February 28, 2007
OPEN LETTER TO THE ALACHUA CITY COMMISSION
Madam mayor and commissioners:
I`m writing to express my deep concern and disappointment about the city`s ill-informed and misguided decision to disqualify all three declared candidates and cancel the April 10, 2007 city commission election. Without so much as a vote of the commission, three candidates for public office and the voting electorate of an entire city have been denied their right to participate in an election.
Let`s be clear: a theft has been committed here. Alachua`s election officials, aided and abetted by the city attorney, have hijacked our democracy and stolen our right to vote. And you, commissioners, drove the getaway car.
There is nothing more essential to our constitutional democracy than our right as citizens to run for office and to elect our representatives. The fact that all of you have approved this outrageous decision without any commissioner even questioning whether a remedy might be available demonstrates your lack of concern for the rights of Alachua voters, and proves beyond any doubt that you are all unfit to serve as public officials.
Watson and Henderson, instead of acting in good faith to assist ALL the candidates with the qualifying process, decided - after the qualification period had ended on Friday - to fabricate a technicality with which to disqualify Charlie Grapski.
After the qualifying period had ended on Friday, Watson and Henderson contacted the state Division of Elections and asked whether a Financial Disclosure document titled "Form 1" was required to qualify candidates for state office. They then applied - inappropriately in my opinion - the reply to Grapski`s qualification.
In their eagerness to disqualify Grapski, they immediately announced to the media they had found a problem with Grapski`s filing: an incomplete Financial Disclosure form. They continued to announce that Byrd and Perkins had been qualified, but sometime after 5:00 pm Watson and Henderson realized they had a major problem on their hands.
They had manufactured a rule for the sole purpose of disqualifying Grapski, and now they had to apply the rule retroactively to the other two candidates, whom they had already qualified. At this point they could have simply decided to do the right thing and qualify all three candidates. What they did instead was to announce that all three candidates` qualifications were in question.
Michael Perkins had given Henderson his completed Form 1 at 8:15 am on Friday, along with the rest of his candidate`s packet. In fact, Perkins signed the form in Henderson`s presence. But since this form WAS NOT REQUIRED AS A QUALIFYING DOCUMENT, it was returned to Perkins with the rest of his packet. Henderson only retained a copy of the documents required by law for qualification, and Perkins was told he had been qualified.
Lowell "Bud" Byrd also presented his qualifying documents on Friday. He had completed his Financial Disclosure form but apparently neglected to sign it. That went unnoticed by Henderson when he qualified Byrd, again because Form 1 was not being treated as a document required for qualification. Byrd left City Hall convinced he had met all the legal requirements for qualification, which indeed he had.
Candidates Perkins and Byrd were in fact properly qualified by the city on Friday, and this fact was publicly announced to the public and the media. When I spoke with Alan Henderson at 3:00 pm on Friday and asked whether any candidates had been qualified, he replied that Michael Perkins and Lowell "Bud" Byrd had qualified and would be on the ballot. WJCB News (TV-20) announced on their 11:00 pm news report that Perkins and Byrd were qualified, but reported a problem with Grapksi`s filing may result in his disqualification.
In order to disqualify Grapski, Watson and Henderson, with the complicity of the city attorney, proceeded to declare all three candidates disqualified, applying the rule they had used against Grapski retroactively to the other two already-qualified candidates.
If in fact "Form 1" is an absolute requirement for a candidate to qualify, then why were the first two candidates to file, both on Friday morning, declared by Henderson to be qualified without having to submit a completed and signed Financial Disclosure form?
Why were the filings of Byrd, Grapski and Perkins faxed to Tallahassee, after the qualifying period had ended, in an apparent effort to find something wrong with them, while the filings of Burgess and Calderwood were not?
If in fact "Form 1" is an absolute requirement required to qualify, then why was incumbent Bonnie Burgess not disqualified for submitting false and inaccurate information on her Financial Disclosure form?
City officials, backed by Robert and Marian Rush, have presented their decision to disqualify all three candidates as one based on state law, but the state`s requirement of Form 1 for candidate qualification has no jurisdiction in the Alachua election, where the City Charter and Alachua`s Election Ordinance apply.
How could the city attorney be so obviously misinformed about the law in something as important as this matter? It appears the city attorney would prefer that the candidates go to court than to present a reasonable and fair solution that will allow the voters to go to the polls.
The Department of State has clearly stated that the DOS neither establishes nor enforces the requirements for candidates running for local office, and that municipalities set their own rules for qualification in their Charter and Election Ordinances.
The DOS says candidate qualifications for a local office are entirely a matter for the city to decide, and the city ordinance clearly does not require this Financial Disclosure document be completed in order to qualify.
Why is it that an ordinary citizen can research the law on this matter, but the city attorney, who had all weekend and all day Monday to get up to speed, came to the commission meeting Monday night and announced the cancellation of an election based on what could very well be a false interpretation of election law?
Why didn`t the commission ask any questions about the law, or ask to see documentation of the statutes being applied in this matter? Why didn`t the commission seem concerned that the entire community was being disenfranchised due to a technicality (or worse, due to malfeasance by public officials).
Why is it that when Mr. Lewis Irby presented you with a reasonable and fair solution that would remedy the situation and honor the citizens` right to vote for the candidate of their choice, all five of you ignored him, as you ignored all the other citizens who appealed to you to hold this election.
The outcome of the candidate qualification process clearly demonstrates that this commission`s vote on February 12 to reject the offer by County Supervisor Pam Carpenter to conduct the April 10 election was a huge mistake. The commission also violated the citizens` rights in that meeting. Citizens were told that any mention of the controversial 2006 election during the public comment period would be out of order.
Despite the serious allegations about fraud and misconduct in last year`s city commission election that resulted in a lawsuit against the city, you then voted 5-0 in favor of Alachua running its own election in 2007, entrusting the supervision once again to Deputy Clerk Henderson.
By approving the decision by Watson, Henderson and Rush to unfairly and illegally disqualify three candidates and cancel the April 10 election - thus disenfranchising the entire voting electorate of the city of Alachua - you have shown that you do not possess the integrity and concern for the public interest needed to competently serve as a public official.
Given the circumstances, there must be a full and independent investigation into the role of City Clerk Clovis Watson Jr. and Deputy Clerk Alan Henderson in the candidates` qualification process, to determine whether their actions are the result of gross negligence and incompetence, or whether they acted deliberately -and illegally - to deny the rights of citizens in pursuit of a hidden political agenda.
There must also be a full and independent investigation into the role of the city attorneys in this matter, because there are only two explanations for the quality of legal advice provided to the city regarding its election policies and procedures: it is either a case of gross incompetence, or unethical - and possibly illegal - behavior, again in pursuit of a political agenda
I intend to support any legal action that will force the city to qualify all the candidates and conduct an election, and I will work to ensure that future Alachua elections are supervised by either the county SoE or the Florida DoS.
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