By Mike Lednovich
Fernandina Beach City Commissioner Chip Ross is seeking an advisory opinion from the Florida Attorney General regarding the city attorney’s recent ruling that candidates for city commission seats can use their political party affiliations in a nonpartisan election.
“I’m seeking a second opinion,” Ross said. “Our City Charter states the election is nonpartisan. I’d like another opinion on political party affiliations being allowed in the upcoming election.”
In a letter to the Attorney General dated Jan. 30, Ross wrote, “There is a significant likelihood that in the next election cycle for City Commissioner political parties will nominate or endorse candidates.”
Ross asked the Attorney General’s office to answer three questions:
Is it permissible under Florida law, where, as here, a City Charter mandates that its election be “nonpartisan” for an organized county political party wherein the City is located, to formally and publicly nominate and/or endorse candidates for “nonpartisan” office, e.g., City Commissioner, City of Fernandina Beach?
Can a candidate for a “nonpartisan” elected office, e.g., City Commissioner, City of Fernandina Beach, campaign as the nominee or endorsed candidate of an organized political party?
Is it a violation of Section 9 of the City of Fernandina Beach Charter to include party affiliation in “political advertisements” (as defined in Florida Election Code) or to openly state political party affiliation during campaigns for City Commission seats?
On Jan. 21, City Attorney Tammi Bach issued an opinion that candidates for three Fernandina Beach City Commission seats, which have been non-partisan races, can now use their political party affiliations in advertisements and during their campaigns.
The opinion was issued at the request of City Commissioner Darron Ayscue.
The issue of political party involvement in city commission races came to the forefront in the 2022 Fernandina Beach city elections when the local Republican Party distributed flyers supporting Ayscue and James Antun. The two candidates were also backed by Republican-leaning political action committee funding for campaign mailings and robocalls during a runoff election in December. Both Ayscue and Antun won election as commissioners.
Ross referenced the local Republic Party involvement in the 2022 city commission runoff election in his letter.
The city attorney based the opinion on the case of Pensacola resident Kells Hetherington, who ran for Escambia County School Board in 2022. In his 2018 bid for a school board seat, Hetherington told voters he was a “lifelong Republican” in the nonpartisan race. The Florida Elections Commission initially fined Hetherington $500 for his party of choice disclosure. After Hetherington objected based on First Amendment rights, the charge was reduced to $200. But Hetherington decided to run for the school board again in 2022, which led to his lawsuit. It was filed to ensure he could state his party affiliation in 2022 campaign communications. U.S. District Judge M. Casey Rodgers, in her final Opinion filed November 8, 2022, struck down the Florida statute outlining non-partisan campaign “speech” limits.