Shortly after Thanksgiving 2007, Dade City Commissioner Steve Van Gorden, the city's mayor pro tem, began collecting money for his 2008 re-election campaign.
On Nov. 29, he accepted $1,550 from 10 contributors, plus he kicked in his own check for $100. The next day, he received two more checks totaling $150. The money continued to roll in throughout December and by the end of the year, Van Gorden had accumulated $5,600, a healthy sum for the small-town politics of Dade City and an indication of his popularity after one term on the commission.
There was just one problem. Van Gorden didn't name a campaign treasurer and file the necessary paperwork to begin collecting the contributions legally until after Christmas.
The result? Twenty-nine of the 32 contributions, or $4,550, will be returned. Van Gorden acknowledged the error Tuesday in an interview with Times staff writer Helen Anne Travis, said he did not know he had acted improperly and promised to refund the donations. He said he learned of the gaffe earlier after someone called the elections office to inquire about the propriety of his campaign finance report.
Van Gorden, a middle school principal making his third run for public office, should be more cognizant of the details governing electioneering. If nothing else, he has opened himself up to fair criticism that after three campaigns he still doesn't understand the rules. It also will allow the commissioner's critics to question whether his oversight of the city is just as lax.
Certainly, though, there are more significant issues confronting Dade City, including the budget squeeze from property tax changes, economic development, recreational opportunities, and looming growth in the future.
Many of the contributors, after receiving a promised refund from Van Gorden, may simply choose to write new checks to the campaign. So be it. Van Gorden is growing as a public servant and certainly the wide support for him within the community is logical.
But, the commissioner should take home a lesson from this inconvenience. When you're handling other people's money, make sure the bottom line is a top priority. Even when it's just the date on a check.