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Candidate's death leads to quarrel over ballot

In a race that might be without precedent in Florida politics, City Commissioner Margaret Harkey is running for re-election, even though she died 13 days ago. Harkey's only opponent, community activist Linda Adkins, says she should be allowed to take office. But the city attorney has said the election should proceed as if nothing has happened.

"This is just stranger than strange," said Dorothy Walker Ruggles, Pinellas County's supervisor of elections. State election officials in Tallahassee have said they cannot recall a similar situation.

Adkins' attorneys have asked Ruggles to take Harkey's name off the ballot for the election March 13. Ruggles says she cannot do that without the city's approval.

Mayor Art Levine has called a special commission meeting for 5:30 p.m. today to discuss canceling the election and having a special election later.

"The trauma of this election, the emotionalism of this election, is getting out of hand," Levine said Wednesday. "No matter what the hell we do, we're going to be castigated for it. And we're probably going to get sued."

Adkins, 40, would not discuss the possibility of a special election. But one of her attorneys, Peter Giroux of St. Petersburg, questioned whether the city has the authority to call one.

Safety Harbor has seen rough-and-tumble politics before, but mostly conflicts between longtime city officials and their critics, such as Adkins.

Harkey was such a critic when she first was elected to the commission in 1979. A year later, she quit in disgust.

She was amid an election campaign when she suffered an aneurysm Feb. 8 outside a Tallahassee restaurant. She died the next night.

Neither state law nor the city charter recommend a course of action when a candidate in a non-partisan municipal election dies.

At first everyone assumed Adkins would win by default.

Then City Commissioner Sal Cincotta called for Adkins to drop out of the race, allowing the city to call a special election and let other candidates join her in the race. Letting Adkins have the seat by default cheated the voters, Cincotta said.

Adkins refused to drop out. Officials then turned to City Attorney Rob Hoskins, who ruled that the city shouldn't call a special election and shouldn't give Adkins the seat by default.

Instead, he said, the city should allow the vote to proceed March 13, with Adkins competing against Harkey.

So some city officials, including Levine, have been drumming up votes for Harkey.

It's not that Levine wants to elect a deceased candidate, he said last week. It's just that electing Harkey would put the city on firmer legal ground to call a special election.

The ballot question has eclipsed all other issues in the campaign.

At a commission meeting Monday, a parade of Safety Harbor residents took turns condemning the commission for leaving Harkey on the ballot or condemning Adkins for trying to take Harkey's seat without facing the voters. One man questioned whether Harkey could legally run because, he said, she no longer meets the residency requirement.

Standing squarely in the middle is Harkey's family, which is taking no position, said son-in-law Steven Hair. But Harkey's husband, Jerry, wrote the commission a letter last week asking for a speedy resolution one way or the other.

"Please," he wrote, "allow Margaret to rest in peace."