SEMINOLE — Time was, this city and its council were known for a lack of controversy.
Not anymore. A disagreement over the method of selecting a new council member has sparked a tiff that started with hurt feelings and seems to have progressed to a former state legislator's penning a snarky message and spurning a campaign contribution.
"Thanks anyway. Remit of '09 campaign contribution. Regret accepting it … pleased to be returning it," wrote Leslie Waters on the bottom of a check to fellow Seminole City Council member Dan Hester.
Republican Waters was the District 51 representative in the state Legislature from 1998 until she termed out in 2006. Her last two years there, she was speaker pro tem.
Hester had contributed $100 to Waters' successful campaign for council. Waters returned the entire amount.
Waters insisted Friday that her decision to return Hester's contribution had nothing to do with their disagreement over the selection of a new council member. Her decision was instead the result of a long-standing discomfort with accepting money from a colleague. Her regret, she said, began when Hester first contributed the money, because she felt it might cause an awkward situation but thought it would have been "tacky and disrespectful" to return it. Since the election, Waters said she has felt increasingly uncomfortable and finally decided to give it back. But because she had closed her campaign account, she wrote the check from her personal account."
"It was not a new regret at all," Waters said. "I'm out personal money."
Hester said Friday that Waters actually solicited the money from him by personally handing him an envelope and asking for funds. He said that he found it suspicious that Waters would wait this long after the election to return it if she felt so uncomfortable.
"But I'll take her word for it that she was concerned about a conflict," Hester said.
Hester said he has given the money to Catholic Charities.
The dispute began earlier this month after Patricia Hartstein resigned from the council. Seminole's rules say that council members must choose a replacement but fail to set out a method for doing so. And the methods have varied throughout the years, ranging from advertising for applicants to drawing straws, Hester said.
This time, the majority of the council wanted the person who was the first runner-up in the March 10 election, former council member Tom Barnhorn. They cited his experience and the fact that he was the next choice of voters.
But Hester and Patricia Plantamura saw it differently. They saw Barnhorn as someone who had been voted out of office. They advocated advertising the position to give others a chance to participate in Seminole's government. And, in any case, Hester said, the method should be set in stone and not changed willy-nilly to allow the council to pick a favored person.
"It just to me smells of very bad backroom politics," Hester said then. "It just reeks of bad backroom, smoky room politics."
No one commented during the meeting, but afterward, Waters and Mayor Jimmy Johnson said they were offended by Hester's comments.
"I never heard of such a thing," Johnson said.
Waters agreed: "I found the backroom politics comment insulting."
The next morning, Waters wrote the check returning Hester's campaign contribution.