The aftermath of Wellington’s 2012 election debacle has members of the Wellington Village Council considering changes to allow candidates who successfully challenge election results to be reimbursed for their legal costs.
At a meeting Nov. 26, council members officially approved the dates and contracts with the Palm Beach County Supervisor of Elections for the upcoming municipal election on Tuesday, March 11. But discussion turned to the previous election, in which an error in the calculation saw the wrong results announced on election night.
It took several lawsuits and a court order to have the ballots hand-counted before the correct candidates — Mayor Bob Margolis and councilmen Matt Willhite and John Greene — could be installed.
“I was directed to get legal representation to defend myself in a lawsuit,” Willhite said, noting that he, Margolis and Greene had to pay for their own legal defenses.
Council members agreed they didn’t want future candidates to suffer the same fate.
“I want to ensure no one faces the financial burden placed on myself, the mayor or Councilman Willhite, when we had to defend an election in which we did nothing wrong,” Greene said. “I was named in a lawsuit by people who didn’t care about getting the vote right, but just wanted to get who they thought were the right people into office. They filed lawsuits to thwart the will of the people.”
He asked what could be done to prevent future candidates from facing the same issue. “It was nothing we did wrong,” Greene reiterated. “We weren’t challenging the election. We had to defend ourselves in lawsuits.”
Village Attorney Laurie Cohen said she was planning on presenting an administrative ordinance amendment that would allow, in some instances, for candidates to have their fees reimbursed.
“I will bring it to you at your next meeting,” she said. “The council will have to decide whether you want to reimburse those expenses, knowing any one of you could find yourselves in the same situation in the future.”
Cohen noted that common law might have allowed for the candidates to seek reimbursement for legal fees, but said it could be clarified in Wellington’s ordinances.
“I think the administrative ordinance could be clarified to more directly address this type of situation,” she said. “I think there is a sufficient basis to support a reimbursement.”
Councilwoman Anne Gerwig noted that the change would only apply to those who are determined to be winners in the election.
“Admittedly, those lawsuits were not brought by any of us,” Gerwig said. “I was named personally as part of the Wellington Canvassing Board. Should I have gotten a lawyer?”
Coates said he would support a measure to reimburse candidates for legal fees if they are then installed as council members.
“It pains me that any citizen who runs for office would get hit for legal fees incurred in successfully challenging an election that then installs the person in the position for which he or she was running,” he said. “But I’m not wanting to open the floodgates to reimburse anyone who challenges an election. If your challenge is unsuccessful, all bets are off.”
Willhite noted that because of state law, there was no choice but to have a lawsuit settle the issue. “I want the legislature to look into this,” he said.
Gerwig agreed. “Part of the reason we got into this trap was because we were required to certify the election before the post-election audit,” she said. “I think it’s silly to certify an election before we audit it. The state needs to look at this and determine if the proper procedures are in place for an accurate system.”
Council members also wanted to reassure voters that the system works.
“I want to convey to residents that the rightful candidates were elected,” Willhite said. “I want people to understand that their vote does count.”
Coates agreed. “At the end of the day, the process did work,” he said. “Unfortunately, it cost a significant amount of money to get there.”
Regarding the contract before them, council members were in favor of keeping the Supervisor of Elections running the municipal elections, despite the problems in 2012.
“I would in no way, shape or form look at trying to take this burden on,” Willhite said. “We don’t have the resources, the safety, the security or the staff.”
Greene noted there are only four Wellington Canvassing Board members provided for.
Cohen said that the charter sets the canvassing board as any council members not up for election, plus the village clerk. In the past, the Supervisor of Elections has served on the board, but Gerwig noted that Susan Bucher chose not to be a board member anymore.
“This election cycle, three council members are not up for election,” Cohen said. “In the next election cycle, it would be a three-member board.”
Greene asked what would happen if a vote split 2-2, and Cohen said it would fail.
Willhite made a motion to approve the measures executing the contract with the Supervisor of Elections and setting the election dates. It passed unanimously.
ABOVE: The Wellington Village Council.