MADEIRA BEACH — More than enough voters here signed petitions to recall Commissioners John Douthirt and Nancy Oakley from office 29 days ago, but a date for the recall election has yet to be set.
City officials were scrambling this week to discover why.
For weeks, City Attorney Ralf Brookes has been telling City Clerk Clara VanBlargan that he "is on top of it" and that he had requested a date from Chief Circuit Court Judge Anthony Rondolino.
However, Rondolino said Tuesday that he was unaware of the recall election and no one from the city has contacted his office requesting a date, according to court spokesman Stephen Thompson.
Thompson said he was unable to find any other judge who might have spoken with Brookes.
Under state law, the chief judge is responsible for setting an election date no less than 30 days and not more than 60 days from end of a five-day period the two commissioners have to resign their posts or face recall.
According to a timeline given by VanBlargan that date was February 17 and would put the earliest date for the recall election at March 19 and the latest date at April 18.
VanBlargan said she has an official notice ready to be advertised setting the qualification period for candidates for the two seats, but cannot run it until she has an election date.
"The city attorney told me he is checking with the chief judge every day but no date has been set yet," said VanBlargan.
Resident Bob Preston, who led the recall effort, said Tuesday that he was unaware that candidates for the two seats would appear on the recall ballot.
State law provides that if a majority of voters recall one or both commissioners, the other candidate or candidates with the highest number of votes would assume their seats and serve for the balance of their terms.
Normally Douthirt and Oakley would be up for re-election in 2019.
Complicating the recall process even further, Douthirt and Oakley hired Brookes as their personal attorney to file a lawsuit to block the recall election.
That lawsuit, filed against Preston, the recall petition committee and the Supervisor of Elections, seeks a declaratory judgment that the grounds for the recall are "legally insufficient" and an injunction against the recall election itself.
The original recall petition cited both commissioners for "malfeasance" in their vote to appoint a budget director. The petition claims this action violated the city’s charter by usurping the duties of the city manager.
At the time, the city had no manager or interim manager and no finance director and needed someone to guide creation of a new budget.
A former city attorney recommended they not appoint a finance director, which the charter says must be named by the city manager, but instead create a new position and appoint a "budget director."
However, the charter does stipulate that the city manager is responsible for selecting and appointing all city employees, with the exception of the city clerk and city attorney.
The charter also specifically prohibits the commission from appointing any employees that the charter says should be appointed by the city manager.
It is not clear why the lawsuit also names the Supervisor of Elections as a defendant. Under state law, the city clerk operates as the elections supervisor for all municipal elections and contracts with the county supervisor’s office to conduct the elections.
Ironically, when the two commissioners and Mayor Maggi Black successfully ran for office last year, one of their critiques of the prior commission was that it had ignored a citizen petition for a referendum on redevelopment issues.
In January, the three had asked Brookes if there was any legal action the commission could take to block the recall.
He told them the commission could not, but that the individual commissioners could.
When asked by Douthirt and Oakley if he could represent them, he said he could and that there would be no conflict with his role as the city’s attorney.
"I definitely think there is a conflict of interest. Everybody on our side thinks so. And if he is dragging his feet on getting a date that confirms it," Preston said.
City Manager Jonathan Evans met with Brookes and VanBlargan on Wednesday morning to find out why no date has been set for the recall election.