Discussion of Joseph comments cut from county commission agenda


St. Johns County Commissioners removed an item from their regular meeting agenda Tuesday, Jan. 16, that would have addressed election-related comments made by Commissioner Krista Joseph during a previous meeting. The board was to have heard a presentation by outside counsel engaged to provide an opinion as to whether Joseph’s comments had run afoul of a section of state statute sometimes called Florida’s “Little Hatch Act.”

In part, Section 104.31 forbids elected officials to use their official authority or influence for the purpose of, among other things, “influencing another person’s vote or affecting the result thereof.”

At the board’s Nov. 21 meeting, 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 was stopped from going further.

At the Dec. 5 meeting, the commission voted 4-1 to censure Joseph after Commissioner Henry Dean claimed that Joseph had given a “campaign speech,” which he believed had violated state statute.

Dean also moved that the opinion of outside counsel be sought in the matter. That legal analysis was performed by Raymond Treadwell, a shareholder in the firm of Lawson, Huck, Gonzalez PLLC of Tallahassee, and rendered on Jan. 8.

Treadwell concluded that Joseph “likely violated section 104.31.”

“In context, the unmistakable purpose of her comments was to encourage voting out the Incumbent Commissioners,” he wrote.

A violation of section 104.31 would be a misdemeanor, according to the Election Code. The Florida Elections Commission may determine whether such a violation exists, but it must first find that the conduct in question was “willful.”

On Jan. 10, Joseph filed suit against the commission in federal court disagreeing with the interpretation of section 104.31, citing a 1978 Florida Attorney General opinion that construed section 104.31 as requiring “corrupt intent,” rather than simply being applied to political speech.

The complaint notes that Joseph would like to speak on political matters to county residents in the months preceding the primary election in August but states that the threat of criminal prosecution has had a chilling effect on her constitutionally protected political speech.

In her lawsuit, Joseph requests a declaration by the court of her First Amendment rights to express her political views.

Tuesday’s agenda item was removed at the recommendation of County Attorney David Migut, citing the litigation and advising the board not to discuss the matter in public.

Migut also informed the board that he would schedule a private executive session of the commission for the sole purpose of discussing the litigation. He could not say whether or not Joseph would be able to attend the executive session.

Joseph was elected to the board in 2022, defeating incumbent Commissioner Jeremiah Blocker.

Three commission seats are up for election this year, District 1, currently held by Commissioner Christian Whitehurst; District 3, currently held by Commissioner Roy Alaimo; and District 5, currently held by Dean.