County Commissioners vote to censure Joseph

Election comments at heart of issue


Four members of the St. Johns County Board of County Commissioners voted at their regular meeting on Dec. 5 to censure Commissioner Krista Joseph in relation to statements she made during the Nov. 21 meeting.

Commissioner Henry Dean made the motion, claiming that Joseph had given a “campaign speech,” which he believed had violated state statute.

He also moved that outside counsel be sought to work with the commission to “try to determine specifically whether or not this violated state law” and make a recommendation on what, if anything, should be done.

Commissioner Christian Whitehurst seconded the motion.

Seven members of the public spoke to the issue, all opposing the motion. Some who spoke opposed the county spending taxpayer money to hire the outside attorney. Some interpreted the motion as a response to previous votes by Joseph that placed her at odds with others on the board.

It was an interpretation rejected by some of the commissioners.

“This is not about personalities,” said Dean. “It’s not about past votes or future votes of this commission. It’s about, in my opinion, what may be a violation of state election law.”

In her defense, Joseph said she was reading off the Supervisor of Elections website and that she had consulted her attorney before speaking.

On Nov. 21, Joseph began her commissioner comments by giving a laundry list of grievances that the public might hold against the status quo and then mentioned the upcoming election. She didn’t get much further before other commissioners stopped her, after which she attempted to explain her comments.

County Attorney David Migut cautioned her at that time that she may have “crossed the line” with the board’s decorum and civility policy.

“Why can’t I say the election is within nine months, less than nine months?” Joseph said.

“I think that’s a fine statement,” said Migut. “You’ve already made that statement.”

That’s where the discussion ended.

The statute referenced by Dean was 104.31 concerning “Political activities of state, county, and municipal officers and employees.” It is sometimes called Florida’s “Little Hatch Act.” Portions of the relevant rules and policies of the board mirror the statute.

The statute states in part that no county officer shall use his or her official authority or influence for the purpose of, among other things, “influencing another person’s vote or affecting the result thereof.”

Whether Joseph’s comments ran afoul of that standard is a matter of interpretation, particularly since she didn’t actually complete what she might have planned to say.

On Dec. 1, Migut  circulated an “interoffice memorandum on decorum and civility” to the commissioners referencing board rules and policies, the Little Hatch Act and other relevant passages in Florida Statutes. It also acknowledged that the county’s administrative code prohibits the use of the Government Access Channel (GTV) “to endorse an issue, candidate, specific person, company or brand name product for consumer use.”

An argument could be made that any commissioner endorsing any idea expressed at any meeting accessible to the public via GTV might be subject to this rule, even if made during the legitimate discussion by the board.

Because Dean’s motion passed, the Office of the County Attorney will seek the requested outside counsel to evaluate Joseph’s comments and provide an opinion to be brought back to the board at a future meeting.