Wellington Mayor Bob Margolis and Councilman John Greene have dropped their pursuit of repayment for legal fees incurred in the aftermath of the 2012 municipal election, but discussion of the issue raised questions about how much council members can participate in endorsing and supporting candidates when also expected to sit on the Wellington Canvassing Board.
A similar issue will be raised again next week when the Wellington Village Council will consider whether to repay both Greene and Margolis for legal costs accrued as they defended ethics violation complaints as sitting council members.
Last year, council members voted to seek outside opinions before deciding whether to repay legal fees stemming from the March 2012 election. Last week, Councilman Matt Willhite noted that both Margolis and Greene decided to withdraw their requests.
“I’d like to thank both the mayor and Councilman Greene for withdrawing their requests,” he said.
The issue stems from the March 2012 election, which saw the wrong voter tallies assigned to candidates on election night. The votes were certified before an audit of the votes discovered the discrepancy.
After Palm Beach County Supervisor of Elections Susan Bucher said state law would not allow her to perform a hand recount without judicial intervention, lawsuits were filed and several candidates sought legal representation.
The hand recount resulted in Margolis, Greene and Willhite being certified as the victors, but each hired legal representation for the matter. Willhite did not seek reimbursement.
The council had originally voted to seek the opinion of the Florida Attorney General’s Office, because Margolis and Greene were not sitting council members when the fees were incurred.
“They had to get legal representation to make sure that the residents who voted for them would be represented by them,” Willhite said. “I thank both of them for withdrawing [their requests for reimbursement] because now they’re not putting the village through what seemed to be a very contentious issue.”
Greene said the intent was not just to get reimbursement, but to show residents that they should not be discouraged by the threat of legal fees if an election is contested.
“It was really about protecting the process,” Greene said. “That’s what is sacred about democracy — making sure that the people’s votes count. We were financially burdened with having to defend what was a clear problem with the election. We didn’t challenge the election. We were named as defendants.”
But, in the end, Greene said he did not want to spend money to solicit other opinions.
“This is not about spending taxpayer dollars to throw good money after bad or bad money after good, however you see it,” he said. “This was not a mission for me to spend more taxpayer dollars for what I thought was an important part of this process.”
The discussion raised concerns about whether canvassing board members — defined in Wellington’s charter as council members who are not up for election, along with the village clerk — can endorse candidates in elections.
Margolis raised the issue and said he had done some research into the matter.
“I know that the three of us [Willhite, Greene and himself] will be sitting on the canvassing board in the next election,” he said. “I wanted to see what the responsibilities of the board are under Wellington’s charter and what is in the state statutes.”
He said that a provision in the state charter prohibits canvassing board members from openly supporting any candidate. Margolis said he interpreted the statute to mean that council members cannot endorse candidates in the elections for which they will sit on the canvassing board.
“We all get people asking us for endorsements, asking for us to come to fundraisers, to hold signs for us, to wear T-shirts to endorse a particular candidate,” he said. “I interpret this to mean that we can commit to giving them some campaign funds and nothing else — no campaigning for them, no holding signs, no endorsing them. It would disqualify those members from sitting on the canvassing board.”
Margolis said this information should have been given to council members in previous elections.
“I believe if this information was transmitted to them by our previous village attorney, there may have been some decisions made as to whether some people on the canvassing board should have sat,” he said. “I think it was someone’s responsibility to see when previous canvassing board members were campaigning for other candidates, going to fundraisers and endorsing them. Those canvassing board members should have been disqualified.”
Margolis said he has consulted several other opinions on the topic from Village Attorney Laurie Cohen to Bucher’s office and even the Florida Division of Elections.
Greene said he believes the statute makes sense.
“If you’re sitting as a member of the canvassing board, you have to be impartial when you’re looking at this,” he said. “When you’re faced with a decision where you have to make tough decisions and you’ve publicly campaigned for somebody for whom you have to certify an election… You can no longer be impartial.”
Had he known about the statute, Greene said he would have sought to disqualify some council members from the canvassing board. “It would have gone to the courts to appoint people, and we never would have had to retain legal representation,” he said.
Councilwoman Anne Gerwig, however, said that Wellington’s charter dictates the makeup of the canvassing board, not state statute.
“Our charter comprises how we do things,” she said. “It says if you’re not in the upcoming election, you’re automatically on the canvassing board. If our charter said we couldn’t do those things, then I would agree with you. But I cannot sit here and let this be said over and over that I did not do my job properly because I had a preference.”
Gerwig noted that although she supported some candidates over others, it did not stop her from pointing out the critical error in the tabulation that eventually saw Margolis, Willhite and Greene named to the council.
“I worked with the board to determine what the actual vote was,” she said. “I didn’t put my personal desire into this. I was the first person to find this error. The entire time I worked on this, it was to determine what actually happened. I never put my personal preference above the facts of this case, regardless of who I wanted to win.”
Margolis said he wasn’t accusing council members of deliberate violations but, rather, pointing out that council members should have been advised of the code. “You didn’t know this,” he said.
Margolis said that Wellington’s charter does not provide a code of conduct for canvassing board members. “Because it does not, I believe this statute applies to municipalities,” he said.
Gerwig said Wellington might need to take a look at its policies. “Maybe we need to have a policy about this, even if it requires a change in the charter,” she said. “But I take it as an accusation when you say these things.”
Margolis said he wasn’t looking to accuse anyone of misconduct. “I don’t believe any of us knew the proper procedures,” he said. “That is why I brought this up.”
Council members asked Cohen to evaluate the code before the upcoming election.
Council members will take a look at a related issue at their Jan. 28 meeting, when they consider whether to reimburse legal fees relating to ethics complaints about Margolis and Greene. Margolis is requesting $20,835, while Greene is requesting $1,304.
Both council members were brought before the Palm Beach County Commission on Ethics last year on complaints that they received improper gifts.
The Commission on Ethics determined that the complaints against Greene had no probable cause and dismissed the case. The commission found that although probable cause existed for Margolis’ violation, the violation was unintentional.
Greene and Margolis are seeking repayment of legal fees under provisions that allow municipalities to cover legal fees of officials who are acting in their official duties.
ABOVE: The Wellington Village Council.