WANNA A REAL SOAP OPERA...VISIT MULBERRY CITY HALL!
Mulberry is a small city located in western Polk County just south of Lakeland. It's a friendly town of about 3,400, unless you are actively involved in it's government; then you might believe that you had just stepped into a real-life episode of Survivor! Recent events make theh Mulberry City Council a soap opera all it's own.
On April 7, after two members of the City Commission had been defeated in the municipal election, the mayor-elect and new commissioners were expecting to be sworn in according to the city's charter. But that was not to be. The mayor moved to have the meeting adjourned as the newbies feared that their soon-to-be predecessors would take actions contrary to their own liking. It turned into an occasional shouting match between the commissioners on the dais and the newbies and their supporters in the audience. The City Clerk took the blame for the fiasco, saying that although the charter mandates that new commissioners be sworn in at the first regularly scheduled meeting following an election, officials had traditionally waited until a later meeting to give the oath to newbies.
The two new commissioners, Sam McLaughlin and Irene Sams, and Mayor-elect Mark Seigler were not interested in waiting. They went to Bartow the following week and had County Judge Michael Raiden give them the oath of office, a decision that was cancelled by County Judge Stephen L. Selph after a complaint was filed by City Attorney Gerald Buhr as a special commission meeting had been scheduled, and the complaint claimed that any action taken then would violate the Government in the Sunshine Law.
Finally, the trio were sworn in at the April 19 meeting, after it had to be reconvened across town at the Mulberry Civic Center in order to accomodate the large audience. In the meantime an administrative assistant and the city's code enforcement officer had resigned during the turmoil, and the interim police chief (who had replaced one who was fired) submitted and later rescinded his own resignation. The City Manager had previously left, and the public works director has been serving in the position on an interim basis.
But peace was not to come.
Four weeks later, two of the newbies --- Mayor Seigler and Commissioner McLaughlin --- got into a shouting match during a discussion of hiring a new City Manager. Seigler accused McLaughlin of "tainting the process" after the new commissioner had spoken with former Dade City manager Doug Drymon privately before he was officially interviewed in late April. The Public Works Director, David Bloome, failed to get the job permanantly by a 3-2 vote May 3.
In the meantime, McLaughlin --- who is a former mayor --- became a lightning rod for controversy. Critics say that he regularly violated the charter prohibiting commissiners in meddling in day-to-day operations, and Seigler said he bogged down meetings by adding what he called "petty" items to the agenda. McLaughlin also reportedly was quick to call for investigations of city employees without cause.
But on June 9 things really got out of hand.
Much of that night's meeting dealt on wheather David Bloome would retain his interim position as City Manager. Bloome, after criticizing his treatment by McLaughlin, resigned and walked out of the meeting. Minutes later, both McLaughlin and Sams announced their resignations on the spot and walked out as well. Bloome returned about a half hour afterward and resumed his duties in the meeting.
Now...they want to come back.
McLaughlin and Sams sent letters to Mayor Seigler claiming they want to reclaim their seats. Seigler opined that "It's clear they left with no intention to return." While Mulberry's charter does not speak on the issue, an advisory Attorney General's opinion in 1994 says that public officials cannot rescind their resignations, an opinion based on Florida law and a state supreme court opinion. Sams says her returning is no different from Bloome's actions last week, as he returned about a half hour after saying he was resigning and walking out, only to return shortly afterward.
Sounds like we haven't heard the last of this yet. Just goes to show ya that while one may thing that big town controversy may get a lot of attention, it usually doesn't come close to the contentiousness found in small towns.