For the third time in four months, Flagler County Elections Supervisor Kimberle Weeks is at loggerheads with Palm Coast over election issues. This time she’s questioning whether the candidates for two city council seats up for election in 2014 may qualify in time to enable the city to have absentee ballots.
The city sees no problem: it’s a clerical issue that will be fixed by ordinance, no more. Weeks disagrees. The disagreement is such that Weeks may opt to not run Palm Coast’s elections in 2014. State law allows her to do that: supervisors of elections are not required to run elections for cities.
But the whole point of Palm Coast voters amending their charter to switch elections from odd-numbered years to even-numbered years was to avoid having to run what amounts to costly special, municipal elections every time. Even-year elections coincides the balloting with general federal, state and county elections, and lets Palm Coast include its candidates on the broader ballot, thus saving taxpayers a lot of money. If Weeks opts out of running the city’s election, Palm Coast will have to run its own election, print its own ballot and have its own precincts, all clutteringly concurrent with the other elections, confusing voters and adding additional cost to the city. (The two council seats up for election are those of Bill Lewis and David Ferguson.)
In previous disagreements with the city, Weeks has frequently made a point of putting voters’ interests first, putting a premium on reducing confusion and improving convenience for voters. In this case, her actions are potentially having the opposite effect, and it’s all a matter of wording that the city council can fix quickly—but not necessarily to Weeks’s satisfaction. Should that happen, the city is prepared to step in.
That running theme of seemingly tangled conflicts over realistically minor matter has been the context of Weeks’s relations with the city. She’s not been wrong, exactly, as much as disproportionately alarmist over problems that have relatively simple solutions. Minor missteps aside, the city has readily offered solutions. Weeks has not been as quick to accept them.
“I feel confident that the administration and your city clerk and our office, if it has to be done, can conduct the elections without the involvement of the supervisor’s office,” City Attorney Bill Reischmann told the council this morning.” He and the city hope it doesn’t get that far. “We are optimistic,” Reischmann said. “We are working on at this time the preparation of an interlocal agreement with the supervisor’s office, and we’ll be working very hard to make sure that we can bring back to you that interlocal agreement, so that we can move forward in a prudent and logical way, with the supervisor to conduct the 2014 elections.”
In the strictest possible sense, Weeks is right: the city’s charter currently states that to qualify for office, “shall qualify with the city Clerk no sooner than 45 calendar days nor later than 35 calendar days prior to the second Tuesday in September of each even-numbered year.” So for candidates to qualify for the 2014 elections—the primary is on Aug. 14, the general is on Nov. 4—they would have had to qualify between July 26 and Aug. 5, 2014, according to Weeks. That’s too late for the mailing dates required for absentee ballots. The charter also conflicts with state law regarding the uploading of early voting and absentee voting data.
But neither of these discrepancies was the city’s intention. In effect, the city made a clerical mistake: when it updated its charter in line with an overwhelmingly approved 2011 popular referendum to change the election cycle to even-numbered year, the city failed to properly edit the charter in all places, even though the referendum gave the city precisely that authority. In other words, the city may still do the editing, and nothing in state law either forbids it to do so or requires the city to hold another referendum to change the charter wording, since it all goes to the results of the same 2011 referendum. The city will be doing just that in coming weeks, with an ordinance going before the council to correct the charter language. But Weeks, a stickler to a fault, reads the charter and the law more dogmatically.
“Because the city of Palm Coast candidates would be printed on the same 2014 ballot as the state and federal races,” Weeks wrote the state Division of Elections by way of an office aide on Dec. 5, “must the Supervisor of Elections adhere to City of Palm Coast charter requirements when they violate state law?”
Gary Holland, an attorney with the state elections division, wrote back on Dec. 9 that he’d spoken with Virginia Smith, the Palm Coast city clerk, who had assured him that “the city will be taking action (via ordinance) to remedy the situation.” The same day, Weeks, misinterpreting an analysis by Reischmann, claimed Reischmann “confirmed” that the charter could not be changed by ordinance, prompting another reply from Holland: “”If that is the case, that is a local issue that needs to be resolved between the city and you.”
But Holland also noted to Weeks that “nothing requires you to conduct the city election, but if its election [is] on the same day as the county election, it makes sense for you to conduct it.”
Weeks’s interpretation has left city officials again perplexed and not a little bit frustrated.
Reischmann calls Weeks’s interpretations “non-issues.”
“The 2011 referendum, which the voters approved, explicitly anticipates in an ordinance amending the city’s charter regarding the city’s qualifying procedure,” Reischmann said. “The city clerk with our office has already prepared this. It’s done. It will be brought to you in the immediate future. This will be done in a timely basis given that elections are coming in the summer and the fall of 2014.” The timeliness, of course, is Weeks’s issue: the city could have avoided the hang-up by correcting the charter language immediately after the 2011 election. But the wording of the charter is only at odds with voters’ intentions, not with state law, since the referendum enacted the correct charter timeline—even if the language of that enactment hasn’t yet made it in print.
“Further,” Reischmann continued, “the Division of Elections has opined repeatedly that the city’s charter provision regarding absentee ballots applies only to a city’s stand-alone election. The state’s absentee ballot process will control the 2014 elections, as it is combined with the state, federal, county and city elections. This is pursuant to and consistent with the state’s election code. We have to follow it.” In other words, Palm Coast voters who want to cast absentee ballots have nothing to worry about: they’ll get to do so. “So at this time, moving forward, our office is going to work with your city clerk in preparing and drafting an interlocal agreement like we always do, to present to the supervisor of elections for the 2014 election. We hope to be able to work with her to bring that negotiated agreement to you in the near future.”
This is only the latest in a series of conflicts between Palm Coast and Weeks. In September, Weeks objected to being charged for weekend use of voting space during early voting at the Palm Coast Community Center. She won that battle when the council waived the weekend fees. She also objected to being located in the smaller of two rooms at the center. She lost part of that battle, having to accept the smaller room for early voting when the larger room’s uses conflicts with city council meetings. Next, Weeks claimed that because the city had not “updated” the wording of its 2011 charter amendment with the state Division of Elections—the charter language was changed locally, but the state’s version of the charter had not been changed—the charter amendment was invalid.
Weeks lost that argument when Reischmann pointed out that state law, court precedent and an Attorney General opinion established that “the key question here is the effective date of the 2011 charter amendment, not the date the voter approved amendment may or may not have been submitted to the Department of State for an ‘update’ of the Department’s records.”
Weeks’s motives can be confounding.
“It’s hard to fathom that the supervisor of elections would refuse to allow our two seats to be on the county, state, federal-wide ballot,” City Manager Jim Landon said. He cited the readiness of emergency crews to do what was necessary, immediately and pragmatically, to address the weekend’s tornado emergency, and said the administration would do likewise should it face continued obstacles from the supervisor of elections.
“We have very talented people in the office,” Landon said. “Virginia Smith has demonstrated that. She works very well with our legal counsel, they have a lot of experience. We will move forward, and we will move forward with what the city will do to make the election go as smoothly as possible, and then also what would be logical for the supervisor of elections to assist us on putting the two seats on the ballot. It would just make no sense to have two elections going on at the same time. If she refuses—she hasn’t refused, she’s just indicated to us she knows she doesn’t have to conduct the election for us—then we will be prepared, and we’ve already started that preparation, and make sure that this important governmental function is carried out in a logical manner, the best we can, with hopefully the assistance of the supervisor of elections.”