ZEPHYRHILLS — The City Council took a historic step Monday toward removing Mayor Steve Van Gorden from office, voting to hold a hearing that could lead to his impeachment.
"This is a tough decision for us," said council member Charlie Proctor before making a motion to convene the hearing. "I don't like the idea of us being the moral police, but I'm also an elected official and we're held to a much higher standard of behavior."
Van Gorden, 37, was principal of Zephyrhills High School when a sexual harassment complaint against him prompted a school district investigation last month. Van Gorden resigned earlier this month before results of the investigation became public, saying he behaved unprofessionally. He also took a 60-day leave of absence as president of the chamber of commerce, but said he wanted to continue serving as the city's mayor.
Van Gorden, who was at Monday's meeting, said that while he acknowledges improper behavior, he regrets resigning as school principal. He said the district report did not include any of his statements, nor did it include comments from all witnesses.
"I apologize for putting the city in this position," he said. "But, bottom line, this is not done."
Van Gorden declined to comment after the meeting.
He was elected mayor in April, a paid position that is largely ceremonial.
Council member Lance Smith, who provided the second to Proctor's motion, said he spoke with Van Gorden before the meeting.
"I wish no ill will to him personally," said Smith. "However, I do question his ability to function as mayor."
City Attorney Joseph Poblick gave the council several options for responding to the issue, including doing nothing, censuring Van Gorden, turning the matter over to voters to petition for a recall election, beginning an impeachment process or asking the governor to remove him.
Impeachment requires a four-fifths vote of the council and a finding of certain wrongdoing, including malfeasance, incompetence, long-term inability to do the job or conviction of a felony.
The vote to begin the process was 4-1. Councilwoman Jodi Wilkeson, the only woman on the council, cast the single dissent.
Wilkeson said that while she believes it's important for the council to have a united front, she thinks an impeachment process is too severe. She indicated she would vote for a censure, but also believes a recall election is the proper avenue for voters.
"We've heard one side of the story," Wilkeson said, adding that there are more to hear. "The truth is somewhere in the middle."
Wilkeson said she believes the best and only way to resolve the issue is to make sure Van Gorden understands what he did wrong and takes action to make sure it doesn't happen again.
Van Gorden previously said he has taken sensitivity training and is in counseling.
The city will have to hire outside counsel for the quasi-judicial hearing, Poblick said. He expects it to be held in January.
The only evidence council members can consider is what is presented at the hearing. Poblick is looking into whether the city has the authority to subpoena witnesses who were interviewed for the district's investigation.
Once council members hear evidence, they can vote to impeach or choose another option.
To his knowledge, the city has never before taken steps to impeach a mayor, Poblick said.