TALLAHASSEE, FLORIDA — A group pushing for more accountability in local government is accusing Florida Senate President Kathleen Passidomo of unlawfully killing a bill during the last legislative session.
Recall Florida is a non-partisan group working towards amending the Florida Constitution to allow every county in the state the ability to remove elected officials for egregious conduct. For the past three years, Recall Florida has lobbied for bills that would allow the 47 counties without a charter to recall corrupt local officials guilty of gross misconduct.
The group is now threatening to file a federal civil rights complaint against Passidomo because they believe she deliberately stonewalled their latest bill.
RECALL ELECTIONS IN FLORIDA
In 1968, Florida Statute 100.361 established the recall election option for counties with written charters that formally confer the powers and duties of the local government. Out of Florida’s 67 counties, only 20 have charters.
“It's very logical that it should apply to all counties,” Recall Florida co-founder Carmen Reynolds told the Pensacola News Journal in January. “We're looking to resolve that inequity.”
Reynolds says the necessary protections are already in place to prevent unwarranted recalls. The law limits recall elections to specific misconduct, including: “malfeasance, misfeasance, neglect of duty, drunkenness, incompetence, a permanent inability to perform official duties or a felony conviction involving moral turpitude.”
Additionally, the threshold for ordering a recall is high. In counties with fewer than 25,000 residents, anyone pushing for a recall election would have to obtain signed petitions from no less than ten percent of registered voters in the county within a 30-day period. Counties with more than 25,000 residents stipulate at least 1,000 signatures or five percent, whichever is greater.
The signatures would then be verified by the Supervisor of Elections office. Once the sufficient number of petitions are collected and approved, a circuit court judge schedules a special election. The recall must earn support from at least 51 percent of voters in order to successfully remove the official.
“This is a cause that should unite every citizen,” Reynolds added. “The intent is to extend to the citizens their First Amendment right to have a redress of their grievances.”
“THIS BILL ISN’T GOING ANYWHERE”
This past legislative session, Sen. Jay Collins (R-Tampa) sponsored SJR 1066 – “Recall of County Officers and Commissioners.” The bill made it through two committees in the Senate, but was never moved to its final committee stop.
When Recall Florida co-founder Chance Johnmeyer met with Collins to inquire about the delay, he says the senator told him point blank: “This bill isn’t going anywhere.”
Meanwhile, Rep. Joel Rudman (R-Navarre) championed the identical HJR 131 in the House. The bill breezed through all its committee stops and passed with flying colors on the House floor by a vote of 113-1.
Johnmeyer says the bill’s popularity in the House would have put tremendous pressure on Senators to vote for it as well. If approved by the Senate, the amendment would have gone on the 2024 ballot for voters to decide its fate.
“How many people do 113 representatives represent?” Johnmeyer asked rhetorically. “They’ve got the weight of all those people and their representatives saying: ‘Yes, we want the recall option to be available for all counties.’”
“I wanted [the senate] to feel the full weight of the people, because that is how it’s supposed to work with our representatives. They don’t get to sit up there and wheel and deal and do the things they want to do.”
Despite its near-unanimous approval, Passidomo never gave the bill a chance to be heard on the Senate floor.
A CONSTITUTIONAL ISSUE
Johnmeyer contends that the senate president’s decision to ignore the bill violated the Constitution.
“As a Constitutional Officer, she absolutely had a duty to bring that to the floor, because – with the right legal pressure – it creates a liability for the state,” he told The Florida Standard. “She knows that it violates the First Amendment. She knows it violates the 14th Amendment.”
The fact that Floridians in non-chartered counties are deprived of the right to recall corrupt local officials could be a violation of equal protection ensured by the 14th Amendment.
“They want this issue dead,” Johnmeyer said of the Florida Senate. “They want it to go away because it’s causing them heartburn.”
Passidomo’s office did not return several requests for comment.
“THEY DON’T FEAR US”
Recall Florida has not decided on its next steps yet, but vows they have no plans to give up the fight.
“We’re still researching [legal options], but we believe they don’t fear us,” Johnmeyer said. “The only way for them to fear us is by getting the courts involved, because they clearly don’t listen to the people.”
In addition to lobbying, Recall Florida aims to raise awareness. This is perhaps the most important part of their mission, Johnmeyer says.
“Until we can bring the citizens of Florida to a point where they know what’s going on – that their rights are being violated – it’s a tough road ahead.”