Election shocker: Alachua disqualifies all challengers
Ronald Dupont Jr.
ALACHUA -- In a vote that had people yelling at city commissioners and questioning their integrity, every challenger in the race for the two open Alachua City Commission seats has been disqualified, meaning no election will be held.
A unanimous vote by the Alachua City Commission Monday to disqualify the three challengers means that Mayor Jean Calderwood and Commissioner Bonnie Burgess are automatically reelected to their seats.
But because a Florida Division of Elections official stated Tuesday that the city misunderstood guidance from that state office and because of two signed documents raising doubt about the election process, those disqualifications are now being questioned.
In fact, legal action will be filed this week, asking a judge to overturn the city's decision and force an election to be held.
Challengers Charlie Grapski and Michael Perkins had filed to run against Burgess, while Lowell T. "Bud" Byrd had filed to run against Calderwood.
City officials said they learned late Friday afternoon, after the qualifying period had ended, that Perkins had not turned in a financial disclosure form and that Grapski and Byrd had not signed their forms.
Deputy City Deputy Clerk Alan Henderson, who acts as the city's Supervisor of Elections, said he spoke to the state Division of Elections Friday afternoon and was told that the missing elements of each candidate's qualifying packet was enough to disqualify them from the elections.
Based on that news from the state, city commissioners said Monday, they had no choice but to disqualify all three candidates and cancel the elections.
State Department says city misunderstood
But late Tuesday, clarification came from the state Division of Elections. Sterling Ivey, spokesperson for the Division of Elections, said Alachua misunderstood the guidance it received from the state.
He said that when the state said it would not qualify any of the candidates, the state meant it wouldn't qualify those candidates if they were running for state office.
"The state Division of Elections, in fact, has no oversight over municipal elections or qualifying," Ivey said. "We in no way implied or gave specific direction to not qualify these individuals."
In Monday's Alachua City Commission meeting, the comments from the State Division of Elections were repeatedly referred to as the main reason behind the disqualification of the challengers. In fact, the city quoted the state office in a press release issued Monday.
But Ivey said that the state Division of Elections told Alachua officials to meet with their city attorney and to use the city charter as the guide for determining what is required of a candidate running for office.
In neither the Alachua city charter, nor an associated Alachua election ordinance, is a financial disclosure form mentioned as a needed item for qualifying for an election.
That fact will be a big part of the lawsuit filed against the city, said attorney Joe Little, who will be representing at least two, if not all three of the challengers, in upcoming legal action.
"That certainly will be one of our legal positions," Little said. He added that the city's charter and election ordinance say very little about what a candidate needs to do to qualify.
"That leaves it to the complete discretion of Mr. Henderson and Mr. Watson (City Manager Clovis Watson Jr.) as to who will qualify," Little said. "They somehow make the decision out of the presence of who is trying to qualify."
Little also added that none of the challengers have been officially notified that they were disqualified.
But Robert Rush, an attorney representing the city of Alachua, said Florida Statute 112.3145(2)(a) specifically states that a person running for local office, such as a city commission seat, must file a financial disclosure form when qualifying for elections.
In a press conference held Wednesday afternoon, Rush handed out copies of the state statute.
"I want to make it very clear the city is not hiding anything, because the city has absolutely nothing to hide," he said. "We followed the law. This is really a shame this has happened."
Dispute over the city's "Qualifying Checklist"
At the center of the city's argument of disqualification of the challengers is the financial disclosure document.
But even if a financial qualification form was required, there is a question of whether the city unintentionally gave candidate Michael Perkins' form back to him, then later disqualified him for not having one.
Perkins said his wife picked up the inch-thick packet of information and that he filled out the proper forms, then brought the packet back to City Hall Friday morning, with the packet of information still in the same order and in the same large clip used to hold it all together.
Perkins said when he walked into Alachua City Hall, Henderson greeted him, took the packet of information and then began pulling out the needed items, checking off a list as he did.
Perkins said he and Henderson signed that checklist as proof that Henderson received everything he needed.
But Henderson told The Herald that the checklist is meant to be proof of what was given to a candidate, not proof of what is received. He said the list is usually given to the candidate and signed by he and the candidate when the candidate picks up the packet of information.
But because Perkins' wife picked up the material, nothing was signed.
Henderson said he signed the "qualifying checklist" when Perkins turned in his material. He said he signed the checklist because he was sure that Perkins had received all the necessary material.
Henderson said he never did go through the packet of material to confirm that.
Perkins, however, said that Henderson was using the list as a checklist of what material was received because when Henderson got to the financial disclosure form, he turned it over and told Perkins that he forgot to sign it.
"He flipped it over and said, 'You need to sign here,'" Perkins said.
Perkins said that because Henderson was checking off the list as he was pulling out material from the packet, Perkins never went back and reviewed what was left in the packet.
He said he went home that night, thinking he was a candidate for the elections. He said not until he opened the newspaper the next day did he learn that he had been disqualified on the basis of not having turned in a financial disclosure form.
He said he then went to his packet of material and found his original, signed form still in the packet. He said Henderson must have mistakenly put it back in.
Not true, Henderson said. He said he never received the document. And he reiterated that the "qualifying checklist" he signed was for documents given to Perkins, not for documents the city received.
Alachua resident Michael Canney said he questions Henderson's statements because Henderson went on camera with TV 20 Friday and said that Byrd and Perkins had qualified for the elections, then changed his story later in the day. "He only changed his story after Grapski walked in the door to run for office," Canney said.
Byrd unhappy with "Poor level of service"
Lowell T. "Bud" Byrd, in a written press release, said that he, too, brought his material to Henderson and that Henderson completed the checklist after being given the material.
"He reviewed each of the documents and completed a 'qualifying checklist,'" Byrd said. "We each signed the checklist, and I walked away believing that I had met the requirements to participate in the April 10 election."
He said he finished his paperwork with Henderson at 10:30 a.m. Friday and was upset that Henderson never called back to say that a signature was missing on the financial disclosure document.
"The failure to sign a document was an error on my part," Byrd said. "But it is one that should have been caught by the reviewing city officer, the expert on the qualifying process.
"This poor level of service on the important issue of electing our representative government is a sad commentary on public service process and actions taken by our city government," he said.
Henderson told The Herald that he had no time on Friday to begin reviewing each candidate's material -- from five candidates in all, including the incumbents.
He said that the three challengers waited until Friday, the last day, to qualify and that Charlie Grapski waited until 4 p.m. -- a half-hour before the deadline -- to qualify.
That left no time to give a thorough review, Henderson said.
Grapski, who had been given a criminal trespass from City Hall a week earlier on allegations of being unruly, said he got to City Hall as fast as he could as soon as he got a judge to temporarily lift the trespass order Friday afternoon... (See www.freealachua.org for more on the bizarre arrest of Charlie Grapski at the Alachua City Commission meeting.)
The city paid attention to details, officials said
City Manager Clovis Watson Jr. said that in last year's elections, the city was accused of not paying attention to details and that those issues were a big part of the lawsuit filed against the city over last year's elections.
Watson said that this year, the city planned to focus on doing a better job and, in particular, on paying attention to details.
He said that if the city had simply ignored the lack of signatures on certain documents or had ignored the missing document, the city would have been accused of either showing favoritism or of not running a fair election.
He said now the city is being accused of disqualifying people on a technicality.
"Excuse my language, but we're damned if we do, damned if we don't," Watson said.
He said the city even tried to be extra accommodating to Charlie Grapski, the main figure in the election lawsuit against the city. He said that Grapski showed up with only some of the needed paperwork and that the city could have easily said "thank you" and let Grapski leave without filing all the proper paperwork.
Instead, Watson said, city staff insisted that he needed to fill out additional material.
"We went out of our way with him and we even let him stay past the deadline," Watson said. "Would we be trying to disqualify him if we were doing that?"
Residents lash out at city commissioners
At Monday's Alachua City Commission meeting, nearly every resident who spoke about the election issue lashed out at the commission.
The most vocal was former Vice Mayor Tamara Robbins. "If it wasn't so pathetic, it would be funny," she said. "You guys are an absolute joke."
Former Alachua resident Eilleen McCoy, who helped file last year's lawsuit over the elections, said she was upset.
"I'm truly, truly embarrassed," she said. "This is a mockery of justice."
Resident Robert Perez accused the city of protecting the incumbents.
"Congratulations," he said. "You won your little game."
Resident Theresa Kenyon said she sympathized with the city commission and understood that the city was basing its decision on what the state said.
But, she added, she wished there was some way the city could hold elections anyway to "shut them up," referring to those who regularly criticize the city.
UPDATE: After all three candidates filed a lawsuit against the City of Alachua, the Alachua City Commission voted March 6 to reinstate the election, which will be held Tuesday, April 10th.
Reprinted with permission from the High Springs Herald, www.highspringsherald.com. Ronald Dupont, Jr. is the editor of the High Springs Herald.
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