There is no denying that multiple mistakes made a mess of the qualification process in the upcoming mayoral election in Largo. Unless former mayor Bob Jackson is willing to let go of his desire to be mayor again, taxpayers may be left holding the bill for a court case.
The qualification period for candidates seeking office in Largo's Nov. 3 city election ended Aug. 13. Only two candidates were interested in running for mayor: the incumbent, Pat Gerard, who is seeking a second three-year term, and Jackson, who served on the commission for about 30 years and was mayor when Gerard beat him in 2006.
On Aug. 10, Jackson brought a handful of papers to City Hall to complete the qualification process. Among the documents was a loyalty oath form required by Florida law. On that form, candidates must "solemnly swear or affirm that I will support the Constitution of the United States and of the State of Florida." Then they must complete the "Oath of Candidate," attesting that they are qualified to run for office. They must sign the form in the presence of a notary public, who also signs it.
Jackson had filled out the required details on the form — printed name, address, phone number — but he had not signed the form. That makes sense, because the form was supposed to be signed before a notary, and Jackson apparently knew that.
The receptionist in the lobby of Largo City Hall, Donna Givens, is a notary. When Jackson arrived with his papers, Givens called to the lobby City Clerk Diane Bruner, who is the city's elections official. Bruner looked over the paperwork. Givens notarized the loyalty oath form. But Jackson never signed it.
In a matter of moments, three people made major mistakes. Jackson failed to sign the form. Givens notarized it without his signature. And Bruner accepted the paperwork and verbally qualified Jackson for office even though the document lacked his required signature.
The two city employees readily admitted their mistakes and took responsibility for them. Bruner said she did not do a thorough enough review before sending the qualification package to the county Supervisor of Elections Office, where the lack of the signature was caught after the qualification period had expired. Givens acknowledged that she had improperly notarized the unsigned form.
But Jackson put all the blame on Bruner and Givens, even though he made a mistake, too. To qualify as a candidate, he must sign the form. He did not.
The upshot of this series of mistakes is that Jackson was disqualified by Bruner after she sought an opinion from a state elections lawyer, who pointed out that the statutes say candidates must sign the form to be qualified. An angry Jackson has hired a lawyer.
Jackson's attorney, Robert G. Walker Jr., wrote a letter to the city blaming the situation entirely on Bruner and Givens. Givens is guilty of a prohibited act, he stated: notarizing a signature on a document that has no signature. Bruner, he indicated, is duty-bound as elections official to examine a candidate's paperwork and notify the candidate if something is missing. He is correct. If Bruner had done so, there was still time before the qualifying period ended for Jackson to come back to City Hall and sign a new form.
But then Walker made the astonishing argument that "there was no error" on Jackson's part. He contended that Jackson left the signature line blank when he brought the otherwise completed form to City Hall because he knew it had to be signed before a notary. Walker even alleged that the form "was taken from him" by the city employees and notarized and not given back to him, as if they somehow denied him an opportunity to sign it.
If Jackson knew he had to sign the form in the presence of a notary, then surely he bears responsibility for failing to sign it and walking out of City Hall — with copies of all of the paperwork, by the way.
It is not clear whether Jackson was reminded to sign the form while he stood there in the lobby. Givens, the notary, says she remembers Bruner flipping through the papers and saying that Jackson needed to sign the oath. Givens says she even remembers handing him a pen. But she acknowledges she was distracted by ringing telephones at the reception desk and isn't sure what happened after that.
Jackson is now demanding that Bruner put him back on the ballot. That would be unwise, because Jackson did not qualify by the deadline.
State election laws make it clear that a candidate who wants to run for office must complete all the steps to qualify and do so by the deadline. The candidate must.
Bruner should have reviewed the paperwork more thoroughly, since it is her job to determine whether a candidate has or has not qualified. And Givens' notarization of an unsigned form is a violation of her duty as a notary. But neither Bruner nor Givens seems bound by law or duty to ensure that a candidate gets everything done correctly and turned in on time.
A few years ago, a would-be Largo candidate sent his mother to City Hall with his qualification paperwork. She arrived minutes before the 5 p.m. deadline, but a required document was missing and could not be retrieved before the clock ticked to 5. So the candidate did not qualify. Would Jackson argue that Bruner should have done something to get the mother to City Hall earlier in case the packet wasn't complete? Surely not. It was the candidate's job to meet the deadline with a completed packet, not Bruner's.
Yet Jackson seems determined to try to win a place on the ballot anyway, by filing a lawsuit if necessary. That would require the city to mount a defense and the taxpayers pay the legal fees, which is unfortunate when the city budget is so tight. But with so many mistakes made, it may take a judge to determine who bears ultimate blame for Jackson's disqualification.