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Investigative outcome must assure the voters

By Staff | Mar 16, 2023

Cape Coral City Council took a big step Wednesday night, opting to hire an independent investigator to look into the alleged actions of one of its own.

The elected board voted 6-2 to determine whether District 4 Councilmember Patty Cummings resided in the district in which she qualified to run and whether she has continued to reside there, both requirements outlined in the city’s charter.

Dissenting were council members Cummings and Dan Sheppard.

The Council action comes in the wake of a two-page letter of complaint addressed to State Attorney General Ashley Moody and forwarded to Gov. Ron DeSantis’ Office by Matt Caldwell, a state representative from 2010-2018 and a current State Committeeman for the Republican Party of Florida. He serves as the Lee County Property Appraiser.

The complaint, in essence, alleges that Cummings “fraudulently represented herself as living in District 4, that there is significant evidence that she lived in District 2 when she filed for election, and she lived in District 6 as of the date of the election. At no time did she reside in District 4 as required by the city charter and her certification.”

Mr. Caldwell has said he forwarded the letter based on the seriousness of the allegation and the supporting documentation he received.

Ms. Cummings, who did not comment during the Council discussion Wednesday, has denied the allegations, and has so responded in a letter to Council.

The issue of her current residency may be attributed to the damage wrought to her home by Hurricane Ian, a situation that will be rectified by the end of the month as she has finally been able to secure a home in District 4, she said.

“As you all are aware, many of us in Cape Coral have been affected by the recent hurricane that swept through our community and I am no exception,” Ms. Cummings said in the written response submitted to Council last week after Mayor John Gunter asked her to address the issue. “I am currently a part-time resident in District 4 with the full intent to be living in District 4 full-time by March 22, 2023.”

She cited difficulty in finding an in-district residence due to a post-storm housing shortage.

“I am still a part-time resident in District 4 with a driver’s license and voter’s registration card that displays my District 4 address. Additionally, I receive my mail at this same address,” she wrote.

A couple of things.

Some Council members expressed concern that the complaint was “anonymous” and that calling for an investigation could open the door to a barrage of nameless allegations.

We do get the concern.

Cape politics would not be referred to as a blood sport without a goodly number of the walking wounded.

But no one slipped this complaint under Mr. Caldwell’s door.

The complaining party or parties met with Mr. Caldwell. The “anonymous” comes from a request that the name or names not be made public by Mr. Caldwell or the Governor’s Office for fear of retaliation.

Two, while we are unapologetically among the first to question any unnecessary expenditure of funds, this is not one of those occasions.

Mr. Caldwell said it well.

“This is a fundamental question regarding the electoral process and anytime anyone brings up a situation like this it needs to be investigated,” Caldwell said in an interview with The Breeze. “One way or another, it needs to be resolved.”

We agree.

For the voters of Cape Coral.

And for Ms. Cummings herself.

An accusation that you qualified to run by setting up a fraudulent address, part-time or full, and that you continue to fail to meet charter requirements to serve is a heavy allegation to tote around.

Such claims must be fought if false — and bowed to if true.

If things played out as they do so often on the big screen, Wednesday night would have been the penultimate moment.

The accused would have faced those assembled in the arena. Glanced round at those sitting to decide her fate. And directed her response directly to the crowd, in this case the voters of Cape Coral who elected her.

A reiteration of the innocence she has steadfastly avowed.

A welcoming of the opportunity to prove it.

And a declaration to do the right thing if — if — in fact, she erred by mistake or design. If, in fact, she did not meet the requirements to run for office or to hold the office now.

But real life is not a movie trope.

Battles are fought by lawyers and people seldom fall on their sword.

Count us among those hoping the various parties involved in this citizen-initiated quest will do the right thing after the bona fides are checked, the witnesses are interviewed, the facts are in and their nexus with the city charter requirements determined.

The voters — no matter on which side of the issue they might stand, no matter the investigative conclusion — deserve both the truth and the assurance that our election process ultimately works.

Nothing less.

–Breeze editorial