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Political turmoil is demeaning to Harkey's memory

Margaret Harkey didn't like turmoil. The late Safety Harbor commissioner had endured her share of it and she found it nerve-wracking and unproductive. She wanted people to work together toward solutions. Thankfully, Mrs. Harkey isn't here to see Safety Harbor now. When the much-loved commissioner died in the middle of a campaign for re-election, leaving one other candidate for the seat, there was much uncertainty about how the race for that seat ought to be decided. There still is, because state statutes don't spell out what to do.

But three of Mrs. Harkey's former colleagues _ Mayor Art Levine and Commissioners Sal Cincotta and Don Mahoney _ have played upon that uncertainty to create the turmoil splitting the city today.

Linda Adkins, the remaining candidate for Harkey's seat, has been a vociferous critic of city government for a couple of years. Clearly, Levine, Cincotta and Mahoney don't like Adkins and have plenty of reason for not wanting her on the commission.

The day after Harkey was buried, Cincotta called for Adkins to withdraw from the race. Adkins refused and argued that she was the winner by default because she no longer had an opponent.

Then City Attorney Rob Hoskins, who is calling the shots because state law assigns no one else the job, ruled that Harkey's name would remain on the ballot for the March 13 election. But he would not say what would happen after the election was held.

Levine says that if Harkey wins, the City Commission will appoint someone to her seat or schedule a special election after new candidates have an opportunity to qualify.

Those alternatives to having Adkins on the commission by default are so attractive to some city commissioners that they actually are urging Safety Harbor residents to vote for Harkey. Levine even told reporters that someone had been selected to speak for Harkey at the first candidates' forum Monday, but the sponsoring group, the Safety Harbor Chamber of Commerce, wisely rejected the speaker.

There can be no mincing words here: Though they deny it, those commissioners are in fact pushing for the election of a dead person, and they are doing so for political reasons. Their actions are gross, demean Harkey's memory and have turned the election into a circus. Safety Harbor residents should be enraged.

Adkins has been put in a nightmarish situation. She had handled it gracefully, with respect for Harkey's memory and her family's feelings, until Monday night, when she attempted to make a ridiculous bargain with city officials: She would drop out of the race, she said, if Levine and Cincotta would resign and if the city would schedule a referendum on whether City Manager John Downes should be kept on.

Levine and Cincotta won their positions because the voters chose them a year ago. The current controversy has nothing to do with that. And Adkins also should know that under the City Charter, Downes works at the pleasure of the City Commission, not the voters. His popularity has nothing to do with how the election of a new commissioner for Harkey's seat should be handled.

City officials indeed are trodding virgin ground. The state election code does not say what should be done if a candidate dies during a non-partisan campaign for a municipal election. It does not make clear whether it is legal for Harkey's name to remain on the ballot or for Adkins' name to be on the ballot since she is now unopposed by a living candidate. Neither would be permitted if this were a partisan election.

Because the law does not lead the way and any action is likely to be challenged in court, anyway, we believe the City Commission should immediately cancel the election for Harkey's seat and schedule a special election following a filing period.

Under that option, people who might have considered running but did not want to oppose Harkey would get their chance. The voters would have a real choice when they went to the polls. Adkins could fight for election without the cloud that will follow her under the circumstances that exist today. And residents could put behind them the turmoil that exists now and turn their attention to the other races in the March 13 election.

A word of warning to Safety Harbor voters: If the election goes forward as scheduled and Margaret Harkey's name remains on the ballot, don't cast your vote for her because you think the City Commission automatically will schedule a special election.

City commissioners have not guaranteed that they would choose the special election option if Harkey got the most votes. They could instead appoint a hand-picked successor who shared their views, bypassing the voters for self-serving political reasons.

And don't vote for Harkey because you think it would be a nice memorial. Margaret Harkey believed in the democratic process. Wasting your vote in a sham election would be no tribute to her.