For most of the month of March, downtown Maitland street corners filled with campaign signs and sign-wavers for the municipal City Council election. The four candidates would take residence on each corner of the intersection of U.S. Highway 17-92 and Horatio Avenue waving all they had for their own seat in City Hall just steps away.
Supporters stood along in solidarity, some with signs urging drivers by to vote for their mom, wife or friend. Others went without identifiers, needing nothing but their familiar faces to get their relations across.
Maitland Mayor Howard Schieferdecker and Councilman Jeff Flowers took to the streets, signs in hand, the Friday before the election – Schieferdecker doing double duty with signs for candidates Renee Charlan and John Lowndes, and Flowers boasting only for Charlan. Out-going Councilwoman Bev Reponen also hopped from corner to corner, with no sign – only smiles and waves.
“That’s terrible,” Reponen said, motioning to the Mayor waving his chosen signs across the street, adding that she thought it was wrong for him as the mayor and head of the city to be openly campaigning for two particular candidates. In her six years on Council, she said she’d never seen such open campaigning from a mayor or Council members before.
“It is a little uncomfortable,” said candidate Joy Goff-Marcil motioning in the same direction.
Schieferdecker shrugged off the concerns, saying he was exercising his right as a private citizen – supporting the candidates he felt would do the best job on Council – and was doing so on non-work hours and without ever identifying himself as the mayor.
“I’m a citizen of Maitland and I’m just as concerned as anybody else about how it moves forward, even many times more so because I’m in the middle of it. And I want to put the team together that I feel will do the best for our city,” Schieferdecker said.
But an email sent a month before the election from a person identifying himself as Maitland Mayor Howard Schieferdecker implored more than 60 recipients, including fellow council members, to support the Charlan campaign. The email appeared to be from Schieferdecker's personal email address, identifying its author as the mayor.
There is no ordinance in the Maitland City Charter prohibiting city officials from participating in campaigning for other candidates, said Maitland City Clerk Maria Waldrop. Instead, the city defaults to following the Florida state statue “Title IX: Electors and Elections,” which states city employees must do all campaigning off duty, and never through coercive measures or by over-utilizing their position of power. Schieferdecker's email, and reported incidents of campaigning as the mayor on candidates' behalf, may be in violation of that statute.
Maitland's hands-off approach to election rules contrasts with Winter Park, where city officials campaigning openly for candidates is rare and has generated powerful backlash. Following elections in November of last year in which city auditor Bernadette Britz-Parker was accused of publicly endorsing Commissioner Carolyn Cooper in her re-election campaign, she resigned. That resignation came after she had been chastised for her endorsement, though Cooper said that rebuke was politically motivated.
Schieferdecker said that leading up to the election he’d received at least one email from a local resident upset with his involvement in election proceedings, but maintained that he wasn’t doing anything against code or unethical – only arguing for what he thought was best for the city as a concerned resident who happens to be the mayor.
“To me there’s no protocol,” Schieferdecker said. “I’m a citizen. Why should I be penalized as an elected official? If you look at state and federal races, people support people all the time … why can’t it be done that way in a local election?”
Councilwoman Reponen reasoned that that “why” could be determined from what might happen after the election once the new members are inducted to Council.
“Common sense tells you it’s not advisable because if your candidate you’re holding up the signs for does get in it’s one thing, and then another thing if they don’t. They’ll know from the get-go you didn’t want them on Council. And that’s not a good working relationship,” she said. “… It’s a very awkward situation from that moment forward.”
Leading up to the election, candidates said they were unsure of how such endorsements would translate when it came down to votes on ballots.
“I’m not sure if that helps me or hurts me,” Goff-Marcil said, referencing the mayor and Councilmen Flowers and Valdes’ contributions to her opponent Renee Charlan’s campaign.
“I don’t think it really matters that she got those endorsements because I’m looking for the endorsement of the residents … not for the mayor or the other council people as much as the residents. That’s the most important endorsement a candidate could get.”
When it comes down to dollars and cents invested in the candidates by current Council members – according to financial contribution campaign reports on the city’s website – the weight of that endorsement money didn’t translate into winning seats.
Charlan garnered a total of $1,200 in donations made between Flowers, Schieferdecker and Valdes, and candidate Charlie Adkins received $800 between Valdes and Flowers – while neither Goff-Marcil or Lowndes, victors in the March 12 election, received any reported financial contributions from the current Council.
“People say that because I’m the mayor I have a certain influence and that might be true, but there are people in the city who don’t support me (and) therefore they won’t support my candidate,” Schieferdecker said. “… It’s give and take.”