MADEIRA BEACH — A petition to recall two commissioners who won their seats in a highly contested election in March began circulating in the city last week.
If enough registered voters sign by Nov. 11, it will trigger a process under state law that could result in a special election asking voters to remove Vice Mayor John Douthirt and Commissioner Nancy Oakley from office.
The recall petition charges that Douthirt and Oakley committed malfeasance by violating the city's charter when they voted to appoint Walter Pierce as budget director on May 9.
Under the city's charter, the only officials the commission can appoint are the city manager, city clerk and city attorney. They also must approve the city manager's selection of a finance director.
Under the charter, all other city employees are appointed solely by the city manager or his or her designees.
Mayor Maggi Black also voted for Pierce's appointment but cannot face recall until next year, when she will have served a quarter of her three-year term.
Douthirt said Tuesday that he and the other commissioners voted to appoint Pierce on the city attorney's recommendation. At the time, the city manager had been suspended and could not act.
"We are public officials and people throw stones at us all the time," said Douthirt. "Besides, we had to have a budget by September or the state would have come in and taken over."
Oakley did not comment despite repeated requests.
The biggest issue in the March election was how the city would be redeveloped.
Prior to the election, the commission approved two large hotel redevelopment projects and rejected a referendum vote some residents hoped would effectively stop the projects.
Black, Douthirt and Oakley, running on an informal ticket opposed to the projects, won the election by margins ranging from less than 150 to almost 300 votes out of some 1300 votes cast.
Robert Preston, chairman of the recall committee, openly admits he was one of those winning votes.
Now, however, he regrets that vote because, he says, Douthirt, Oakley and Black seem opposed to any kind of redevelopment.
"Madeira Beach does need to grow and our downtown needs to be spruced up. That doesn't mean that we want to look like Clearwater Beach, but we do want development that will beautify our city and increase our tax base," Preston said.
After the March election, the new commission fired the city manager and city clerk.
Three-to-two votes reflecting the split between the old and new commission members became common, as did often vitriolic statements from residents still fighting the March election issues.
Meanwhile, the hotel projects, targeted in several lawsuits, sharply reduced their scope but construction has yet to begin.
Other reasons cited in a flier accompanying the recall petition range from proposed cutbacks to concerts and sports events at the recreation center, to unwarranted budget cuts, suspected Sunshine law violations, and pending ethics complaints.
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But it is the official charge of malfeasance (a wrongful or illegal act by a public official) that may be put to the city's 3,311 voters at the ballot box.
To get that far, the recall petition committee will have to collect signatures from 10 percent of the city's voters within the next 23 days. The goal is to get at least 400 signatures, according to Preston.
Those signatures must be verified by the supervisor of elections within another 30 days. If certified, the targets of the recall are given a certified copy of the recall petition and can file within a five-day period a 200-word defensive statement with the city clerk.
The clerk then has another five days to prepare a "recall petition and defense" document that will form the basis of a second petition drive that this time must collect signatures from 15 percent of the city's registered voters within a new, 60-day time period.
If the second petition is certified by the supervisor of elections, the target officials have a five-day period to irrevocably resign their office or face a recall election.
A circuit judge would then schedule a recall election to be held between 30 and 60 days after the certification.
If either or both Douthirt and Oakley lose the recall election, their unexpired terms would be filled, according to state law, in a special election held between 30 and 60 days after the recall election. The date would be set by a circuit judge.