Judge dismisses election lawsuit on technicality
Published: Thursday, January 25, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 24, 2007 at 11:55 p.m.
A circuit judge on Wednesday ruled that a group of residents who sued the city of Alachua for allegedly mishandling the city's April election failed to file the lawsuit within the 10-day statute of limitations.
The ruling effectively dismissed the lawsuit, which charged that members of the city's canvassing board improperly handled absentee ballots and actively campaigned for City Commissioner James Lewis in violation of election law.
Circuit Judge Robert Roundtree said the suit should have been filed within 10 days after midnight of the date the city's canvassing board certified the city's April 11 election. The lawsuit was filed on April 24.
University of Florida law professor Joe Little, who represented the group of Alachua residents, argued that the Alachua City Commission, not the city's canvassing board, should be considered the last board to officially approve the election results, and said the lawsuit was not filed late because the commission has still not officially approved the results.
Robert Rush, who represented the city, said a city ordinance delegates that authority to the canvassing board, making it the last board to officially certify the election results.
In the election, Lewis defeated challenger Lewis Irby by 18 votes, including absentees. Lewis had 652 votes to Irby's 634. Of the 109 absentee ballots, Lewis had 68 votes to Irby's 41.
During the Wednesday afternoon hearing, Little said he had evidence proving that the city purposely mishandled absentee ballots and that members of the canvassing board violated election law by actively campaigning for Lewis.
Little said among other examples of wrongdoing, Deputy City Clerk Alan Henderson had James Lewis' campaign materials in his presence while while supervising absentee voting, and said City Manager Clovis Watson Jr. — a canvassing board member — used his city-owned computer to transmit Lewis' campaign information to a publisher.
Little said there was an "aura of impropriety" that was "pervasive" around the election and that each example of impropriety cast additional doubt on the election results.
"I understand your argument about the pervasiveness," Roundtree said. "But doesn't there also have to be evidence that it affected the will of the people by changing the outcome of the election?"
"If the election was won by 180 votes and not 18, and if the distribution of absentee ballots was not so fantastically skewed, I would agree with you," Little said. "But I think with the closeness of the election, it's probable that these wrongdoings affected the outcome of the election."
Little said he would be discussing appeals with his clients.
"It should be noted that the judge made this ruling on technical grounds, not on the merit of the case," Little said.
Rush said he felt confident an appeals court would also rule in the city's favor.
"There was absolutely no evidence here that came close to the level of proof that was required of them," Rush said.
Watson said the ruling vindicated the city's actions.
"We maintain that we've done everything legally, and we will continue to do so," Watson said. "As is the case with all litigation against the city, we will always respect the court and the court's decisions, whether the result is favorable or unfavorable for the city. But we're glad for the result of this ruling."
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