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Dunedin mayor and commissioner fined for past campaign violations

Mayor Bujalski and Commissioner Gow paid $1,500 each after accepting contributions from partisan groups during previous elections.

Dunedin Mayor Julie Ward Bujalski and Commissioner Jeff Gow were each fined $1,500 in April for accepting contributions from partisan organizations during past campaigns.

In November 2018, a citizen complaint was levied against newly-elected commissioner Gow that said he had received contributions from Democratic groups during that year’s election.

No formal complaint was ever issued against Bujalski, but she says that after she heard about the complaint against Gow, she realized she had accepted contributions from Democratic organizations during her 2016 campaign.

She says she called City Attorney Tom Trask in early December to inform him of her potential violations.

“Commissioner Gow still had his 2018 campaign account open,” she said. “In theory, maybe he could’ve returned his money. But I could not.”

Bujalski had accepted two contributions of $250 each from the Stonewall Democrats of Pinellas and $1,000 from the Pinellas County Democratic Executive Committee. Gow had accepted $50 from the North Pinellas County Democratic Club and $100 from the Stonewall Democrats of Pinellas.

Both Bujalski and Gow listed all contributions on their treasurer reports during their campaigns.

Gow also attended the North Pinellas County Democratic Club meeting on Aug. 21, 2018.

Dunedin City code prohibits candidates from accepting contributions from any partisan political group and from participating in any partisan political function.

City code states that penalties for violating these ordinances may include a fine up to $500 or up to 60 days in prison. Trask said that “we don’t put people in prison for code violations.”

After Gow was accused of violating city code in November 2018, Trask issued a memo the next month to the Dunedin Board of Commissioners.

He concluded based on an Attorney General Opinion from 1974 that the ordinances prohibiting candidates from accepting donations from partisan groups may be “preempted, if not constitutional,” and thus “it would not be appropriate to pursue enforcement.”

He wrote he would submit this concern to the Ordinance Review Committee.

In Jan. 2019, the Ordinance Review Committee recommended that the section of city code prohibiting candidates from accepting contributions from partisan groups be removed.

The Board of Commissioners addressed these recommendations on Jan. 19 and on Feb. 4 requested that the Ordinance Review Committee re-review the ordinances.

The Ordinance Review Committee decided eight days later to preserve the pre-existing ordinances.

Following the Ordinance Review Committee’s resolution to uphold city code, Trask determined evidence was sufficient to conclude Bujalski and Gow had each violated the ordinance three times.

On April 16, Trask sent Bujalski and Gow letters detailing their violations and issuing them each a $1,500 fine.

Bujalski paid the fine on April 17, and Gow paid it on April 20.

Bujalski said she was unaware it was against city policy to accept contributions from partisan groups at the time of her campaign in 2016.

Bujalski was first elected in 2014 after the mayor at the time, Dave Eggers, decided to run for Pinellas County Commissioner. She previously served as a city commissioner from 2006 to 2014.

Bujalski was re-elected as mayor in 2016 and is currently running in the November election.

“When I received direction from the city attorney, I immediately paid the fine,” she said.

Gow did not respond to two phone calls or email requesting comment.

John Keller, Dunedin resident, has addressed the commission three times this year with questions about the city’s election codes and the 2018 campaign violations.

A member of the Pinellas County Republican Executive Committee, he says his complaints are unrelated to his political affiliation.

“We just want to make sure everyone runs a clean campaign,” he said.

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