The City Council has approved using city money to pay legal expenses for Mayor Keith Kollenbaum's battle against a former council member who has protested the results of last year's election. The 4-1 council vote Tuesday also included payment of legal fees for Kollenbaum to fight at least two charges that he has violated the state's Government-in-the-Sunshine Law. Those charges, and the election protest, have come from former City Council member Joe Mastrocolo.
The legal bills received by the city so far total about $5,600, with $3,900 of that going to fight Mastrocolo's attempt to have last year's election declared invalid, said City Clerk Shirley Dresch.
Kollenbaum said the city should pay legal fees for its public officials to defend what he called "spurious" charges made against them. He noted that he makes only $180 a month as mayor and should not have to spend his own money to pay legal fees.
"We have seen a sinister and continual attempt by an individual or individuals to use the judicial system . . . to accomplish political ends," Kollenbaum said. "I think that there has to come a time . . . when public officials have to be protected . . . from a repeated sinister attack."
But Mastrocolo said the charges he has made about the election do not involve Kollenbaum; they involve allegations that building official Clay Shake and council member C. E. "Buck" Hempfling, both longtime Kollenbaum supporters, improperly solicited absentee ballots on election day last April. Mastrocolo lost the mayoral election to Kollenbaum by 12 votes. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement twice has investigated and upheld the election results, but Circuit Judge Lynn Tepper is conducting hearings to determine whether the election was proper.
The next hearing on the election is set for March.
Mastrocolo said the city should not be paying Kollenbaum's fees.
"I didn't make any charges against Keith Kollenbaum," he said.
Kollenbaum got involved in the dispute only to avoid being cast out from the mayor's office, not for the good of the city, Mastrocolo has said. And if Kollenbaum is correct in saying there was no wrongdoing in the election, he should not need an attorney, Mastrocolo said.
"If you didn't do any wrong, what are you trying to cover up?"
But Kollenbaum said he needed an attorney to be heard by Tepper in the dispute. And City Attorney Scott Knox said Tuesday that the city does have a financial stake in the outcome of the court case because it would have to pay for a special election if one is ordered by Tepper. Kollenbaum said he did not think it was a conflict for him to have voted on the issue Tuesday.
Council member Ken Altman opposed the payment because it involved legal fees incurred before the city passed a resolution in December about paying legal fees for city officials. That resolution said that the mayor or council members would be reimbursed for legal fees whether or not the official is absolved of the charges.
The first investigation by the state Department of Law Enforcement found no violations in the handling of 69 absentee ballotsthat swung the election from a 14-vote Mastrocolo lead to a 12-vote Kollenbaum victory. But Tepper said the investigation was incomplete and asked that it be reopened. The state's second investigation determined that two of the absentee ballots were invalid because an empty lot was listed as the home addresses of the voters.
Election officials said there is no way to determine which two absentee ballots should be thrown out, but it led Tepper to question whether the whole election might be invalid.
Kollenbaum said the city ultimately wants the people bringing complaints against the city to pay for the legal fees if the charges are dismissed. Hempfling predicted that the money paid by the city for legal fees would be returned after action is taken against Mastrocolo.