Dunedin ordinance would halt candidates from accepting donations from partisan political organizations

Dunedin leaders are one step closer to getting rid of a long-standing campaign rule essentially prohibiting candidates from accepting donations from political parties or other partisan groups.

The hope is to keep politics out of local elections, but some are breaking the rule. Thursday night, commissioners unanimously approved to move forward with a plan to do away with the rule altogether. 

“I really don’t think we should be taking money from political parties," resident Suzanne Vale said.  

Citizens made their voices heard, urging commissioners to follow the longtime ordinance and not to take money from political parties.

“They say they want to be non-partisan. How are we going to be non-partisan if we take all the rules away. What happens then? How do we maintain our non-partisanship?" former Dunedin City Commissioner John Tornga said.

Tornga previously served as a Dunedin commissioner and ran without a party affiliation.

Thursday, commissioners received a report from the ordinance review committee which recommends changes to ordinance section 26-202. It prohibits candidates from soliciting or accepting money from partisan political groups or participating in partisan functions with a punishment of fines up to $500 or up to 60 days in prison.

But records show Commissioner Jeff Gow has received at least $300 from Democratic organizations while Mayor Julie Bujalski received at least $1,500.

Following a citizen complaint in 2018 alleging that Gow violated city code, City Attorney Thomas Trask cited a 1974 attorney general opinion that municipal campaign contribution ordinances are preempted by state statute. Trask said that the section is unconstitutional and should be repealed, that it would not be appropriate to pursue enforcement, and that he planned to bring the matter to the Ordinance Review Committee.

“If you are going to violate ordinances in this city should you remain as an ordinance producer? Or as a commissioner? Or as mayor? Or vice mayor?" Tornga asked.

“Fellow commissioners, it doesn’t matter what anyone’s party is up here. We are all making the best decisions we can for water, wastewater, parks and recreation, library, fire, law enforcement. We represent all the citizens and I can’t imagine us being anything but non-partisan," Commissioner Maureen Freaney said.

FOX 13 reached out to the city for a comment but as of Thursday night there was no response.

Commissioners will take up this issue again at workshop set to happen sometime in March.