Florida County Stops Enforcing Embattled Fundraising Ordinance

Charities and fundraisers no longer have to register with Pinellas County, Florida, to solicit its residents, a requirement that had been litigated for years.

The registration requirement was dropped effective March 2, said Deborah Berry, chief investigator with the Pinellas County Department of Justice & Consumer Services. The two staff members who handled registration for the charitable solicitation ordinance, as well as fortune-teller registrations, will focus more attention on consumer fraud cases.

The county eventually will link its Web site to the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services site. The same information is available from the state. The purpose of the ordinance and the state law is financial disclosure, she said.

Berry said the move was an effort to realign the department’s resources amid budget constraints, not a signal or surrender to the litigation. The consumer services portion of the department has an annual budget of about $1 million and staff of 21. In the past fiscal year (October 2005-September 2006), Pinellas County recorded 872 professional solicitors and charities as registered, with fees generating approximately $111,000, she said.

Assistant County Attorney Carl Brody said the move to stop enforcing the registration requirement is indefinite and there’s no specific time when Pinellas County will return to enforcing it. “We’ll see how the community responds. If they respond in a manner they believe to have that level of protection, then we’ll be back in the business. If not, then we’ll allow things to stay the status quo,” he said.

The Pinellas County ordinance spurred two lawsuits, one by fundraisers (Pinellas I) and another by charities (Pinellas II).

“It (the ordinance) was a ridiculous scheme to begin with,” said Bonnie Robin-Vergeer, senior attorney in the litigation group of Public Citizen. Public Citizen, a national nonprofit consumer advocacy group, filed the second suit in 2001, along with Greenpeace, American Charities For Reasonable Fundraising Regulation (ACFRFR) and the Direct Marketing Association Nonprofit Federation. Pinellas II resulted in the removal of a section of the ordinance that dealt with Internet solicitations.

Information gathered through the ordinance was nothing new or different from what the state of Florida did, but added an annual filing fee of as much as $300 a year, she said. However despite the fee, the county published very little information about charities for consumers and ended up collecting a fee and filing documents.

“Most of the things we complained about they were forced to change,” said Geoffrey Peters, counsel for ACFRFR. It became obvious during the discovery phase, he said, that the county was collecting information that no one ever looked at afterward, but still claimed that they were doing it to protect citizens. “It became apparent what they were doing made no sense,” he said.

Public Citizen had objected to onerous requirements for financial disclosures, arguing that the level of detail was considerable and a federal Form 990 should be sufficient.

There also initially had been a screening requirement in which nonprofits would have to submit solicitation materials in advance, Robin-Verneer said, opening the door to censorship because the county’s approval or denial was based on what was said in solicitation letters.

“The whole issue was the fact that the Pinellas ordinance was duplicative of the state of Florida registration,” said Kelly Browning, executive vice president of the American Institute for Cancer Research. “We felt like it was burdensome. We had to file a separate set of paperwork, which increased our expense. I don’t think citizens were particularly advantaged by what Pinellas was doing,” he said, because information about charities was available through the state. “The Florida law is fairly broad, where the charity has to fill out a fairly complete registration form. There’s plenty of information at the state level.”

There were states that followed the Pinellas litigation that eventually stopped collecting or publishing confidential information about nonprofits, including board members’ Social Security numbers and such, Peters said. “The argument made by the charities and fundraisers raised substantial questions about the need and value to citizens of Pinellas County of the redundant registration program,” Peters said.

Part of the problem charities and fundraisers have is that there are 17,000 independent jurisdictions, from local and county to state and federal governments, Peters said. “If every one of them said, ‘You have to register with us before you can solicit,’ one national mailer or some charity and their professional fundraiser would literally have to register in 17,000 locations. That would make it impossible to mail nationally. It wouldn’t work,” he said. “It would be a burden on the speech of charities, which the Supreme Court of the United States has said is protected free speech at same level of protection as political speech, the highest level in free speech.”

Added Peters: “You cannot put a burden on charities and fundraisers that prevents them from accessing the public.” NPT