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Candidate drops out of Pinellas Park race

(ran West edition)

Ron Forbes abruptly withdrew from the City Council race Monday after city officials questioned whether some information had been falsified on papers qualifying him to run for office.

That does not mean Forbes' opponent, incumbent Rick Butler, will be automatically re-elected. Instead, qualifying reopened Monday in case someone else wants to take Forbes' place. The final day for qualifying to run for Pinellas Park council Seat No. 3 will be noon Feb. 14.

If nothing else happens, the election will be March 7 as scheduled. If no one runs against Butler, he would be automatically re-elected.

The City Council will hold a special meeting 5:30 p.m. Thursday in City Hall, 5141 78th Ave. N, to formally reopen the filing period.

"I've spent 35 and a half years with the city with high integrity and good reputation," Forbes, a former Pinellas Park city manager, said Tuesday to explain his decision to withdraw. "I felt a cloud was put over my candidacy."

He denied any wrongdoing, saying, "If there is any doubt whatsoever, I have resolved it by doing what I did."

Forbes blamed city officials for many of his problems, saying that from the day he signed up to be a candidate, he encountered difficulties.

That's because city officials questioned whether he could receive his pension and still run for office, thus giving him two checks from Pinellas Park should he win.

That issue, Forbes said, was settled long ago when Armand "Sandy" Burke was on the council. Burke was receiving a pension from earlier council service as well as a check for his current service. That was ruled to be okay under the city's pension ordinance.

"I kind of feel like right from the beginning, administratively, I was being thwarted at every turn," Forbes said. "I now have an experience to put with the comment you can't fight City Hall."

Butler said he was surprised by Monday's development. The first time he heard about the problems were during a conference call Saturday with city officials. That's after Forbes had been questioned about the situation.

"I had nothing whatsoever to do with this at all," Butler said Tuesday.

While the situation is difficult from the point of strategy, Butler said, reopening the qualifying time is the "right thing to do."

"Give everyone a chance to run," Butler said.

To understand the questions raised by City Clerk Kathy Witherington, who is in charge of Pinellas Park elections, about Forbes' paperwork, it's necessary to know a bit about how candidates qualify to run for city office.

A person who decides to run must go to Witherington's office and sign preliminary papers indicating an interest in running and showing that a campaign checking account has been opened. Until then, the candidate is barred from taking the next step.

Once that account is open and the initial papers are filed, the candidate and friends or supporters must go out and get at least 40 signatures from registered voters who support the candidacy. That must be done by the last qualifying day.

When those signatures are gathered, the candidate returns them to Witherington along with a filing fee of at least $50. The amount of the fee depends on the number of signatures collected.

Witherington makes sure there are enough signatures and that all who signed are properly registered to vote. She also checks for other irregularities. She has 10 working days to do this.

Once that is done, the candidate is qualified to run.

In Forbes' case, all seemed to go well. He came down to City Hall on Jan. 18, the last day for qualifying, and signed the initial papers. He left to collect signatures and returned with them later in the day.

At first everything appeared to be fine as Witherington qualified him to run. But later, "I noticed what appeared to be possible irregularities," Witherington wrote in a memo to the council explaining the situation.

She saw four problems with the nominating forms:

At least two signatures were dated Jan. 17, the day before Forbes was allowed to collect the names.

Numerous other signatures appeared to have been dated Jan. 17, but someone had apparently tried to alter the 7 to make it appear that the signature had been collected appropriately on Jan. 18.

It appeared that at least one of the petitions had been notarized on Jan. 17, but that the date had been changed to make the date Jan. 18.

On one form, the space for the candidate's name had been whited out and Forbes' name was inserted.

After Witherington disallowed those petitions, she counted up the number of signatures that were left and found there were 60. That was more than enough to maintain Forbes' candidacy.

Forbes, she said, did not have to resign from the race. It was his option.

Late last week, Witherington contacted both Forbes and the city attorneys about the matter.

On Saturday, Forbes quit the race in a terse, two-paragraph note:

"Please accept this letter as my official withdrawal from the race for City Council candidate Seat 3.

"It is difficult enough to run against an incumbent from City Council. It is equally more difficult to fight City Hall and the incumbent."

He delivered the letter Monday.

On Tuesday, Forbes denied any personal wrongdoing. He said he did not know when signatures were collected. Nor had he seen some of the signature forms.

"I personally did not collect any signatures, I had people helping me," he said. "Some of the signature sheets were turned directly into the clerk's office. . .by someone who thought they were helping."

He added, "I never saw them. I never touched them."

Forbes said there were other forms that he withheld because he had questions about them. But after Witherington qualified him, he handed them over. That was a "dumb move," he said, and may have contributed to the problem. But, "we were already told we had qualified."