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Harkey's death roils election

The death last week of City Commissioner Margaret Harkey has left thecity's March 13 election in turmoil.

Harkey was running for re-election. Her lone challenger, community activist Linda Adkins, says she now is ready to take office, a winner by default.

But Commissioner Sal Cincotta says Adkins should withdraw from the race and let the city hold a special election with a new slate of candidates.

"I feel the voters of Safety Harbor are being cheated," Cincotta said Wednesday.

He even offered to pay the $1,500 cost of holding such a special election.

If Adkins takes office without having to win the voters' support, "she's going to be a weak commissioner," he said.

Adkins, who lost a race for a commission seat to Cincotta last year, rejected his suggestion she withdraw from the race.

"I am the winner," she said. "I have no intention of stepping down."

When Cincotta heard that, he said, he sat down late Wednesday and typed a letter to City Manager John Downes requesting a special commission meeting as soon as possible so city officials can quiz City Attorney Rob Hoskins about what the law says.

"I just feel so strongly about this," Cincotta said.

Although Adkins was the only other candidate for Harkey's seat, no one from the city officially has notified Adkins that she will become a commissioner as of March 13, she said.

Adkins' campaign treasurer, David James, labeled Cincotta's proposal "as ridiculous as it is insane," and said it was motivated by fear of Adkins' support for more open government.

But the special election idea drew support from two of Cincotta's

colleagues on the commission, Don Mahoney and Mayor Art Levine.

Mahoney noted that the ballot for next month's election already has been printed, and Harkey's name is on it. He predicted that if Adkins does not withdraw, then Harkey, not Adkins, will win the election, although Adkins will get the seat on the commission, he said.

"You're going to see the majority of people in Safety Harbor re-elect Margaret Harkey," Mahoney said.

Levine agreed, saying people would send a message to Adkins.

Mahoney said if he were Adkins, he would withdraw rather than take a seat without going through an election.

"I wouldn't want to walk up on the dais over the dead body of a

commissioner," Mahoney said.

"Margaret's name is on the ballot, and I have a feeling she's going to get more votes than Linda Adkins," agreed Cincotta. If Adkins gets just one vote, then she will be the winner by default, he said.

Adkins, a member of a group of activists that has been critical of city officials, said she was shocked by Cincotta's comments. She condemned the notion of leaving Harkey's name on the ballot.

"Running a dead candidate is disrespectful to Margaret," she said.

Harkey died of a brain aneurysm last Friday while representing Safety Harbor at a Florida League of Cities convention in Tallahassee.

She had been a commissioner since 1988.

Her death a month before the election is unprecedented in Safety Harbor politics, and perhaps in Florida, said City Clerk Bonnie Haynes.

Hoskins and state elections officials have said that Adkins probably has won the seat by default, but Haynes said city officials still are reviewing the city charter and state law.

If it were a state or federal election, the political party of the

candidate who died would field a replacement, Cincotta said. But city

elections are non-partisan, and the city charter makes no provision for the death of a candidate, he said.

"The election laws are so confused in this area," Levine said.

Levine and Cincotta said a lot of people would have liked to run for office this year, but held off because they liked Harkey too much to oppose her.

"So many people decided not to run because they didn't want to run against Margaret, and they're not being given a chance now," Levine said.

Adkins said she followed the legal process in good faith to qualify to run and nobody else signed up to oppose Harkey during the two-week qualification period.

"There was plenty of time for anybody to sign up who wanted to run," she said.

Instead, she said, "It now appears the city is attempting once again to thwart the process by gaining time to pick another candidate that is status quo."