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Fort Lauderdale mayor asks Attorney General for help as city remains without commission

John Herbst takes a selfie while campaigning.
John Herbst Twitter
John Herbst takes a selfie while campaigning.

Faced first with a recount, then uncertainty about a candidate's eligibility to hold an office he was elected for, Fort Lauderdale has been without a functioning city commission since the midterm elections.

The five-person board only has two members because three newly-elected members have yet to be sworn in. Two of those newly-elected members, Pamela Beasley-Pittman and Warren Sturman, are scheduled to be sworn in next week. Sturman faced a recount that he ultimately won.

But John Herbst, who won District 1 by 2,852 votes, likely won't be part of the swearing-in ceremony. Although the winning candidate would have normally taken up the position by now, Herbst's rival Ken Keechl claimed he did not meet the residency requirements, leading city officials to not move forward with his ceremony last month.

Now, as questions continue to swirl over the matter, Mayor Dean Trantalis this week sent a letter to Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody, asking for her legal opinion on the challenge to his eligibility.

Former city commissioner Keechl, citing information from the Broward County property appraiser, claims that Herbst had not lived in the district for the required six months before being elected. Herbst did not have his driver's license or voter registration linked to his Fort Lauderdale address until May 31, the complaint to the City of Fort Lauderdale reads.

In a response Herbst's attorney, Barbra Stern, outlined that he signed a lease in Fort Lauderdale in April and listed the residence on his voter registration card — weeks before the six-month deadline — "demonstrating his intent to make Fort Lauderdale his residence."

"If your clients had taken any initiative to conduct their own independent investigation via a public records request to the Florida Department of State Division of Elections, they would have learned that the request for the change in address for his voter registration was actually submitted on April 12, 2022," the letter continued.

While the city charter requires candidates live in Fort Lauderdale six months prior to taking office, it does not define what legal residency means.

"Fort Lauderdale's charter is silent on a definition of residency so we are turning to state law and state legal precedent for clarity," the mayor's letter to Attorney General Moody read.

But Stern called the letter a "complete sham." In accordance to the city charter, the commission was already due to vote on Herbst’s political fate. The attorney insisted that if the mayor had followed the city’s charter, her client would have been sworn in, then faced the challenges to his eligibility, while abstaining from any votes regarding his eligibility.

"On the first Tuesday following the election of a new member, elected at other than a triennial regular election, the commission shall meet to receive such new member," the charter reads.

After the swearing-in was delayed, Herbst swore an oath of office in front of Circuit Court Judge Carlos Rodriguez on Nov. 23. It is unclear what affect this will have on his legal standing with the commission. City Attorney Alain Boileau did not return phone messages left by WLRN.

In a letter sent to the city commission, Boileau advised that the board wait to swear in Herbst until the challenge is settled. If not, Boileau wrote, a member could be found ineligible and "each and every vote and action by the disqualified member would... have no legal effect."

But Stern cited how a similar eligibility issue in 2014 did not prevent then elected-commissioner Robert McKinzie from being sworn in — while also blaming the city and the commission for the situation. "They knew there was openness to the interpretation in 2014," Stern said. "They've had eight years to clean up their charter."

Herbst served as the city’s auditor for 16 years before running to represent District one this year. The commission fired him in February after he investigated a former police chief.

Two of the commissioners who voted to fire Herbst, Trantalis and Steve Glassman, will decide his fate during the crucial Dec. 6 meeting along with Beasley-Pittman and Sturman.

Gerard Albert III covers Broward County. He is a former WLRN intern who graduated from Florida International University. He can be reached atgalbert@wlrnnews.org
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