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Campaign activism draws fire

The president of Seminole Fire Rescue said he thinks firefighters who campaigned Tuesday for City Council incumbents may have broken the law or jeopardized the fire department's non-profit status with the Internal Revenue Service.

In a letter Thursday, Tim Schuler asked Chief John Leahy to investigate and admonish those involved in distributing campaign literature outside the City Hall polling place. He said the firefighters wore clothing that identified them as members of the fire department and, therefore, may have appeared to be acting on behalf of the department.

At the least, he said, the department needs to instruct firefighters on proper and improper political activity.

The department may need to apologize, too, Schuler said, to council candidate Bill Davis, the only non-incumbent and the person against whom the firefighters were campaigning. Davis was seeking one of three open seats on the council. He lost to Jim Dunn, Bob Matthews and Dottie Reeder.

Bob Beim, one of the firefighters involved in the campaigning, said that Schuler, who was elected president of the interim board Tuesday night, is just trying to get back at some who have opposed him in department politics.

"He's been on the opposite side of the fence from my group," said Beim, who is president of the firefighters' union.

Schuler is a lawyer, and Beim said he filed a Florida Bar complaint against Schuler last week alleging that the former fire department advisory board, of which Schuler was chairman, violated the Government-in-the-Sunshine law. "This is retaliation," Beim said.

Schuler said he was not aware of the Bar complaint. He wrote the letter to Leahy, Schuler said, after Davis complained to him that the department "improperly attempted to influence the election."

Beim said the campaign fliers were prepared by a group of eight or 10 off-duty firefighters who were worried about statements Davis was making about the department budget and their pension plan. Davis' campaign literature indicated he wanted to try to cut contributions to the pension.

The firefighters spent $64 of their money to print 1,000 fliers, Beim said, and they got permission from the incumbents to endorse them.

The fliers were passed out outside the City Hall polling place all day Tuesday.

The papers said "Concerned Seminole Firefighters" supported the incumbents, explained what the fire district provides to the Seminole area and, without mentioning his name, questioned the veracity of some of Davis' campaign statements about the fire department's budget and pension plan.

Beim said the firefighters were not in uniform, though most were wearing shirts or jackets with the union insignia. Each person had bought the clothing, he said. It was not issued by the department.

In his letter, Schuler said the department could have issued a statement correcting Davis' misstatements. But, he said in the letter, "we should not jeopardize our standing in the community, or our non-profit status, by becoming "political.'

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City Clerk Dolly Cramer said the firefighters asked permission to stand outside the polling place. One of them also called her at home Monday night to ask what they needed to put on the fliers to make them legal.

She told them their fliers had to contain the words "Paid Political Advertisement," she said. She also told them that, unless they spent more than $500, she didn't think they had to file a report with the supervisor of elections.

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