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No good outcome seen in bizarre Vero election saga


Circuit Judge Paul Kanarek could have quietly retired from 31 years on the bench on some easy, boring, low-profile case, but instead he got Linda Hillman’s bizarre election challenge related to a blank page missing a signature in her candidate qualifying packet.

Hillman is asking for an emergency injunction to invalidate the Nov. 6 City Council election, claiming that she was wrongly removed from the ballot.

Rich in small-town politics, the controversy dragged longtime city and county officials to the stand to be sworn in and cross-examined. Palace intrigue showed up, too, in Hillman’s seemingly wild speculation about whether or not her enemies on the City Council tampered with public records after hours.

Last week’s drama dredged up players from the past like former councilman Randy Old, former Vero first lady Alla Kramer and even former councilman Bill Fish, bringing them back from the annals of city history to pack the third-floor courtroom.

Though Hillman claims she’s always been a pro-electric-sale gal, the gallery was filled with people who opposed the sale of Vero’s electric utility to Florida Power & Light over the past decade, all their hopes poured into Hillman as the underdog bucking City Hall.

By the time this week’s issue of Vero Beach 32963 reaches mailboxes, Kanarek will likely have ruled on Hillman’s request for an emergency injunction that would block certification of the Nov. 6 Vero Beach City Council election. But no matter what Kanarek decides, the court case presents legal questions local elections officials don’t see every day.

“Elections law is very specialized,” County Attorney Dylan Reingold said last week when we tried to get some answers from him, in his capacity as legal counsel for Supervisor of Elections Leslie Swan. Attorneys who earn their bread and butter practicing elections law are pretty rare, but Reingold said he would be consulting with one or more on the Hillman case.

If Hillman wins, and gets the injunction she seeks invalidating the Nov. 6 City Council election in which four candidates are on the ballot – and she and another disqualified candidate are not – Hillman may have to put up a hefty bond in an amount equal to the estimated cost of putting on a special election in January.

Kanarek brought this up, saying “it’s a matter of law” and not within his discretion whether or not to hold that money until the truth can be sorted out. Kanarek asked Reingold what the estimated cost would be of putting on an election specifically for Vero City Council and Reingold told Kanarek that number was $25,000.

“We would pay” the bond, said Hillman’s Tallahassee-based attorney Mark Herron, without even glancing back at his client.

Then if, after fact finding by the court, Hillman was shown to be a qualified candidate after all – if city officials were found to be in some way responsible for the mix-up that got her tossed off the ballot – she would presumably get the money back, and Vero Beach taxpayers would be on the hook for a $25,000 special election.

But if Kanarek ultimately finds that Hillman alone bore the burden of making sure her qualification packet was complete and signed on every page that required a signature, and that the city cancelled the Nov. 6 election and held up that scheduled vote for no reason, Hillman would have to pay, via her bond money, for the Supervisor of Elections and City Clerk to conduct a special election.

That’s where the sticky legal questions come into play. If she doesn’t have $25,000 sitting around, can Hillman fund that cost via campaign donations if her candidacy is in limbo?

To bolster her case that she is a bona fide candidate, Hillman continued to accept and report campaign contributions even after the city took her name off the ballot. Last Thursday, Hillman submitted her latest campaign treasurer report showing a $100 check from Indian River Shores resident, former Vero mayor and county commissioner Caroline Ginn.

Hillman also made an in-kind donation to herself in the amount of $141 labeled “Promotional Materials,” indicating that she’s still somehow campaigning despite the murky status of this election.

Florida Statute bars candidates eliminated from a race from continuing to collect campaign contributions, but Hillman asserts that she is and has always been a qualified candidate.

Herron in his complaint cites the fact that City Clerk Tammy Bursick accepted Hillman’s treasurer reports as evidence that she was qualified, but the city argues that multiple candidates pre-qualified in order to legally open their campaign bank accounts and begin fundraising, and that prequalifying is different from final qualifying.

At issue is the fact that, instead of waiting until September to file her whole qualifying packet, Hillman turned all the documents in back in July. It’s the city’s position that the missing signature on Hillman’s form went unnoticed until Sept. 10 – after the official qualifying period ended Sept. 7.

Hillman’s Oct. 25 treasurer’s report showed that she had collected $9,225 in donations, and so far spent $4,274.51 in campaign expenses, leaving her $4,950.49 in the bank as of Oct. 19.

The general rule of thumb, according to numerous published explanations of election finance law, is that a candidate can legally expend campaign funds on costs they would not have incurred had they not been a candidate for office. These include signs, mailers, campaign-specific travel and meals, T-shirts and buttons, luncheons attended as a candidate, printing, mailing and postage. Legal fees spent on advice or representation directly related to the candidacy also appear to be fair game.

Expenses do not need to be reported when incurred, but instead they show up after the candidate is billed and actually writes a check for the expense. So if she’s successful in proving she was qualified, Hillman might be able to ramp up fundraising between Kanarek’s final ruling and the special election. If Hillman’s candidacy is tossed out and she’s stuck with a $25,000 bill for a new election, lawyers then will be left to argue whether or not she can fundraise to cover the bond.