done. We’re pulling the plug on this thing.”

Paparella agrees that’s how that conversation went.

“He failed to raise the money, shut down his drive with 24-hour notice,” he says. “He had a whole bunch of people right before the holiday season who were traveling there to work, on an issue in which I support, and which I’m sorry to see is not going to make the 2016 ballot, and decided that, well, he couldn’t raise the money, to play some games with me and try to get out of paying his full bill. He will not get out of paying his full bill.”

Paparella says that he was finally able to pay the petitioners who he claims Smith “stiffed” earlier this week, out of pocket.

Smith scoffs at that comment, saying, “He didn’t pay out of his own pocket because we paid them. We paid Angelo for the signatures, so it is a complete misrepresentation of fact that we have not paid for the signature gatherers. Angelo had that money for 2-3 weeks. We paid in full for every signature that was gathered.”

When asked if he had encountered similar problems with clients over the years, Paparella said that there have been such occasions when a group doesn’t have all the money to pay at one time. In that case, he says he’s negotiated to have that group go on a pay schedule, something Paparella said he did last year with the Florida Water and Land Institute. That’s the coalition that led the push for Amendment 1 in 2014, which was designated billions of dollars for conservation efforts over the next 20 years.

Will Abberger, the spokesman for the Florida Water and Land Institute, confirmed with FloridaPolitics.com that there were some occasions last year when his organization had to delay payments and worked with PCI as they continued to collect signatures for the amendment. Abberger says he’s worked with Paparella on some ballot initiatives, and says, “We’ve enjoyed the relationship. He does a fantastic job.”

FloridaPolitics.com first inquired to Floridians for Solar Choice about the issue with PCI Consulting, Inc. last Friday. A spokesperson said he was unaware about the issue. Shortly afterward, the group released a statement that announced that it “remains steadfast in its efforts to bring solar choice to the Sunshine State. The coalition’s vast network of volunteer petition gatherers continues to collect signatures even in the face of increasingly high-dollar opposition by the monopoly utilities and their supporters.”

Smith says that his organization is still gathering signatures to qualify for 2016, but on a conference call last week the International League of Signature Gatherers, admitted that the probability of that happening is “very low at this point.”

On Thursday, he said simply that it may not happen though because,”we’re not going to get extorted.”

Meanwhile, the organizers behind Consumers for Smart Solar say their campaign to get on the 2016 ballot will continue.

“We have no intentions of stopping our signature gathering process,” said Sarah Bascom, spokesperson for Consumers for Smart Solar.

Written By

Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served five years as political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. Mitch also was assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley and is a San Francisco native who has lived in Tampa since 2000. Mitch can be reached at mitch.perry@floridapolitics.com.

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