Editor’s note: As I said before, this City Council election process is unlike any before it. I can sympathize with voters who performed their civic duty by voting and now have to vote again. Hopefully, this will result in changes to protect the sanctity of the election process, so it does not happen again.
The following chronology includes information from court documents and interviews. It begins with an overview of why this particular City Council election was so important.
The current sitting City Council – specifically Mayor Harry Howle, Vice Mayor Lange Sykes and Val Zudans – began pursuing this year what would become a wildly unpopular effort (at least in the minds of those most intent on preserving our unique quality of life) to either sell or lease publicly owned properties. Howle and Zudans were elected in the November 2017 City Council election with promises to complete the sale of Vero Electric to FPL. They then represented a three-vote majority, enough to pass any proposal requiring Council approval.
What followed, to the surprise of many, was a succession of attempts by Council to sell or lease City owned properties – lease River House to a brewery, sell the downtown post office property, selling Dodgertown Golf Course to a developer, and most recently, lease the City Marina to a private firm. All of these proposals were widely rejected by the general public.
Initially four candidates filed to run for City Council in the November 6 election – incumbents Laura Moss and Tony Young, as well as perennial candidate Brian Heady and newcomer Linda Hillman, who filed on July 6. Lange Sykes decided against running for reelection.
Moss and Young have consistently voted against all the majority members’ proposals. Linda Hillman was also strongly opposed to those proposals. If all three were elected, they would form a new three-person majority opposed to engaging in what appears to be a fire sale of City assets.
Hillman filed for candidacy, signed documents, opened campaign account, paid her filing fee and took her oath. She then started active campaigning.
Councilman Zudans began attacking Hillman almost from the day she announced her candidacy, trying to position her as against the sale of Vero Electric to FPL, an important issue that helped him get elected, but nothing to do with what the public is so upset about since he and Howle have taken office. He attacked her whenever she spoke during public comments, especially at the August 21 meeting when she presented her efforts to promote the sale. Mayor Howle had to intervene.
On Friday, September 7, the last day for filing as a candidate, two new names were added to the ballot – Robert McCabe and Robert “Robbie” Brackett. McCabe is president of the Vero Beach Chamber of Commerce, a rival to the Indian River County Chamber of Commerce that was started by political operative, Charlie Wilson. Brackett is the son of Robert Brackett, long time Vero Beach resident and businessman. Candidate Hillman was present at five p.m. for the drawing by City Clerk Tammy Bursick to determine ballot position. She was given the #2 spot on the list of six candidates.
At 5:21 p.m. Bursick sent the list of duly qualified candidates with the ballot order to Swan.
On Monday, September 10, first business day after the qualifying period ended, Councilman Zudans sent an email to Bursick a few minutes after office hours, stating, “I heard there may be an issue with some of the paperwork filed for one or more candidates.”
On Tuesday, September 11, Bursick arrived at the office and saw Zudans’ email. She also received an unsigned memo addressed to the City of Vero Beach Canvassing Board from “KCH” (presumably Kira C. Honse, Assistant City Attorney), with an opinion regarding signatures required by candidates.
Separately, an assistant in Bursick’s office told her someone came by, looked at files and said some documents weren’t signed. That “someone” was Ryan Bass, then Chairman of the City Finance Committee, who later admitted he asked for copies of all candidate files on September 10, but did not point out the fact that Hillman had left one form unsigned, saying it was “Pointed out to me.”
Zudans had also previously admitted to making a copy of Hillman’s files at the August 21 City Council meeting (see the video on City website). Did he notice that one line on one page was left blank?
Bursick told City Attorney Wayne Coment about the missing signatures. He said Hillman and Heady should come in and sign the documents, which she did. Hillman came in at 10:47 a.m. and looked at her paperwork saying the blank document was not the one she originally signed, but went ahead and signed it again. (The form in question was not required by the State. It was created in 2009 after Charlie Wilson was removed from office by a judge for failing to have met the City’s residency requirement for Council candidates. Both Heady and Hillman are long time City residents, known as such to the City Clerk’s office.)
Ironically, had the same paperwork standards been applied to all six candidates, They all would have been disqualified except for Robert Brackett! (See story)
Meanwhile Coment checked City and State code to find that no paperwork can be signed after the qualifying period. He tells Assistant City Attorney, Kira Hones, who informs Bursick. Bursick calls Hillman at 1:40 p.m. to say she is disqualified. Then she called Supervisor of Elections, Leslie Swan, to remove Hillman and Heady from the ballot. Later that day Hillman came into the office and met with Bursick and Coment. He told her that the Canvassing Board needed to meet on this, but he was going out of town. The Canvassing Board consists of City Clerk Tammy Bursick, City Manager Jim O’Connor and City Attorney Wayne Coment.
On September 17, Hillman filed suit against the City and Canvassing Board, claiming she had completed all required paperwork, including the form in question. The City Canvassing Board, which is charged with certifying election results, but also tasked with reviewing any proposed candidate disqualifications, had never met to consider Hillman and Heady’s disqualification as required.
In response to that and the timeliness because ballots were sent to military personnel on the 18th. So they scheduled a public hearing of the Canvassing Board for September 20.
At that September 20 meeting, the Canvassing Board heard testimony from the disqualified candidates and the public. Hillman and Heady both claimed they had signed all documents. However, the point was made that no security existed for the candidates’ applications and they were available to anyone with access to the Clerk’s office area. Whether signatures were missing or paperwork tampered with, enough doubt existed for the Canvassing Board voted unanimously to reinstate Hillman and Heady.
However, because the ballots had already been printed and some were distributed, they would need to hold a special election. The decision on when to hold that election rested with City Council. Coment then sent an ordinance to City Council that was to have its first reading at the upcoming October 6 Council meeting.
At 4:16 p.m. September 20 the Supervisor of Elections office was notified of the Canvassing Board’s decision, but responded that it must be in writing.
On September 28 that written notification was received by Swan’s office. However, the written notification was dated September 11 with no explanation as to why it came 16 days later.
On October 2 all remaining mail in ballots were sent out from the Supervisor of Elections office.
At the October 6 meeting, Council moved this discussion to the end of the meeting because the proposed sale of Dodgertown Golf Course took priority. The meeting lasted almost seven hours. When the special election ordinance did finally come up, Zudans made a motion to strike the ordinance from the agenda. Sykes seconded the motion and then it passed 4-1 (Young dissented). There would be no effort to schedule a special election. Howle said this will be determined by the courts.
On October 9, Hillman filed a motion of emergency injunctive relief.
On October 24, Chief Circuit Judge Paul Kanarek held an evidentiary hearing. Hillman appeared before him along with witnesses from the City.
On November 5, Kanarek issued the injunction requested by Hillman. He made several key points:
“How two names were removed without due process is a legal question for a court of competent jurisdiction.”
“A memo from an assistant city attorney to the canvassing board is nothing more than an assistant’s opinion. It carried no legal weight.”
“…The qualifying form in question does not require a signature under oath.”
Kanarek summed up his findings saying Hillman’s request for an injunction passed what he called a “four part test”: 1. There was substantial likelihood of success on the merits; 2. A lack of adequate remedy at law; 3. There would be irreparable harm absent the entry of an injunction; and 4. injunctive relief will serve the public interest.
A trial to consider Hillman’s lawsuit was scheduled for December 17-18.
At a November 27 special call meeting, City Council met privately and agreed to propose a settlement with Hillman if she dropped her lawsuit. Zudans and Moss (who is running for re-election) opposed the settlement, but it was approved by a 3-2 vote.
The settlement proposed holding a special election and voiding the November 6 results; the City would pay the election costs; neither party would claim victory; and both parties would assume their own attorney costs.
Hillman approved the settlement. “I feel I was not given my basic right to due process under the law and that will happen now, which is all I really wanted to happen. I am sorry this wasn’t settled back in September when we had the chance, then there would have been no need to a special election.”
So, who is to blame for this unprecedented election controversy? Is it a paperwork mistake? Lack of security? An effort to disqualify a candidate?
It is probably safe to say that the issues surrounding this election are so polarizing between citizens sensing a major threat to their quality of life and a City Council more focused on economics, it has exposed weaknesses in how we do business. We cannot operate anymore like the small town we were and need to put in standards to prevent this from happening again. After all, free and fair elections are the foundation of our democracy. That does not happen by accident. Now taxpayers will have to pay a price for relyiing on a system that invites honest mistakes or worse. But $25,000 is a small price to pay if it ensures the due process on which our legal system is based.