ANNA MARIA — Supporters of a petition seeking the recall of Commissioner Harry Stoltzfus say they are being “threatened” and intimidated, according to the person who started the petition drive.
“We’ve had people threatened that if they sign this petition that they will have to turn over all their records and all their e-mails,” said Bob Carter, who chairs the Recall Stoltzfus Committee.
Stoltzfus came under fire when legal consultant Michael Barfield, working for the Pine Avenue Restoration, LLC, made a public records request in March asking that Stoltzfus turn over all communications regarding city business sent to or received from his private electronic media – a request allowed under the state’s Sunshine Laws.
A group of citizens has stepped forward with the recall petition, and Stoltzfus’ supporters are informing people that anyone who signs the petition will also have to provide all their records.
The claims, which were made on a blog that supports Stoltzfus, (ourannamaria.blogspot.com) and in a letter from city resident Terry Schaefer, are empty, according to the First Amendment Foundation, a private not-for-profit group whose purpose is to protect and advance the public’s constitutional right to open government.
“That the records of people who sign the petition would be subject to public records request is just not correct,” said Jim Rhea, who is counsel to the Foundation. “They are not delegated by the city to perform any city duties, nor are they acting on behalf of the city.”
Rhea said the committee and anyone who signs the petition are acting as private citizens and that is their right. It’s provided for under state statute.
Committee members have stated that anyone who signs the recall petition is automatically a member of the committee — something that Rhea said still makes no difference. Their records are private, though their names will become public once the petition is turned into the city clerk.
But the recall attempt is nothing but a “kangaroo court,” according to Schaefer.
“This action, which has never occurred in Manatee County, is an attempt to usurp the judicial process, which protects our society from renegade, vigilante justice, without due process and the protection of our inalienable right of being innocent until proven guilty,” Schaefer said in a letter to the editor.
Schaefer added that he feels the recall effort is something that will further divide the city “at a time when we should be taking a deep breath, sorting out all the facts, enforcing our codes and moving forward.”
Legal opinion sought
Meanwhile, an 11-year resident of the city has hired an attorney to provide an outside opinion on the whole e-mail situation.
Dick York said he hired the lawyer after reading an editorial in The Sun that called for an independent evaluation of the case.
“I gathered some of the e-mails, and I hired an attorney at my own expense. I sent him the e-mails and sought his opinion,” York said. “I will make the (attorney’s) letter available with the petition. That way people can read it themselves and make their own judgments.”
York said the attorney he hired was Cliff Walter of Blalock and Walters, of Bradenton.
Carter said he’d heard numerous reports of people being intimidated by what he called the “threat” of having their e-mails collected. He said others were worried about retribution from people opposed to the petition and recall effort.
“There is a fear factor on some people’s part,” Carter said. “They fear revenge against those who sign the petition.”
Carter said several people had told him, “I can’t sign because I don’t know what they’ll
Carter said he stepped forward himself after reading the Stoltzfus e-mails.
“This is a matter of the Sunshine Laws for me,” Carter said. “This is not the way we want our government to operate. I’ve never participated in Anna Maria politics, but this isn’t about politics for me. It isn’t about PAR (Pine Avenue Restoration LLC), it’s about stepping forward and doing what’s right.”
Carter said that in his opinion, people survive their public officials.
“We survive our presidents,” he noted. “We survived some of the worst of them, largely because of the resilience of the people.”
Carter said that especially troubling to him were the e-mails where Stoltzfus exhibited a willingness to bulldoze commercial properties and a willingness to help finance a lawsuit against the city if he could do so anonymously.
“Those are the ones that send a chill up my spine,” he said.
Social settings pressure
“One elderly lady who had already signed the petition, called to ask that her name be removed because she had been ‘shunned’ in a social setting by Stoltzfus’ supporters,” said Janet Aubry, a member of the recall committee. “Of course we took her name off immediately.”
Other city residents have reported similar situations, and a letter stating that anyone who signed the petition would be subject to a records request was passed out at the April 22 city commission meeting.
“We’re moving forward and doing what it is our duty as citizens to do,” Carter said. “This isn’t a comfortable position for us, but it’s our responsibility as citizens. It’s our democratic right and duty.”