Dunedin reviewing whether to allow partisan donations in local elections

For many years, local elections have somewhat been the last frontier of grassroots, nonpartisan politics. But that could change for one city in Pinellas County, which has long prohibited candidates from mingling with political groups.

"They would say, 'Well, are you a Republican or a Democrat?' and I'd say, 'Well, I would really rather not discuss that. This is a nonpartisan election,'" said former Dunedin Commissioner John Tornga, recalling his campaign days."There's nothing here that's partisan... The streets are all of ours. The water is for all of us. The parks are for all of us."

But he's concerned politics in the city are getting too, well, political.

Thursday, the Dunedin City Commission is set to discuss recommendations on several ordinances, including one focused on what's being called unfair campaign practices in elections. 

Section 26-202 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 Bujualski 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campaign contribution ordinances are preempted by state statute, that the section is unconstitutional and should be repealed, that it would not be appropriate to pursue enforcement, and that he planned to bring the matter to the Ordinance Review Committee.

Thursday, the commission will discuss the committee's recommendations to eliminate subsections prohibiting partisan donations, event attendance, and the punishment for violations.  

"It would be frustrating because you can't go 35 miles an hour but if you do," Tornga said, shrugging his shoulders, "we're not going to do anything about it. You're given rules, you follow rules."

Some Dunedin residents want things to stay as-is and completely nonpartisan.

"Are they going to have the city's interest first and not their party's interest first?" asked Darren Ross.

Others don't mind who pays who, as long as it's out in the open.

"I don't think I do care. I care more about how they address the issues for our city," said Debra Yerman. "We need a lot more honesty in our government right now I think."

This, and about 20 other recommended changes to the city's code of ordinances, will be discussed Thursday night. The meeting is set for 6 p.m. at Dunedin City Hall.