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Cape Council to fill Cummings’ seat by appointment

Accepting applications from residents who live in District 4

By MEGHAN BRADBURY - | Nov 17, 2023

Patty Cummings

A resident of District 4 will be appointed to fill the seat left vacant in the wake of Patty Cummings’ suspension by Gov. Ron DeSantis following her arrest on allegations she falsified her address to run for office.

Cape Coral City Council held a special meeting this afternoon to discuss whether they should call for a special election to fill the seat or appoint an interim member while Cummings is awaiting adjudication on three felony charges.

The 30-minute meeting, which included three residents who spoke during public input, ended with a unanimous vote to begin accepting applications for the District 4 seat at 5 p.m. today until 5 p.m. Dec. 1. City staff will arrange interviews for the Council between Monday, Dec. 1, and Friday, Dec. 8. The appointment will be made as the last agenda item at the Dec. 13 meeting.

The vote was 6-0 with Councilmember Dan Sheppard participating remotely and Councilmember Bill Steinke excused from the meeting.

Cummings, who was suspended late Thursday, was not present. She has been charged with fraudulent application for driver license and two counts of false swearing in connection with or arising out of voting or elections.

“The city clerk is confident she will be able to advertise and get this out, so applicants can submit an application by 5 p.m. today,” Mayor John Gunter said.

City Attorney Aleksandr Boksner said the governor invoked two separate provisions in the suspension action of Cummings, one under the Florida Constitution, the other under Florida Statue 112.51. He said the significance of 112.51 deems it to be a temporary vacancy and, under the city’s charter, Council is required to fill that vacancy.

“Because there are three years remaining in the councilmember’s term of office, the appointment made by this Council 30 days from yesterday (Nov. 16) is only through the General Election in November 2024,” Boksner said. “There would have to be an individual elected to office for the remainder of the two-year period through November 2026.”

He emphasized that Cummings has been suspended, not removed, from office.

“That is not a removal. There are always the potential of acquittal and reinstatement. We do have three years before her term is scheduled to retire,” Boksner said.

Before Council took its vote, Supervisor of Elections Tommy Doyle said it would be very difficult to have the books available for a Special Election when they are closed 29 days before the March 19 election.

“It would be problematic for us. The benefits of appointing a person is the money you would save, the turnout would be much greater. Special elections – very little turnout. Your value is not going to be there,” Doyle said.

Councilmember Robert Welsh said he was OK with the process of appointment, but offered another idea, which included going to the election results.

“We are talking 53 to 46%,” he said of the 2022 runoff between former Council member Jennifer Nelson and Cummings. “We already have a member that can come in and fill the seat, knows the ropes and knows how to vote. They have 46% of the city. We can save a lot of money and time.”

That would entail asking Nelson if she would be interested, Welsh said, adding the appointment would restore the public trust, as residents already had an opportunity to vote for her.

Gunter did not agree, saying that likely would cause more of an issue with public trust because it would not follow the process the city has used time after time. He said they need to open it up to applicants they have always done through an application, interview, appointment process, which would allow Nelson to put her name in the hat if she so chooses.

“To me, that will probably be a better process and probably better for our community. We are trying to establish that public trust that we all know has been hampered by these allegations filed against Ms. Cummings,” Gunter said.

Those who spoke during public input shared their lack of confidence with the Council.

Julia Ettari, who lodged the signed complaint sent to Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody but initially requested whistle-blower protection, said members of the media have asked if she feels vindicated about what happened with Cummings’ situation.

“No, because I had the opportunity to read the entire report from (State Attorney) Amira Fox’s office. I am disappointed that my family, my children, my husband and myself have been harassed and bullied and so many people sitting in those chairs up there knew prior to the election and swearing Patty Cummings into her seat that she did not live in the district. I have very little confidence in your decision making to pick someone else to replace her,” she said.

Tom Shadrach, who was the chairman of the Budget Review Committee before it was eliminated, said Ettari, his wife and himself have been diligent in “exposing the truth for 10 months.” He said he has spoken many times about the importance of election integrity and that citizens of Cape Coral have trust in their local government.

“We have put up with retaliation, abuse in person and on social media for this stance on this issue,” Shadrach said, adding that the question remains of what Council knew about Cummings’ residency.

He singled out one member of Council, alleging he was aware of where Cummings was living before and after the election.

“I am asking a few things, for the sake of restoring trust, the mayor should ask for the resignation of Sheppard,” Shadrach said.

Sheppard was among the numerous individuals interviewed by State Attorney’s Office investigators, who took on the complaint at the request of City Council.

According to the Probable Cause Statement filed by SAO investigator Martin J. Kenney in seeking the court-ordered warrant for Cummings’ arrest, Sheppard told investigators Cummings had questions on how the city’s residency requirement to run for office would apply as she was then living outside District 4 but planned to move into the district to seek the seat. Sheppard said he spoke with the then city attorney to get some clarity and informed Cummings that there was no time requirement as to how long you had to reside in the district before qualifying but “…that you must live there before you apply; that you need to make sure you have an address there; and that it must be your primary residence.”

Cummings has steadfastly denied the allegations, which she maintains are politically motivated.

“I am and will be pleading not guilty, and I am innocent until proven otherwise,” she said via email Thursday morning in response to a Breeze request for comment. “I have no intent to address pending legal matters.”

The city’s Communications Office issued a release outlining the application process:

Applications Available Online for Cape Coral City Council District 4 Appointment

The City Clerk is currently accepting District 4 applications to fill a Council vacancy. The application deadline is Dec. 1, 2023, at 5 p.m.

Applicants must:

• Reside in District 4

• Be a registered elector of the City

• Be a permanent resident of Cape Coral

• Be a continuous full-time resident of the City for the entire calendar year immediately preceding qualification for office

• Submit a statement of financial interest

An original signed application and a copy of voter’s registration card are required to complete the application process. Documents will be accepted by the City Clerk in person at City Hall, 1015 Cultural Park Blvd., Cape Coral.

The application for may be found at “http://capecoral.gov” rel=”noopener” target=”_blank”>capecoral.gov. Click on “City Clerk” under Departments in the top nav and see the sidebar tab named “City Appointment – District 4″ with all the info.

Questions and requests for an application should be directed to the City Clerk at 239-574-0417.