NORTH PORT — North Port’s mayor could face possible censure or civil penalties if it’s found that she violated codes of conduct and state statutes that prohibit eavesdropping on private conversations without the other party’s consent.
Or it could collapse like a house of cards if an ethics complaint proves to be frivolous.
In this case, those citing Mayor Debbie McDowell’s alleged misconduct are a North Port group working to de-annex the West Villages complex of communities from the city.
West Villagers for Responsible Government formed this year as a political committee in protest of city property tax hikes in 2019. The group says it has 2,000 petition signatures to de-annex West Villages, which in April was rebadged as Wellen Park, from the city of North Port.
Ultimately, North Port must decide whether to grant the request to decouple from West Villages.
West Villagers for Responsible Government had filed the complaint against McDowell with the Florida Commission on Ethics. The allegation is that McDowell “surreptitiously” obtained passcodes or credentials for the group’s March 23 meeting, which was invitation only.
Prior to the online meeting, only members of the group, which goes by WV4RG, were sent email invitations with the link and password to the meeting, which was conducted on the online WebEx platform, according a media release forwarded Wednesday.
McDowell logged into the meeting on a city-issued cellphone and didn’t answer when roll call was taken, a spokesperson for the group said. She obtained the password from an unauthorized person living at West Villages, the group insisted Wednesday.
It was later confirmed the mayor had joined the meeting, which was an undefined “strategy session,” David Fernstrum said. The group learned that McDowell had obtained a passcode and passively observed from city email dialogue obtained from a source canvassing public records.
McDowell was confronted with the facts at a West Villages candidate’s forum in May. She seeks re-election in November. She acknowledged listening to the March 23 proceedings.
“It was an open meeting and I was invited,” she told a participant questioning her motives at the candidate forum at Gran Paradiso, a gated West Villages community.
Further pressed on motives for snooping without acknowledging her presence, McDowell replied that she didn’t want to “jeopardize what you guys were trying to do.”
The group posted that one-minute, 42-second candidate forum exchange on its website. The segment got heated and was gaveled to conclusion by John Meisel, another leader in the West Villagers for Responsible Government movement.
McDowell appeared upset by what looked like an ambush, rather than an exchange of her re-election platform. She left after that.
On Wednesday, McDowell said a complaint with any state investigative agency would restrict her from commenting on her side of the matter.
A spokesperson for the Florida Commission on Ethics wouldn’t confirm or deny a complaint had been filed against McDowell. The nine-member commission meets next on July 24. Its findings would become public record and get posted on its website by July 29. The agenda wasn’t posted Wednesday.
If West Villagers for Responsible Government has gathered credible information reflecting their allegations, a Florida Commission on Ethics investigator would get involved. And if there is no evidence of misconduct or it proves frivolous, the matter would get dropped, and a recommendation for dismissal entered into public records.
Those in found in violation of statutes or codes of conduct, however, would face simple censure to more serious consequences such as a recommendation for removal from office. But the most likely scenario is a civil penalty, fines up to $10,000.
Questioned whether attacking the mayor of the city that would decide his group’s fate made sense, Fernstrum replied: “Is it smart? Who knows. But we felt like (people) should know how irresponsible their government is behaving. At least this part.”