TAMPA — The candidacy of two Democrats running for the Hillsborough County Commission hangs in the balance as Republican leaders say they might challenge their names on the November ballot.
After missing the June 4 deadline to file letters signifying their intent to resign from their Tampa City Council seats to run for the commission, council members John Dingfelder and Linda Saul-Sena left their posts immediately, assuming that would preserve their candidacies.
Dingfelder resigned late Wednesday; Saul-Sena resigned early Thursday.
Had they filed their letters on time, they could have stayed in office until after the Nov. 2 general election.
In a letter to fellow council members, Dingfelder acknowledged his was too late.
In a news release, Saul-Sena tried to put her resignation in a positive light, saying she can now dedicate herself full-time to the county campaign.
"Now that we have been officially qualified by the Supervisor of Elections office and the field is set, I can focus 100 percent of my time and energy on running an effective and winning campaign," she said in the statement.
Deborah Cox-Roush, chairwoman of the Hillsborough County Republican Party, said she is looking into whether the two can run at all.
"We are questioning the filing and I'm talking to our attorneys," Cox-Roush said.
Craig Latimer, chief of staff for the Hillsborough Supervisor of Elections Office, said Elections Supervisor Earl Lennard does not have the authority to remove Dingfelder and Saul-Sena from the ballot.
According to state law, he said, their names can be removed only by a court order at the request of a voter or state election officials.
Latimer said the elections office didn't make a mistake by qualifying the two for the ballot in the first place.
"They sign an oath that they are duly qualified," he said. "We are not an investigative agency, and it's not our job to validate all their information."
Election law lawyers had different views on whether attempts to remove Saul-Sena and Dingfelder would be successful.
Tallahassee lawyer Ron Meyer said courts generally allow voters to consider candidates. He cited a case where a candidate missed the deadline for filing resignation papers and survived a court challenge with his name ultimately appearing on the ballot.
"This at least is a case where the court ruled that they complied with the spirit and intent of the law," he said.
In that case, though, the candidate resigned before the end of the week in which candidates qualify for election.
Dingfelder and Saul-Sena didn't resign until the close of qualifying week.
Tallahassee lawyer Richard Coates cited a 2008 case where a court booted Fred Varn, a Democratic candidate for the Florida House, from the ballot because he didn't resign until after qualifying week.
Dingfelder said he will fight any attempt to remove his name from the ballot.
"I have an obligation to my family, to my supporters and to the party to fight back and to stay on the ballot," he said. "And I expect because of my dedicated service over the last eight years that I'm going to win."
Saul-Sena did not return calls for comment. She is running for the at-large District 5 seat against Republican Ken Hagan and Jim Hosler, who is running with no party affiliation.
Hagan said Saul-Sena's error calls into question her ability to help lead the county.
"Ms. Saul-Sena has left the citizens in a lurch and scrambling during difficult economic and budgetary times," he said. "If she's unable to manage her own campaign and follow statutory deadliness, how can you expect to balance a $3.5 billion budget?"
Dingfelder is running for the District 1 position, which stretches from Town 'N Country through South Tampa to the southern reaches of Hillsborough County. He will face the winner of the Republican primary between former state Rep. Sandy Murman and political newcomer Trey Rustmann.
Observers say it's surprising two seasoned politicians would miss a deadline for filing important paperwork. Dingfelder has been on the council nearly eight years; Saul-Sena for 20.
"Everybody knows you have to resign to run. I'm not sure everybody knows there's a deadline," said University of Tampa government professor Scott Paine.
County commissioners Hagan and Jim Norman certainly knew. They both filed their resign-to-run papers on time. Norman is running for state Senate. Hagan is seeking another seat on the commission. And in 2006, Tampa City Council members Rose Ferlita and Kevin White resigned before the deadline to qualify for County Commission runs.
If Saul-Sena and Dingfelder are removed from the ballot, it leaves both races without a Democratic contender. That means the Hillsborough County Democratic Party can select candidates to fill those slots on the ballot, according to state law.
Remaining City Council members will choose replacements for Dingfelder and Saul-Sena on the council.
Replacements, who will serve until the city elections in March, must be selected within 30 days of the resignations. Applications for the posts will be available at City Hall at noon Monday and are due by 5 p.m. July 12. The council will select two new colleagues at a special meeting July 19. They will be sworn in July 22.
When Ferlita and White resigned in 2006, more than 50 people applied to fill their posts. Candidates who have filed to run for City Council in March are likely to be among the names of those looking to replace Saul-Sena and Dingfelder.
Already, Seth Nelson, who is running for the citywide District 3 seat formerly held by Saul-Sena, has said he will apply.