Sunday, June 24, 2018
News Roundup

Supporters rally to keep Van Gorden as Zephyrhills mayor

ZEPHYRHILLS — In the first City Council meeting since Mayor Steve Van Gorden became embroiled in a sexual harassment scandal, residents lined up to show their support of keeping Van Gorden in office.

Van Gorden resigned earlier this month as principal at Zephyrhills High School, where employees said he made unwanted sexual advances and comments toward them, creating an uncomfortable and threatening workplace. He has acknowledged he did not behave appropriately, but said he hopes to continue serving as mayor.

Supporters like Trevor Gray, who met Van Gorden through volunteer work with military organizations, said he should get another chance.

"He hasn't strayed from the truth, he's accepted responsibility," Gray told council members on Tuesday evening. "To me, that is good character.

"It's a shame that all of this had to happen," Gray added, "but people should recognize his service and that he still has many more years of service to give."

Zephyrhills business owner Marsha Decena said she believes Van Gorden is still the right person to serve as mayor, a largely ceremonial position with no voting authority.

"A man should be judged and measured by his accomplishments rather than by his indiscretions," Decena said. "He's been held accountable for his actions."

After the allegations against Van Gorden became public earlier this month, council president Kenneth Compton asked city attorney Joseph Poblick to prepare a report on the council's options. Neither Compton nor Poblick were able to attend the meeting Tuesday evening, and officials said the report is not yet ready.

Van Gorden said it's his understanding the report would outline three options:

1. The council could take no action.

2. The council could vote to censure Van Gorden.

3. A four-fifths supermajority could vote to impeach.

Van Gorden said he was thankful and humbled by the residents who came out to support him. Eight people spoke in his defense, and each speaker was applauded by others in the audience.

Van Gorden said he is going to counseling and taking sensitivity training as he tries to put his life back together.

"I made a mistake," he said. "I'm human, but I'm not running from it. I'm trying to move forward."

The fallout has extended beyond the school district and City Hall. Van Gorden has also requested a 60-day leave from his post as president of the Zephyrhills Chamber of Commerce. Vonnie Mikkelsen, executive director of the chamber, said the organization has neither accepted nor rejected his request. That board will discuss what action to take, if any, when it meets next week.

"The leadership is taking a close look at it and trying to make an informed and reasonable decision," she said.

As for the city investigation, council vice president Lance Smith said after the meeting that he will push for Poblick's report to be completed as soon as possible. He hopes the council can decide what action to take at its Nov. 27 meeting.

Times staff writer Jeffrey S. Solochek contributed to this report.

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