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Effort to recall Thomas hits a dead end

(ran LA edition)

Nearly two months after it started, a campaign to force a recall election for City Commissioner Fred Thomas has, in the words of one organizer, has pretty much ground "to a halt."

When last contacted by the Times, campaign leader Lindsay Colton said a petition drive that would officially launch the effort was to begin in two weeks.

Four weeks have passed since her statement.

The recall campaign's offices at 911 Court St. were bare Friday except for a phone resting on the carpeted floor. Callers were greeted with a recorded message.

A financial statement filed by the group lists $674 in contributions, none of it spent. The statement said $600 of the total came from Colton's husband, Greg.

Since announcing its campaign Aug. 31 on the steps of City Hall, the Committee to Recall Fred Thomas has not held a meeting, according to committee member Buddy Rogero, a downtown property owner.

Rogero declined to comment further, referring questions to Ron Stuart, the committee's treasurer and a public relations professional who helped launch the effort.

Stuart this week declined to comment for publication about the recall campaign. And Colton, who chairs the committee, did not return numerous phone messages left at her office this week.

Steve Peterson, another committee member, said he has been out of town for nearly a month and has "no clue" where the effort stands.

The only person willing to comment was Helen Wheelis, a committee member whose role is to recruit volunteers. She said she's been out of town for a month and has "no idea" about the campaign's status.

But she added that a lawsuit filed by Thomas shortly before she left town had a "chilling effect" on the all-volunteer campaign. The lawsuit contends that Stuart violated several provisions of Florida's recall election laws when he paid for newspaper ads critical of Thomas.

The commissioner also has pledged to take further legal action as soon as the group files recall petitions against him.

"It's real disappointing to me that Fred's legal action pretty much brought everything to a halt," Wheelis said. "None of us had the money to fight a lawsuit personally."

Wheelis said it was "scary" that Thomas, the millionaire founder of Pinch-a-Penny pool supply stores, could stop a recall campaign "just because he has money."

Thomas responded Friday, saying: "I didn't know that the legal system was based on money. I thought it was based on right and wrong."

He called the recall effort "a Ku Klux Klan-style raid, and it really doesn't have any place in a fair-minded society."

He has maintained that his support among Clearwater residents is high.

Echoing past statements by committee members, Wheelis argued that if Thomas is so popular, he should let the recall effort proceed without the threat of lawsuits.

Thomas said the public gets a chance every three years to decide who should hold his seat on the commission.

"It's called a regular election," he said.

Thomas is halfway through his 36-month term.

Under the state law regulating recall elections, the committee would have to collect about 3,000 signatures from registered voters, then start over and collect an additional 9,000.

Thomas was asked whether his lawsuit would continue if the recall effort folded.

"The legal action is in the hands of the court," he said. "It will stay there until the court resolves it."

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