OLDSMAR — If a nonprofit organization circulates a letter slamming the mayor and calling on residents to vote for his opponent and two other council hopefuls in next week's city election, is that a violation of state election laws?
That's the question the City Council wants the Florida Division of Elections to answer after 500 Oldsmar residents and business owners received a one-page letter last week that endorses mayoral candidate Suzanne Vale, Seat 2 contender Tom Eckert and Seat 4 prospect Loretta Wyandt.
At issue is whether the letter is a political advertisement or an electioneering communication, Department of State spokeswoman Jennifer Davis said.
A political advertisement is a communication that expressly advocates for or against a candidate or an issue; an electioneering communication uses trigger words such as "vote for" or "vote against."
"If they determine it's a political advertisement," Davis said, "there would need to be a disclaimer on it saying who paid for it. And then if over $500 was spent on that communication, whoever paid for it would have needed to file as a political committee, but that's what the Florida Elections Commission would determine."
If it's an electioneering communication, the state wouldn't have any regulatory authority, she said. The courts have thrown out laws on electioneering communication to not infringe on a person's free-speech rights.
In the letter, a horse farm owner at the center of one of the city's longest-running disputes writes that Mayor Jim Ronecker and other council members "are not horse or child friendly."
For nearly a decade, Hire A Pony Riding Academy owner Armando Gort has tried to use a trail at the public Mobbly Bayou Wilderness Preserve for horseback riding. Vale has supported the request, but Ronecker, Seat 2 candidate Janice Miller and Vice Mayor Jerry Beverland have not.
"With the people we have in office now, we haven't gotten anywhere," Gort said. "Oldsmar chooses businesses. They allow whoever they like."
He said the candidates named in the letter, which includes the name of his business and nonprofit, weren't aware their names were going to be used.
"I'm a private citizen," he said Wednesday. "I can support whoever I like. Isn't that freedom of speech?"
The issue was on Tuesday's City Council agenda — an unusual move that caused a heated exchange between council members Ed Manny and Beverland.
Beverland was the person who added the item to the agenda.
Ed Manny said the agenda should be reserved for city business, not campaign matters.
Beverland said he added the letter to the agenda only because he wanted City Attorney Tom Trask "to explain which route we go through to get an opinion about Armando's letter because he's hurting the candidates. There's a lot of people upset with this. It did not have a disclaimer."
City Clerk Lisa Lene said she plans to request an opinion from the state within a week.
Despite that, Gort said another 500 letters will be distributed this week. The new letter will say "support" instead of "endorse."
"I'm not doing nothing wrong," he said. "They can do whatever they like."
Rodney Thrash can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4167.