Dunedin city commision elections are “non-partisan,” and city ordinance 26-202 provides the restrictions on candidates in those “non-partisan” political races. Any violations of those restrictions is considered to be an “unfair campaign practice,” subject to a fine and/or imprisonment. Candidates are informed of these rules before running for office.
So why did mayor Bujalski and city commissioners Gow and Kynes violate this local law? And why did city attorney Tom Trask advise one of them on their political activities? Did he also advise others? The questions are many, but few are willing to answers the difficult questions that arise from these violations.
“Yes, it was a mistake and I apologize,” said newly elected commissioner Jeff Gow. “I didn’t intend to violate the city code.” Gow was referring to campaign contributions he received from the North Pinellas County Democratic Club (NPCDC) and from the Stonewall Democrats of Pinellas. They were for $50 and $100, respectively, and violate the city code requirement that candidates neither solicit nor accept any contributions “or open assistance or support from any partisan political club or association affiliated with any political party.”
Gow also violated 26-202(4) when he attended a “partisan political party function” at the NPCDC on August 21st without “all candidates for city office hav[ing] been invited and permitted to participate in the same manner and to the same extent” that he was. Gow’s opponent, incumbent commissioner John Tornga, was neither invited nor present.
Long-time city commissioner Deborah Kynes was also in attendance at that same NPCDC meeting. Kynes told the Dunedin Reporter (DR) that she asked city attorney Tom Trask for advice before the event, and that he told her that is was OK for her to attend because there “was no debate at the event.”
However, the relevant city code doesn’t use the word “debate”, it uses the word “function.” The code also clearly says that “all candidates for city office” must be invited, not just those in the candidate’s specific race. Kynes was unopposed in her race, and mentioned this fact when DR spoke to her.
Since Kynes already waived any attorney-client privilege by telling us what Trask’s advice was, we asked Trask via e-mail to confirm Kynes account of the advice given. We also asked: since Kynes question involved her political campaign and not city business, why did you provide her advice? Trask did not answer either question.
Although the city code provides for jail time for engaging in these alleged unfair campaign practices, Trask told DR that “the city does not pursue criminal prosecution of a civil code violation.” This is good information for citizens to know, should they ever have a code dispute with the city.
A day earlier, Trask did respond on behalf of city manager Bramley when we posed questions about this matter to her. He told DR that he was “working on” a process for adjudicating the above alleged code violations, but that it would not be through the code enforcement board. The fact that Trask both works on the process for enforcement and advises those subject to enforcement raises a question of due process.
We also asked Gow about due process after he told DR that expected enforcement to be “a letter notifying him of fines.” When we asked if such a letter without a hearing is due process, Gow referred us to city attorney Trask as the one responsible for the process.
Gow doesn’t dispute that he violated city code, telling DR that he’s “expected to know the code and whatever penalties are given [maximum $500 per violation], I will accept.” However, a process that meets the constitutional requirements for due process is still required, especially if an accused disputes allegations that they violated city code.
Mayor Julie Bujalski may be one of those who dispute having violated the same city code. It’s hard to tell whether she admits or denies such violations because she didn’t respond to our inquiries about three donations totaling $1,500 she accepted from Democrat organizations in her 2016 mayoral race. One was a $1,000 campaign donation from the county-wide Pinellas County Democrat Executive Committee (shown below).
We also received no answer from Bujalski to our questions if she planned to report these violations to the city, planned to repay the contributions, and accept whatever fines are imposed on her.
DR has previously reported on Bujalski’s false claim that Trask “fully vetted” her questionable dealings with the city marina.
The city clerk’s office confirmed to DR that it provides all candidates with various document, including this one which lists the city code in question. Thus all candidates were provided with information on what constitutes unfair campaign practices in advance of campaigning. Veteran politicians Bujalski and Kynes have been provided with that information multiple times, each time they ran for office.
Were these true mistakes in all cases? Or where some of them accidentally on purpose?
As always: DR reports, and the readers decide. Please like our Facebook page to learn when we publish new articles