SUN PHOTO/LAURIE KROSNEY The Anna Maria canvassing
board certified the recall election results Monday
at city hall. Pictured from left to right are
George McKay, Cheri Oehler and City Clerk Alice Baird.
ANNA MARIA — It’s now official. Former City Commissioner Harry Stoltzfus has been removed from office, and Gene Aubry has been officially elected to fill the remainder of Stoltzfus’ term.
In a historic recall election – the first in Manatee County – the will of the people was finalized Monday morning by the city’s canvassing board.
The 2nd District Court of Appeal lifted a stay of the certification process last Thursday, and on Monday morning, City Clerk Alice Baird, George McKay and Cheri Oehler, officially certified the election at 9:16 on Monday morning.
“This is an historic moment,” said Mayor Fran Barford. “I feel said Mayor Fran Barford. “I feel glad that the city can move forward and honor the will of the people. It’s the democratic process.”
District Court Judge Edward Nicholas ruled that the recall petition was legal and sufficient on Sept. 3, but he placed a stay on the ballot count and the certification process.
Ballot stay challenged
At the circuit court level, the nonprofit group Citizens for Sunshine intervened in the proceedings and challenged Nicholas’ ruling sealing the ballots. The group cited Florida Statute, which makes election ballots public records once they are cast.
The appeals court lifted that seal, and the ballots were counted last week showing that the voters were in favor of recalling Stoltzfus from office by a count of 362 to 331.
Aubry beat Stoltzfus in the question of who should serve out the remainder of Stoltzfus’ term of office by a count of 363-333.
Now that the election has been certified, Aubry will be sworn into office Wednesday morning.
Stoltzfus' attorney Richard Harrison has argued that the recall petition itself was so vague that his client couldn’t mount an effective defense. The district court has given Stoltzfus 20 days to show cause why the appeal should not be dismissed as moot.
Stoltzfus said he had no comment.
Harrison said over the weekend that he and his client intend to respond within the 20-day period as ordered.
Harrison said the ruling from the appeals court surprised him.
“It is highly unusual for the DCA to disturb a discretionary decision of a trial court (the stay order) without any explanation and to effectively decide an election that is in dispute without ever hearing the merits of the case,” Harrison said in an e-mail.
The recall process was begun last May by a group of citizens responding to information contained in e-mails Stoltzfus released due to a public records request.
Bob Carter chaired the recall committee after reading the e-mails and getting advice from Chuck Walters, an attorney with Blalock and Walters, as to whether or not violations of the Sunshine Laws had occurred.
Based on Walters’ opinion, the recall committee went forward with a recall petition charging Stoltzfus with malfeasance and misfeasance.
It was a process that ended with Monday’s certification.
“I am delighted the courts have made the decisions they did,” Carter said. “This was a long process to remove someone from a public office, and it shows that ultimately the citizens can prevail.”
Carter said the recall process cost about $10,000, which came mostly from contributions.
“But it’s disturbing that the citizens can’t remove someone from office for wrong doing without going through an expensive and lengthy legal process,” he said. “It’s not an easy process, and it’s not within reach of most citizens.”
Carter said the last minute intervention of Citizens for Sunshine was a huge help, and he thanked CFS Attorney Andrea Mogensen and Legal Analyst Michael Barfield.
Cutting edge case
Barfield said this case was on the “cutting edge.”
“There have been questions and problems about enforcing the Sunshine and Public Records Laws when elected officials use their private
emails to communicate,” he said. “This case was a perfect venue to challenge that.” Barfield cited an email in which Stoltzfus called himself “haughty, arrogant and dangerous” and that he would like to bulldoze the recently completed Pine Avenue Restoration structures in Anna Maria.
“That kind of thing leaves a bad taste in peoples mouths,” Barfield said. “This case sends a message to all elected officials that the rule of law prevails, people have to realize that if you accept public office, you are accountable.”
Barfield said that in the end, it was Stoltzfus’ own words that caused his downfall.