MADEIRA BEACH — Hundreds of final recall petitions were turned into City Hall this week, setting the stage for a bitter recall election within the next two months.
At issue for voters would be whether City Commissioners John Douthirt and Nancy Oakley, who oppose large development, will keep their seats. But first a judge must rule on whether the legal grounds for a recall are sufficient.
Douthirt and Oakley indicated last month that they intend to challenge the effort with a lawsuit, using the city's attorney, Ralf Brookes. The city would reimburse their legal fees only if they win the case.
A first-round petition drive that began in October collected between 469 and 483 signatures, comfortably exceeding the minimum requirement of 10 percent of the city's 3,302 registered voters.
The recall committee, led by Bob Preston and John Hendricks, then began a second petition drive that included written "defenses" from Douthirt and Oakley.
Those petitions, filed Monday, had to contain signatures from 15 percent, or about 495, registered voters. The recall committee collected 635 signatures against Oakley and 626 signatures against Douthirt.
The process allows Douthirt and Oakley to decide whether to resign or face voters in a special election. But first, it appears they intend to file for a declaratory injunction to have the recall petitions tossed out and any recall election cancelled.
Two city attorneys say the petition grounds — alleged malfeasance for appointing a de facto finance director in violation of the city charter — are not enough to meet city and state requirements to allow a recall to go forward.
Complicating matters is the fact that the commission appointed Walter Pierce as the city's "budget director" last summer on the advice of then-city attorney Erica Augella, who also argues the recall effort is invalid.
Acting on Augello's advice, the commission appointed Pierce but did not officially call him a finance director until much later.
Under the charter, only the city manager can appoint a finance director.
The charter also stipulates that the city manager has the sole right to hire personnel, except for the city clerk, who works for the commission.
The action took place after the commission fired former City Manager Shane Crawford.
The underlying reason for the recall is the 2017 election of Douthirt, Oakley and Mayor Maggi Black, who were opposed to two proposed hotel developments in the city's downtown core.
They had been part of a group that gathered about 1,000 signatures in an unsuccessful effort to force a referendum on the developments.
After their election, the new commission majority fired Crawford and his wife, former city clerk Cheryl Crawford, and proceeded to castigate virtually everything done by the previous commission — from building a new city hall complex to holding concerts at the new recreational center and even allowing residents and others to rent time in the city's fitness room.
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Last year, Douthirt and Oakley won their seats with more than 821 votes out of 1,357 cast, a larger margin than the recall petition signatures.
However, Preston maintains that support for the two commissioners is likely to be much lower now, based on comments he has received from residents asked to sign the recall petitions.
"People are telling me that commission meetings are dysfunctional and nothing is getting done for the city," Preston said. "A lot of people are upset that we are not holding concerts anymore. Others just asked where to sign."
Other residents who support Douthirt and Oakley say the former commission put the city in too much debt and ignored residents' calls for less redevelopment, he said.