The results of a recent election in the town of Saint Leo and a bill making its way through the Legislature could be on a collision course that may result in a town commissioner resigning, a special election or an appointment to the commission by Gov. Rick Scott.
All of these scenarios are possible.
It all boils down to the fact that the town’s commission may soon lack a quorum.
The purpose of a quorum is to ensure elected representatives are actually representing the people who elected them by typically requiring more than half of those representatives to be present at a meeting.
It’s a concept nearly as old as organized meetings themselves, and prevents a leader from having more power than he should. Without a quorum, decisions can’t be made, governing virtually comes to a complete halt, and nothing gets done.
St. Leo’s government requires three of its five commissioners to be present to create a quorum.
However, a bill making its way through Tallahassee is expected to pass and once it gets the governor’s signature, three of those five St. Leo commissioners will be removed from office. Thus, there won’t be a quorum available with the remaining two to fix it.
It’s something that could keep attorneys up at night, but not St. Leo town attorney Patricia Petruff. That’s because she has a plan.
“We’re going to have three commissioners (from Lake Jovita) as of May, and if one of them does not resign, we’ll have a little bit of a pickle on our hands,” Petruff said.
With the Florida House back in session this week, work once again begins on H.B. 1401, introduced by Rep. Amanda Murphy, D-New Port Richey, that would remove part of the Lake Jovita subdivision from the St. Leo town limits, and have it join the rest of that community in unincorporated Pasco County.
When there’s a vacancy on the commission, the mayor — with the consent of his fellow commissioners — can appoint a replacement. In fact, that happened in 2005 when Commissioner John Fantone decided not to seek re-election, and no one ran to replace him. Then-mayor James Hallett appointed Bill Hamilton, the son of a former St. Leo mayor, to the seat.
That couldn’t happen this time, because in order for the commission to consent to an appointment, there has to be an actual commission, which doesn’t exist without the three-member quorum.
The battle to de-annex has been ongoing for years, especially as Lake Jovita residents have slowly moved into commission seats. Right now, commissioners James Wells and Robert Inslee as well as Mayor John Gardner hail from Lake Jovita. Gardner chose not to seek re-election, but Ray Davis defeated longtime commissioner Donna DeWitt on April 8, and with that, kept the Lake Jovita majority on the commission.
Whether H.B. 1401 is signed into law before the new commission is seated in mid-May or after, an immediate de-annexation of St. Leo is going to leave three empty seats and a complicated process to fill it. In fact, it could be up to Gov. Rick Scott to appoint at least one member to the commission so that they can order a special election. But Petruff hopes it doesn’t get that far.
In fact, there’s an even easier solution: resign.
“If we have only two members who are from the area impacted by (H.B.) 1401, then after the new commission is seated in May, we would only lose two members, and the mayor could appoint to fill the spots,” Petruff said.
That would mean some trust on behalf of the Lake Jovita residents on the commission, as the mayor would need to appoint someone outside that subdivision to fill the seat, giving non-Lake Jovita residents the majority.
The commission has scheduled meetings already for April 28 and May 5, depending on how far H.B. 1401 has moved in the House.
“I think the plan is that one of them will resign, but nobody has told me that for sure,” Petruff said. “And none of them have come up and said that.”
One person who probably won’t hand in his resignation if this situation continues past mid-May is Davis, who beat DeWitt by just four votes to win her seat. Davis told The Laker/Lutz News after the election his goal was to be insurance in case H.B. 1401 failed.
“They call me ‘Plan B,’” he said. “You never know what’s going to happen.”
Davis himself said he didn’t want to speculate, but DeWitt feared they could keep a move to dissolve the 123-year-old town in their back pocket just in case.
Petruff, however, isn’t focused on that. She is expecting H.B. 1401 to clear both the House and Senate, and find itself under Scott’s pen in the near future. But just in case no one resigns, and there are just two commissioners in the St. Leo Town Hall once that happens? Petruff said she wants the current commission to give her and Town Clerk Joan Miller the power right now to organize and conduct a special election and get the empty seats filled. The two would also run the town until a quorum once again exists.
“We talked a little bit about whether or not the sitting commission could give direction in the event that this happens,” Petruff said, noting no final decision has been made yet.
But those decisions will have to be made soon.
“Timing is critical,” she said. “That’s why we’re watching this very closely.”
Published April 23, 2014