SAN ANTONIO — Mayor Tim Newlon remembers the first time he sought public office, when he was one of five town residents who applied for a vacancy on the commission back in 2010.
He remembers waiting outside of the meeting room — for what seemed like an eternity — while commissioners interviewed each applicant one by one in a public meeting, and then spent over an hour debating the appointment. Then-Mayor Roy Pierce had told the applicants that they were entitled to stay, but that commissioners could speak more openly if they left.
“I remember it being a suggestion, and I had no problem with it at the time,” Newlon said.
The board was deadlocked: two commissioners wanted to appoint Newlon, the other two wanted to appoint Heiskell Christmas, who had previously served and was more familiar with city business. The board finally voted for Christmas, and Newlon won his seat in the next election.
Now that he’s mayor and the commission has to fill a vacant seat, Newlon was open to the suggestion they go about it differently this time. Instead of interviewing applicants in a public session, each commissioner plans to schedule private interviews with interested applicants prior to the board’s June meeting.
“It is a different process,” Newlon said. “We’re doing it differently on the advice of our city attorney. He said it was a bad idea to ask the candidates to leave the room.”
Newlon said it never occurred to him that conducting the interviews behind closed doors means commissioners could ask potential colleagues how they would vote on specific issues — all outside of public review.
“That does raise the question of how can the public be assured there were no deals or promises of support,” he acknowledged. “I want to be sure we avoid any actual impropriety but the appearance of it as well. I do believe in open talks and transparency.”
Newlon said he would seek a second opinion from the office of the Florida attorney general prior to the June 17 meeting. Applications are due June 4. So far two people have applied, Richard Arto and Pierce, who served two decades on the commission — 16 of those as mayor.
Pierce said he had decided not to run for reelection earlier this year because he felt the city was “running smoothly.” It was only after the filing deadline that he learned about Saint Leo University’s plan to relocate its plant operations building to land that would be accessed by Pompanic Street, the border between St. Leo and San Antonio.
“After (Commissioner-Elect Anne Kibbe) decided not to take her seat, I was asked by four different people to consider putting my name in for consideration,” Pierce said.
Although he trusts the other commissioners to behave ethically, Pierce said he doesn’t have a problem being interviewed during a public meeting. “My personal philosophy is everything you can do out in the open is better,” Pierce said.
In neighboring St. Leo, commissioners have a different problem regarding how they fill their two vacant seats. That’s because the board allowed Lake Jovita resident Ray Davis to take his oath of office on May 12 after Gov. Rick Scott had signed a bill deannexing 85 Lake Jovita homes from the city.
Town Clerk Joan Miller said no one on the board was aware the bill had been signed into law before the meeting, which meant Davis — who defeated longtime Commissioner Sister Donna DeWitt in the April election — was not eligible.
Commissioner Robert Inslee, who also lives in Lake Jovita, should also have stepped down prior to the meeting. Miller said all of the votes from the May 12 meeting — including the selection of a mayor — will have to be retaken once a new board is seated.
DeWitt agrees. “I think it should be a do-over,” she said. “They voted on a mayor and reconstructed the whole board — and he was already ineligible. Nobody did it maliciously or knowingly, but to me, I personally believe I should have my seat back.”
DeWitt and C. Arnold Curington have applied for the two vacancies. DeWitt, a member of Holy Name Monastery, had served on the board since 1997.