Tempers flare as commission debates use of city seal
Published: Thursday, February 20, 2014 at 6:48 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, February 20, 2014 at 6:48 p.m.
Testy exchanges, raised voices and accusations of bullying marked the dispute over the use of the city seal at Thursday’s Gainesville City Commission meeting.
The ongoing dispute involves a news release Mayor Ed Braddy sent out Feb. 11 on city letterhead with the city seal criticizing Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson and gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist for coming to Gainesville to criticize Republican Gov. Rick Scott for blocking early voting on the University of Florida campus.
In the end, commissioners deadlocked 3-3 in a vote to require that all news releases from the mayor or a commissioner go through the city communications office.
Susan Bottcher, Thomas Hawkins and Yvonne Hinson-Rawls voted in support. Braddy, Todd Chase and Lauren Poe voted in dissent. Randy Wells had to leave the meeting for a family matter before the vote.
Poe said he felt Braddy should have been “sensitive” to the “collective view of the commission” when speaking in an official capacity. But he said he could not put the communications office in the position of trying to determine if a potential news release was political or not.
The tumult came after a Division of Elections opinion requested by the city stated that the Florida Legislature did not include campuses and educational facilities in the expanded early voting locations approved in the 2013 session. As it stands, the early voting location the city eyed for March — the Reitz Union, which is a traditional Election Day polling place for the city and primary and general elections — is under construction and could not be used for early voting. Early voting for March’s city election also falls during UF spring break.
The issue likely carries more weight in the November elections, when turnout on campus is high and strongly Democratic and Crist and Scott might be squaring off in the governor’s race.
In his release, 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.” Braddy said Nelson was behaving not like a statesman but a “partisan operative.”
Commissioners Hinson-Rawls and Bottcher, both Democrats, then sent emails to the city attorney questioning if Braddy was allowed to send out the release under the city charter. They said it was a partisan political attack not related to his duties as mayor. Braddy said he was, in his official capacity, defending the city against allegations of voter suppression. Bottcher said Thursday that she felt it was clear Nelson and Crist criticized the Legislature and Scott, not the city.
In her written opinion on the issue, 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. The City Commission unanimously voted to send to its Audit, Legislative & Finance Committee the issue of determining what is an “unofficial” use of the city seal.
Thursday, Hinson-Rawls reiterated her stance that Braddy made unofficial use of the seal to launch a “volatile and political attack on a sitting statesman and a former governor of Florida.” Braddy had letters Hinson-Rawls sent out, including a letter of recommendation, shown on the overhead projector. He said that, by her argument, he felt the letters would be deemed unauthorized use of city letterhead and seal. He also said she was engaging in a “brazenly political attack” against him.
During the debate between Braddy and Hinson-Rawls, voices rose. Hinson-Rawls accused Braddy of “bullying” her.
“You can’t bully me,” Hinson-Rawls yelled at one point. “I know how to yell, too.”
Hinson-Rawls said she felt it was a tactic of Scott to “suppress the vote.” Braddy said one could argue the City Commission had in the past engaged in voter suppression by not adding the Millhopper Branch Library site when it was, as a public library, already an allowable site prior to the Legislature’s 2013 law expanding locations.
Other commissioners said they had sought for years to add early voting sites and that the timing was a matter of budgeting. This year, Millhopper was added as an early voting site for city elections, joining the Supervisor of Elections annex in the County Administration Building downtown.
During the debate, Commissioner Hawkins said he too felt Braddy was bullying Hinson-Rawls.
Commissioner Chase later said he felt the criticism of Braddy by other commissioners was politically motivated. He said he wouldn’t stand for accusations of bullying from commissioners who sat silent when, in Chase’s opinion, former Mayor Craig Lowe worked to ostracize and dismiss him. Chase frequently points to the meeting in which Lowe compared him to Chicken Little for consistently raising concerns about the financial impact of the biomass contract.