PORT RICHEY — It’s been nearly two months that Port Richey City Council’s has operated – or attempted to operate – with just three of its five members seated during meetings.
Council may get that number back up to four by the time a pair of elections wrap up later this year. City residents are scheduled to vote for a new mayor June 18 and then go to the polls again Sept. 10 for a special election to fill the vacated seat of current Councilman Richard Bloom. Bloom is resigning from his City Council seat to run for mayor.
But even after all that time, the council could still be one member short. That’s because former acting Mayor Terrence Rowe’s seat remains occupied, technically, even while his duties have been suspended by Gov. Ron DeSantis following Rowe’s arrest on conspiracy charges. Rowe refused to resign his seat and attempts to vote him away by the shorthanded board failed.
Now, residents are trying to take matters in their own hands by gathering signatures to have Rowe removed. It’s the first step of many in the municipal recall process that is detailed in Florida Statute 100.361.
Concerned residents created a petition and collected 208 signatures. That petition was turned into City Hall April 30 and then submitted to the office of Pasco Supervisor of Election Brian Corley, where the signatures have 30 days to be verified. According to state statute, a city the size of Port Richey, one with fewer than 2,000 registered voters but more than 500, requires verified signatures from 10 percent of its registered voting roll for the recall process to move forward, Corley said in an interview.
But that’s not all.
Completion of the first step then leads to the next, in which Rowe would have five days to submit a defensive statement of 200 or fewer words. Another petition process follows, this time with 15 percent of registered voters submitting verified signatures. Corley’s office has 30 days to determine the validity of the second petition.
If the 15 percent threshold his met, that still doesn’t remove Rowe from his seat. He is notified of the petition’s success and can then submit his resignation — or not. If the process were to advance to this point and Rowe refused to resign, a recall election must be held 30-60 days after the expiration of the five-day period Rowe has to respond after the validation of the second petition process.
That recall election would be the last step and pose two options to voters: remove Rowe from office or do not remove Rowe from office.
As of last week, it was unclear if the current petition process would move beyond step one. Speaking over the phone last Thursday, Corley said his office may have discovered a mistake – lack of witnesses present – related to the petition process that could invalidate signatures.
Language in the state statute reads: “The form shall also contain lines for an oath, to be executed by a witness who is to verify the fact that the witness saw each person sign the counterpart of the petition, that each signature appearing thereon is the genuine signature of the person it purports to be, and that the petition was signed in the presence of the witness on the date indicated.”
Corley said May 2 he had already informed City Attorney James Mathieu and City Clerk Sal Licari of the potential irregularities, but it was uncertain if it was enough to sink the entire petition.
“They need 179, I believe, which is the magical number,” Corley said. “So, we’ve got 208, we’re going through them now, we should have this done in a couple days. I will report back to the city of the 208 how many are viewed as valid signatures. Then from there it’ll be up to them to decide to move forward as far as the next step in the process.”
As for going through the process in general, it’s not business as usual.
“Municipal recalls are actually, in totality, quite rare,” Corley said. “The mechanism’s there; it’s just hardly used.”