Who decides, judge or voters? Madeira Beach city commissioners await their fate

Madeira Beach City Manager Jonathan Evans says ballots would have to be mailed overnight to ensure the special election results aren't challenged.
Madeira Beach City Manager Jonathan Evans says ballots would have to be mailed overnight to ensure the special election results aren't challenged.
Published Mar. 28, 2018

MADEIRA BEACH — The political fate of two city commissioners will be decided either Tuesday by a judge or by voters on April 17 in a special recall election.

That election could cost up to $150,000, the commission learned this week.

About $90,000 of that figure would cover overnight mailing of ballots to ensure all voters receive them in time to vote.

"This process is very complicated," City Manager Jonathan Evans told the commission, explaining the recall results could be legally challenged if all voters do not receive their ballots in a timely manner.

Normally, state law says military and overseas ballots must be mailed at least 45 days before an election. There are only 16 days between Monday's earliest mailing date and the recall election itself.

That is because the Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections won't receive the final ballot language until after today's noon deadline for qualification of candidates to fill the two seats if the recall of Commissioners John Douthirt and Nancy Oakley is successful.

As of Wednesday four candidates for those seats were in the process of qualifying: David Hitterman, Michael Grimes, Roger Pryor and Linda Hein.

Final candidates appearing on the recall ballot will have only 17 days to campaign.

The election date could have been determined as early as Feb. 19, but did not happen until weeks later.

The reason, according to City Clerk Clara VanBlargan, was that City Attorney Ralf Brookes repeatedly told her he was "taking care of it" but never actually contacted the chief circuit judge, who by law was responsible for setting the election date.

When that failure was discovered and the court was finally contacted, the recall election date was set for April 17, just two days shy of the end of the 60 day window required by law.

The $60,000 balance of the election cost, approved by the commission Tuesday, would cover the recent hiring of lawyer Andrew Dickman to represent the city's interest in the recall battle.

Brookes will continue to represent Douthirt and Oakley, an independent action he took more than a month ago, insisting then that it was not a conflict of interest.

Brookes will seek an injunction to block the election during an emergency hearing at 11:30 a.m. Tuesday before Judge George Jirotka at the Clearwater courthouse.

The request for an injunction against the April 17 recall election was filed earlier this month claiming that the recall petition signed by more than 600 city voters was based on insufficient grounds as defined by state law.

The Madeira Beach recall petition claims the two commissioners committed malfeasance in voting to appoint a budget director. The city's charter effectively prohibits the commission from directly hiring any city employees under the supervision of the city manager.

The only employees that can be hired directly by the commission, according to the charter, are the city manager, the city clerk and the finance director. The latter position must be proposed first by the city manager.