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4 St. Pete Beach commissioners are latest to resign over new Florida law

The exodus is part of a statewide reaction to expanded financial disclosure requirements for city officials.
 
St. Pete Beach City Commission member Chris Marone, right, stands to collect personal belongings moments after he resigned during a special meeting Thursday. He was part of an exodus of city officials locally and across Florida over a new financial disclosure law.
St. Pete Beach City Commission member Chris Marone, right, stands to collect personal belongings moments after he resigned during a special meeting Thursday. He was part of an exodus of city officials locally and across Florida over a new financial disclosure law. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Dec. 21, 2023|Updated Dec. 23, 2023

When Chris Marone resigned from the St. Pete Beach City Commission on Thursday and walked out of City Hall, it marked the beginning of what is shaping up to be an unprecedented local government shakeup.

Three days earlier, four of the five commissioners, including Marone, confirmed their intentions to resign before Jan. 1, when a new state law takes effect requiring elected officials of towns and cities to file more extensive financial disclosures.

They were the latest in a slew of departures occurring in Tampa Bay and across Florida as city officials step down to avoid the requirement. Using a document called Form 6, they must list their net worth, amount of income, itemized assets and liabilities over $1,000 and, in some cases, names of business clients.

At least 18 elected officials in nine Pinellas County municipalities and three in Pasco County have left office or will resign by the end of the year because of the law, as cities scramble to fill vacancies with appointments to finish unexpired terms.

The fallout has been extraordinary in St. Pete Beach, where the government will be temporarily led by a majority of appointees instead of commissioners elected by voters — a first in the city’s history, said City Attorney Andrew Dickman.

Chris Marone leaves the dais moments after he resigned as the District 4 St. Pete Beach commissioner during a special meeting Thursday at St. Pete Beach City Hall.
Chris Marone leaves the dais moments after he resigned as the District 4 St. Pete Beach commissioner during a special meeting Thursday at St. Pete Beach City Hall. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

The new law, which passed the Legislature this year with bipartisan support, requires elected officials of cities and towns to file a form that is already submitted by county commissioners, state lawmakers and the governor. Before the change, city officials filed a less extensive form that didn’t disclose net worth or names of business clients. It listed assets and liabilities over $10,000 and required sources of income but not dollar amounts.

State Sen. Jason Brodeur, R-Sanford, who sponsored the legislation, said elected officials in cities who have spending authority over millions of taxpayer dollars should be held to the same transparency as higher offices across the state already required to file the Form 6.

But outgoing officials like Marone say the requirement is too intrusive for city-level officials who, unlike higher officeholders, serve for little or no pay and are not often making careers out of politics. In St. Pete Beach, commissioners make $450 a month.

“It’s a step too far,” Marone, a former trial attorney who owns a mediation practice, said in an interview. “If I tell you my income, can you tell me I’m a dirty politician? If I tell you how many musical instruments I have in my house and what the value of each is, are you going to tell me I’m a dirty politician?”

Even as the four St. Pete Beach commissioners announced their intention to resign at a meeting Monday, they worried about the city’s ability to recruit volunteers to fill the vacancies because the new law also requires appointed officials to complete Form 6.

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But in two days this past week, the city received 10 letters of interest for the four seats.

If two or more commissioners resign at the same time, the city charter requires St. Pete Beach to hold a special election within 15 days. Because that wouldn’t be feasible until the August primary, Dickman said, the city arranged for a series of emergency meetings to run through Christmas week to handle each resignation and appointment in a staggered manner.

Agreeing to address Marone’s District 4 seat first, the commissioner resigned. From three applicants for the district, the remaining commissioners voted 3-1 to appoint retired pilot and U.S. Coast Guard veteran Richard Lorenzen. Mayor Adrian Petrila voted no.

St. Pete Beach City Commission appointee Richard Lorenzen, center, greets candidate Joe Moholland moments after the men made their bids for the vacant District 4 seat during a special meeting on Thursday at St. Pete Beach City Hall.
St. Pete Beach City Commission appointee Richard Lorenzen, center, greets candidate Joe Moholland moments after the men made their bids for the vacant District 4 seat during a special meeting on Thursday at St. Pete Beach City Hall. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Marone’s term was not due to expire until March 2025. But Lorenzen and the resident who is appointed to fill District 2 after Commissioner Mark Grill’s expected resignation next week will serve until August. That’s when those seats can be placed on the primary ballot in a special election.

The seats of Commissioners Christopher Graus and Ward Friszolowski already were set to be on the ballot in the March election because those terms were expiring. The three candidates who earlier filed to run for those seats in the election also filed to serve as interim appointments until March.

But critics of the new law are worried not only about the temporary appointments but also the candidate pool for future elections. Oldsmar City Commissioner Jarrod Buchman on Tuesday announced he will resign on Dec. 30 due to the Form 6 requirement.

He said that the less extensive form that city officials previously filed provided transparency and he never heard of any citizens or elected officials challenging it. He said the requirement to disclose personal assets and business clients poses a security risk as it could open officials up to predatory lawsuits. He said it is unnecessary for city-level government officials who get paid little for their service, like in Oldsmar, where they are paid $8,400 annually.

He said that after Jan. 1, when the statewide impact of the resignations becomes clear, he wants to petition lawmakers to reconsider or amend the law.

“This is an uphill battle,” Buchman said. “But we have a duty and a responsibility to say this is irresponsible.”