NORTH PORT — Mayor Debbie McDowell has been cleared of a grievance filed by a North Port group asserting that she had eavesdropped on an invitation-only virtual conversation.

The Florida Commission on Ethics dismissed a complaint filed in July by Victor Dobrin, who had objected to McDowell obtaining a password for a strategy meeting held by the West Villagers for Responsible Government, listened in without identifying herself.

The group seeks to de-annex West Villages, or Wellen Park, from the city of North Port. Dobrin is a leader in the movement.

The group had alleged that McDowell “surreptitiously” obtained credentials for the group’s March conference call, which was invitation only.

Similar accusations were made against two others who sent the password and log-in information to McDowell.

The Florida Commission on Ethics ruled that McDowell had not violated a state statute for using her position as mayor to benefit herself or others, according to details in the ruling dated Sept. 16.

McDowell had argued that she was observing an open meeting.

“I was invited,” she said.

But the issue may resurface. West Villagers for Responsible Government filed a civil suit in August in Sarasota County Court against McDowell and one other person, seeking up to $30,000 in damages, plus punitive damages and attorney fees.

A future civil suit or another complaint with the state will be reworded to reflect that McDowell unlawfully listened in on private conversations, said John Meisel.

The mayor, he said, “gleaned information to keep (us) from successfully de-annexing” from North Port, he said.

The group formed in 2019, and members have protested what they say are high city taxes, and advocated de-annexing their subdivisions from the city. The group has submitted petition signatures and resolution language to de-annex. North Port has six months to respond.

McDowell is running for a second term in November.


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