The Flagler County Canvassing Board exceeded its authority and had no business booting off County Commissioner George Hanns at a meeting last November, the Florida Division of Elections said in an advisory opinion issued Monday.
The opinion is the latest in a long series of setbacks for then-Supervisor of Elections Kimberly Weeks, who had orchestrated the Hanns removal. She pressured fellow-canvassing board member Melissa Moore-Stens, the county judge, who–in a surprising move at the time–voted with Weeks on Nov. 4 to remove Hanns. The vote took place at the end of a canvassing board meeting the night of Election Day, when the board is at its busiest, leaving Hanns fuming.
Tuesday afternoon, Hanns described himself “vindicated.”
“It’s something that I always had total confidence in, this system, and I believe justice prevailed,” Hanns said. “It just took a matter of time for that to happen, but I’m very pleased of course being vindicated so to speak, and not having that burden, because after serving for so many years, that was kind of the only down-point for me, being accused of something I didn’t participate in.”
Without making an intentional connection between the state opinion and his decision, Hanns in the same interview announced his candidacy for a seventh consecutive Flagler County Commission term, a seat he’s held since 1992. The previous year’s difficulties with Weeks and some of her partisans, coupled with worrisome questions about the health of Hanns’s long-time companion, Sophia Zabas, had caused Hanns to hesitate about running again. Zabas’s recent clean bill of health and Hanns’s regained sense of confidence led him to the decision to run again. “I’m just 69 this past Oct. 5, I still have energy like a young guy and I still have the burning desire to serve the public,” Hanns said, “and I believe as a patriot it’s the American thing to do, serve your community, and it’s been very rewarding to me.”
Hanns is a Democrat. Donald O’Brien, the chief financial officer at Hayward Brown Flagler Insurance and a Republican who’s tiptoed in and out of several local races in recent years, has spoken publicly and to Hanns about challenging Hanns. Denise Calderwood, the independent whose last campaign was a challenge to McLaughlin, is also said to be considering a run against Hanns. (A previous version of thee story incorrectly stated that Calderwood ran against Meeker.)
Weeks, meanwhile, is awaiting trial on 12 felony charges stemming from her alleged illegal recording of conversations without the consent of people being recorded, among them Moore-Stens, County Commissioner Charlie Ericksen and other local and state officials. Weeks resigned the office in January.
Before the vote that pushed out Hanns, Weeks had previously managed to elicit the resignation of Ericksen as an alternate member of the board. Ericsken had contributed $50 to the Frank Meeker campaign through a fund-raising dinner Ericksen and his wife attended. Ericksen subsequently asked Meeker to refund the money (which he did, though state rules don’t allow canvassing board members to attend fundraising events.) In Hanns’s case, Weeks claimed an alleged Hanns quote that appeared to support incumbent Commissioner Frank Meeker in a Meeker campaign flier disqualified Hanns from serving on the board, as board members are supposed to remain neutral.
Hanns never uttered the quote. The error was entirely Meeker’s (he laid out his own fliers), and Meeker corrected it immediately after some fliers had been distributed to 1,500 individuals and informed the Elections Commission about it. But Weeks, seizing on a memo from the Division of Elections about alternate member appointments, did what she frequently did during her tumultuous six-year tenure: she extracted a few lines from the memo and misinterpreted them with a legal opinion of her own (she is not a lawyer) to claim that Hanns could and should be booted off the board. She had also claimed that Commissioner Barbara Revels was wrongly appointed as Ericksen’s replacement. (Somehow, Revels survived.)
County Administrator Craig Coffey on Dec. 5 wrote Maria Matthews, asking for an opinion on three questions stemming from Hanns’s removal, starting with a question about that removal’s propriety.
“The short answer to this question is no,” Matthews wrote on Oct. 26, making Coffey’s subsequent questions moot. (Those questions were about the definition of a canvassing board member’s “participation” in a political campaign and the factual merits behind a canvassing board member’s removal.)
The longer answer was not more complicated. The claim of disqualification, in the state’s opinion, “should be presented to the canvassing board member in order that they can evaluate their eligibility based on the Division’s opinions and decide on their own whether they should excuse themselves from service.” (That, in effect, is what Ericksen had done out of an abundance of caution, but did not have to do.) If Weeks had not been satisfied with the result of her claim, the proper venue for her appeal would have been the county commission, since Hanns was appointed by the county commission. If her claim was against the judge, her appeal would have been to the chief judge of the Seventh Judicial Circuit.
What the opinion makes clear is that Weeks on her own or Weeks and any other member of the canvassing board had no authority to vote out a third member. State law is silent on such matters as disqualification. It is explicit only regarding appointments and duties. “In any event, the canvassing board has no authority to disqualify or remove one of its members,” Matthews wrote.
Weeks was in the habit of being her own judge and jury, interpreting state law as she deemed fit depending on the circumstances, calling on attorneys for back-up to her interpretations and, when failing to get that back-up, as was more often the case than not, opting to act on her own anyway, in contravention of attorneys’ opinions. Al Hadeed, the county attorney who served as the canvassing board attorney, might have saved Weeks great trouble, expense (which Weeks billed to taxpayers) and embarrassment had she followed or asked for his counsel. But Weeks refused to recognize Hadeed as the canvassing board attorney. She tried to have him removed as the board’s attorney but failed. She then filed ethics and Florida bar complaints against him, part of the slew of ethics and elections commission charges she filed against county officials in her waning days as supervisor.
While many of these claims are still pending, they have–like the elections division opinion–been slowly been disposed of, with Weeks on the losing end every time.
Hanns over the past year spoke of the coarsening of local politics as one of the reasons he’d hesitated to run. But he then described his cold war service in the military, along the Iron Curtain, as good preparation. “I was pretty much used to working with people that were opposed to everything you do or say as well as being very critical of the American government,” Hanns said. “It seems like we’re always going to have people who may portray that they’re caring about things in the community but in fact they’re very critical, and to my knowledge people who are critical have never done anything positive for the people of Flagler County.”
As for his decision to run again, he said: “The mustache never loses.”
“It would be nice to run unchallenged,” he added, “but that’s unlikely. You know when you’re a little Italian guy, people like to challenge you.”