ST. PETE BEACH — To much laughter, commissioners and residents alike learned Tuesday that recent questions about the residency of a newly elected commissioner were nothing compared to an election dispute 55 years ago.
That 1954 conflict caused a split on the commission and resulted in each side appointing its own city clerk, building inspector, police chief and judges, causing confusion and turmoil for about a year. Then the Florida Supreme Court ruled that the commission was wrong and things returned to normal.
This year's question whether Jim Parent had lived long enough in the city to qualify to run for a commission seat didn't go that far. It appeared resolved Tuesday night as he was sworn in to office by Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Anthony Rondolino.
In his formal oath, Parent swore that he is "a full-time resident of the district from which I was elected."
It was not until the end of a three-hour meeting that Commissioner Christopher Leonard asked if anyone wanted to talk about Parent's residency qualifications.
"I reaffirm what I put down on my oath," Parent told the commission. "We finished our home in late '07, moved in in December and spent New Year's Eve in a hot tub."
Parent said he believes this more than meets the city charter's requirement that he be a permanent resident as of Jan. 7, 2008.
City Attorney Susan Churuti then told the commissioners that they have a "very limited role" in challenging a commission candidate's qualifications.
Last week, Tom Bennett, a District 2 resident, formally challenged Parent's eligibility and asked the city to verify Parent's residency and "determine whether or not Mr. Parent is qualified to hold office" according to rules of the city charter.
"I don't think this is the best forum to make that determination," Churuti advised the commission.
She then read from the 1955 Florida Supreme Court decision that resulted from the last time a city commission tried to challenge an elected candidate's qualifications:
"In an atmosphere reminiscent of the Hatfields and the McCoys challenging each other from opposite sides of the valley, each group (of opposing political candidates and commissioners) proceeded to appoint its own city department heads ...
"The City of St. Petersburg Beach (the city's former name), like Noah's Ark, had two of everything, including city clerks, police chiefs, patrolmen, city attorneys, city judges and building inspectors ..."
The laughter from both the dais and the audience built as Churuti continued to read from the Supreme Court decision.
She described how rival groups of police patrolled opposite sides of the street, city attorneys gave conflicting opinions, and offenders had to face two different judges in rival courtrooms. Compounding the problem was the city's bank, which "refused, for obvious reasons, to honor any checks at all because the officials at the bank did not know whose check to honor."
In the end, the Supreme Court ruled, more than a year after the disputed election, that the elected official challenged about his residency was, in fact, a legal resident of the town and qualified to serve as a city commissioner.
"This is why we don't want this board to be the determinator. You are not particularly well positioned to do an investigation," Churuti said.
She said that although the city can't stop a lawsuit (none has been filed), such an action is unlikely since the "critical" five-day appeal period after the March 10 election has passed.
"We need to put these issues to bed," Churuti said.
The commission agreed.