After commissioners' request, city attorney weighs in on Braddy's news release criticizing Nelson, Crist

City of Gainesville Mayor Ed Braddy gives the State of the City address at the Hippodrome State Theatre Wednesday, January 22, 2014.

Doug Finger/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Monday, February 17, 2014 at 6:29 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, February 17, 2014 at 6:29 p.m.

At the request of multiple commissioners, Gainesville's city attorney has weighed in on the news release Mayor Ed Braddy sent out last week that carried the city seal and letterhead and criticized U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson and gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist for messages delivered at the University of Florida.

In an opinion Monday, City Attorney Nicolle Shalley said the mayor and commissioners are allowed to use the seal and letterhead when sending out communications “in the performance of their official duties.”

But Shalley said there should be no “unofficial use” of the city seal and letterhead without express permission of the City Commission.

Her opinion did not determine whether Braddy's statement was an official or unofficial use of the city seal and letterhead.

“That's not a determination I would make,” Shalley said. “I think if you ask the mayor, he would say he was acting in his official duties. I'm sure if you ask some other commissioners, they might disagree with that.”

For the mayor, the city charter says official duties include serving as the presiding officer at commission meetings and the ceremonial head of the city and, in more vague terms, exercising all “powers conferred and implied by” city ordinances and the laws of the state.

In the opinion, Shalley said the City Commission “may wish to” discuss or consider an ordinance addressing the official and unofficial uses of the seal and letterhead. She also wrote that the commission might want to consider discussing the issue of individual commissioners or the mayor sending out news releases and using city resources for that purpose.

The dispute involves the City Commission's effort to add an early voting site for city elections on the University of Florida campus, specifically the J. Wayne Reitz Union. Unsure if the student union was an allowable site, when early voting locations “must be geographically located so as to provide all voters . . . an equal opportunity to cast a ballot, insofar as practicable,” the City Attorney's Office in October asked the Florida Division of Elections for an advisory opinion.

On Jan. 17, the Division of Elections replied that the Reitz Union and, more broadly, college campuses were not allowable in the expanded categories of locations that the Legislature approved in 2013. The Division of Elections said state lawmakers rejected bills and amendments that included campuses or educational facilities.

As it stands, the Reitz Union is under construction and could not be used as an early voting site. Early voting for Gainesville's March election also falls during UF's spring break.

Still, the Division of Elections' determination that the Legislature did not allow early voting on campus sparked a dispute that looked ahead to the general election -- when turnout is much higher on campus and Crist might be facing Gov. Rick Scott in the race for governor.

Democrats, including the state party, Nelson and Crist, alleged Scott was trying to suppress the more liberal-leaning voters on campus.

Nelson visited the campus Feb. 10, saying the situation was “befitting of a Third World country.”

Crist, the former Republican governor now running as a Democrat, visited on Wednesday to criticize Scott. His campaign made a television ad featuring his speech on campus.

In between Nelson's visit and Crist's stop, Braddy sent out his statement late last Tuesday afternoon. In it, Braddy, a Republican, wrote that it was “disheartening to see Senator Bill Nelson and the evermore candidate Charlie Crist attempt to turn the serious issue of voting rights into cheap campaign fodder.”

“For Senator Nelson to liken Gainesville to a Third World outpost is beneath the dignity of a United States Senator and more in line with a partisan operative,” Braddy said.

Braddy said the city, which previously had a single early voting location at the Supervisor of Elections Office in the county building downtown, had added a second location at the Millhopper branch library this election cycle.

On Thursday, City Commissioners Susan Bottcher and Yvonne Hinson-Rawls, both Democrats, emailed Shalley and City Manager Russ Blackburn criticizing Braddy.

“I am appalled that the Mayor is allowed to use the office of the Mayor and City of Gainesville resources and even more the city's seal to launch an attack in opposition to his political views,” Hinson-Rawls wrote in part of her email. “This is a travesty of justice for the residents of the City of Gainesville whose viewpoints may differ from his.”

She wanted Shalley and Blackburn to comment on the “legality and ethics” of Braddy's actions.

“Ed Braddy, private citizen, is entitled to his opinion and to use whatever means available to him to express it,” Bottcher wrote in part of her message. “Mayor Ed Braddy is not entitled to use his office and the seal of the City of Gainesville in that manner. What does the city Charter say about sitting elected officials using city resources/representation for partisan purposes? I am embarrassed that the City and this commission are now associated with Mayor Braddy's personal, partisan attack on Senator Nelson. Nothing short of a public apology to Senator Nelson by Mayor Braddy is acceptable.”

On Monday, Braddy said he felt that Shalley's opinion showed he had not violated the city's charter or ordinances. He said he was acting within his official duties and responding to allegations of voter suppression in Gainesville.

He also said he believed there were political motivations behind the criticism of him. Braddy said that in October, when he brought a proposed resignation agreement with then-Gainesville Regional Utilities General Manager Bob Hunzinger to the commission for consideration, Hinson-Rawls asked if Braddy had the authority to unilaterally begin discussions with a charter officer on his or her resignation.

Thursday, Hinson-Rawls said she felt Shalley's opinion supported her feeling that Braddy was acting outside the scope of his duties as mayor and needed the commission approval to send out a statement with Gainesville's seal. She said any accusations aimed at her of playing “gotcha” politics are off base.

“My thought is he is the mayor, and as the mayor you cannot act like you are a right-wing radio host,” Hinson-Rawls said in a reference to Braddy's time as a political radio show host. “You are the mayor of everybody and not just the people with your political views.”

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