Saying they wanted to spare Margaret Harkey's family further embarrassment, three of the four city commissioners voted Thursday to tentatively postpone the election that pitted Harkey, who is dead, against community activist Linda Adkins. "This is precedence for the entire country, and this is the right thing to do," Commissioner Sal Cincotta said after the meeting.
Adkins said she would continue campaigning today, and predicted the voters would take a dim view of the commissioners' indecision over how to handle the election and would support her call for reform.
"This is not good for the city," she said.
Adkins was the only candidate challenging Harkey, the incumbent, in the March 13 election. When Harkey died from a brain aneurysm Feb. 9, it threw city officials and residents into confusion. State law and the city charter don't say what to do when one of two candidates in a non-partisan, municipal election dies.
Adkins contended she won the race by default. But City Attorney Rob Hoskins said last week the commission should leave Harkey's name on the ballot and let the election proceed.
However, Mayor Art Levine said Wednesday that leaving Harkey on the ballot just made the election too emotional, so he called a special meeting Thursday to talk about postponing the race for Seat 1.
Postponing it and letting other candidates run "will once and for all stop invoking the name of Margaret Harkey in the election process," he said Thursday.
And it will let the voters pay more attention to the other two races that have been eclipsed by the Harkey-Adkins race, he said. Those races for two other commission seats will go on as scheduled March 13.
Levine's proposal drew a mixed reaction from the standing-room-only crowd that packed City Hall for the special meeting.
Some asked why the commissioners were afraid of Adkins taking office. Some asked why Adkins was afraid of facing the voters. Both the commissioners and Adkins denied they were afraid of anything.
Levine, Cincotta and Commissioner Don Mahoney were heckled and even booed at times by some in the crowd, and lectured by everyone from former mayor Charles Styron to a couple of residents who said they had never been to a commission meeting before.
When Levine was explaining his position, he said, "We are coming up with this proposal out of respect for the Harkey family, for Mrs. Harkey . . .," but was interrupted when someone in the crowd said, "Awwwwwwww!"
So Levine added, ". . . and to eliminate conduct such as that."
The commission's most persistent critic was C.J. Ziccardi, a 13-year resident who said he rarely attended commission meetings before Harkey died. He took the lectern three times during Thursday's meeting to berate the commissioners, even telling Cincotta at one point, "You should be ashamed, too, as a fellow Italian!"
Earl Villmow drew cheers and applause from the crowd when he told commissioners, "You people don't know what you're doing!" And Villmow warned them, "I'm ashamed to be a resident of Safety Harbor if you pass this resolution tonight."
But the only commissioner to vote against postponing the election was Vice Mayor George Costage. The commission will meet again March 12 _ the day before the election _ to vote on final approval of postponing the election for Harkey's seat until May 8.
If they postpone the race for Seat 1, that will effectively take Harkey's name off the ballot. New candidates could sign up for the Seat 1 race between March 12 and March 23. Adkins would not be required to pay the qualifying fee again.
Adkins said she would wait until after the commissioners vote next month on postponing the election before she responds.
The city attorney and the mayor both have said they expect the city to be sued no matter what it does, but Adkins said she has no plans to sue at this point.