Mulberry Maintains the Strain
City attorney says it was necessary to seek a court order against new elected officials.

By Tom Palmer
The Ledger

MULBERRY -- Next Tuesday's Mulberry City Commission meeting could have degenerated into a shoving match if a judge hadn't stepped in Wednesday, according to the petition that led to an injunction against three incoming city officials.

"I became aware of circumstances that could have been a real problem," said City Attorney Gerald Buhr, who sought the injunction. "I had an obligation to avoid this."

Meanwhile, local business leaders say the political turmoil is hurting attempts to promote the city.

"It makes it difficult to bring in business in the midst of all the chaos," said Corine Waters, executive director of the Greater Mulberry Chamber of Commerce. "It's sad."

On Wednesday, County Judge Steven T. Selph issued an order restraining Mayor-elect Mark Seigler and commissioners-elect Sam McLaughlin and Irene Sams from conducting city business until sworn in at Tuesday's meeting.

The three were sworn in Monday by County Judge Michael Raiden but Selph's order reversed that.

Until Seigler, Sams and McLaughlin take the oath of office at Tuesday's meeting, Mayor Robert Wheeler and commissioners Vicky Beaver and Jerry Woods will keep their posts.

At the heart of the controversy lies a disagreement over how to interpret the city's charter.

Mulberry's charter says newly elected commissioners "shall take office at the first regular meeting following their election."

The incoming officials maintained they should have been

sworn in at the April 7 regular meeting, which occurred two days after the election. Frustrated by the City Commission's refusal to seat them, the three arranged to be sworn in Monday by Raiden.

But Buhr said in his motion for the emergency temporary injunction that the election wasn't completed until the results were certified at the April 7 meeting. That meant the new commissioners wouldn't take office until the following meeting.

Buhr's motion alleges that since Monday's swearing-in the incoming officials have gone to city offices, demanded a special meeting be scheduled, threatened city employees with termination if they didn't comply and directed employees to tell the outgoing commissioners not to show up at the meeting.

The motion also cited a statement by Beaver saying she didn't recognize Monday's swearing-in ceremony and plans to take her seat at next Tuesday's meeting until McLaughlin, her successor, is sworn in later in that meeting.

McLaughlin and Seigler, who were involved in calling the meeting that Wednesday's court order canceled, denied the allegations.

In addition to the differences in the charter interpretation, City Clerk Vanessa Baker said there were other reasons why the newly elected officials could not be sworn in at the April 7 City Commission meeting.

For one, the swearing-in ceremony was not on the agenda and had not been posted in a legal advertisement.

Second, she said she didn't have oaths of office prepared, which have specific wording and must be prepared in advance for signing by the officials taking the oath.

Baker said the oath is normally prepared by the city attorney, who was not present at the April 7 meeting because of a scheduling conflict. She said she did not know whether a copy of the oath was available anywhere in City Hall.

The standard oath for public officials is contained in the Florida Constitution.

At the April 7 meeting, Baker took responsibility, explaining she was relying on past procedure. She said she was unaware it was at variance with the charter and she publicly apologized for any problems it caused.

Local business leaders say they are watching the situation and hope things will settle down.

"Attracting business right now is not our No. 1 focus," said Cathy Hayes, president of the Chamber of Commerce. "Hopefully, everything will sort itself out."

Hayes and Beth Clark, the chamber's secretary, said they are looking forward to working with the newly elected commissioners.

"Our hope is that good things will come of this when the dust settles," Clark said. "I think all of them love Mulberry."

The big question, and the grist of rumors circulating around the city, is what the new commissioners will do when they finally do take office.

Seigler denied rumors that he would declare a state of emergency as allowed in the city charter and begin firing people.

Among the rumored casualties are Public Works Director David Bloome, who is serving as the acting city manager, and Fire Chief Gary Weiss.

"I have no intention of hiring and firing, but I may do some realigning," Seigler said. "I don't know what I'll do yet."

The prospect of abrupt changes was behind Marvin Pittman's note this week to Bloome saying he would resign as police administrator "if there were certain changes."

Pittman said that meant any decision to replace qualified people with unqualified people in the department.

Mulberry has been without a police chief since Bloome forced out Police Chief Alan Graham on March 18. Pittman, a retired Polk County sheriff's administrator, is helping run the 12-officer department until a new police chief is hired.

Bloome said he has received 19 applications and will continue to accept applications until May 27, when the list will be reviewed and a new chief will be hired.

One of the contenders for the post is Pete Karashay, a retired Polk sheriff's deputy who ran unsuccessfully last year for sheriff.

Commissioner-elect McLaughlin called Karashay "a front runner."

Karashay was present among McLaughlin's supporters at the Mulberry Civic Center on election day.

Mayor-elect Seigler contributed to Karashay's campaign, according to county election records.

Tom Palmer can be reached at tom.palmer@theledger.com or 863-802-7535.