ZEPHYRHILLS — Rethinking the fight it would take to keep his largely ceremonial post, Steve Van Gorden resigned Friday as mayor of Zephyrhills.
"Hard-working, taxpaying citizens deserve to have their money put to work on services and in leaders that focus on the improvement of their quality of life," wrote Van Gorden, who could not be reached for comment. "I do not believe it to be in anyone's interest to further debate or distract or divert resources from that single priority."
With Van Gorden's resignation taking effect immediately, the city charter puts the council president, Kenneth Compton, in the mayor's seat until a special election can be held, said City Manager Jim Drumm. That election has to be held within 60 days, so waiting until the regularly scheduled election in April is not an option. Whoever is elected will fill the remainder of Van Gorden's two-year term, which ends in April 2014.
Van Gorden, 37, quit his job as principal of Zephyrhills High School last month in the wake of sexual harassment allegations involving several women at the school. Van Gorden was accused of making unwelcome advances to female co-workers, frequently commenting about a young teacher's breasts and asking one colleague if she would apply "creams or salves" to arouse him. One teacher said she suffered retaliation, becoming a floating teacher with no classroom, when she declined Van Gorden's overtures.
When the school district's report came out, Van Gorden said he didn't agree with all of the details, but that he wouldn't "split hairs" over the accusations.
"The bottom line is, I screwed up," he told the Times last month.
He also resigned as president of the Zephyrhills Chamber of Commerce and the Zephyrhills Noon Rotary Club, citing a new job that will require travel and an unreliable schedule.
But as supporters came to Zephyrhills City Council meetings in his defense, Van Gorden said last month he would fight to stay as mayor, a post that pays $4,800 a year. City Council members, who received numerous calls from other residents who didn't want Van Gorden representing the city, voted 4-1 on Nov. 26 to start impeachment proceedings against him.
Council member Jodi Wilkeson voted against the impeachment, saying she believed such a proceeding was too severe. She suggested that residents who wanted Van Gorden out could initiate a recall election.
Council member Lance Smith, who seconded council member Charles Proctor's motion to start impeachment proceedings, said Friday he was glad Van Gorden decided to resign.
"It's the right thing for him to do," said Smith, who added that he likes Van Gorden and wishes him well.
"It puts this behind him and now he can move on."
City Attorney Joseph Poblick warned the council that pursuing an impeachment would be a messy proposition. It would involve a quasi-judicial hearing in which the council would serve as judge and jury; an outside attorney would be hired to act as a prosecutor, making the case for impeachment; and the mayor would be defended by his own lawyer.
Witnesses, presumably the women interviewed by a school district investigator for its report, would be called to testify and be subject to cross examination. Poblick, who has spent numerous hours researching the legal questions stemming from the scandal, said Friday he believed the city had subpoena power to summon those witnesses.
The investigation into Van Gorden started with a sexual harassment complaint filed in September by a female employee of the Pasco County school district. The district put Van Gorden on paid administrative leave during the investigation, and then he resigned as principal the week before the report became public.
At the time, Van Gorden acknowledged behaving improperly and unprofessionally and said he was taking sensitivity training and going to counseling to deal with the behavior. Later, when the council voted to start impeachment proceedings, Van Gorden said he wished he hadn't resigned from his principal post so quickly.
None of the comments he made in response to the allegations were included in the school district's report, he said.
He wanted the chance to defend himself, Van Gorden said. Council members said they saw the hearing as a chance for Van Gorden to do so.
In his resignation letter, Van Gorden expresses his love for the city and how privileged he feels for the opportunity to serve.
"So this decision has been most difficult," he wrote. "But when the consequences of any given action, decision or circumstance present a potentially far more negative impact than any benefit, it may simply be time to move on."