Bonifay City Council voted Monday night to postpone adding a referendum to the upcoming March election that would amend the City Charter to make the Bonifay City Clerk position an elected office. The action came after City Attorney Michelle Jordan raised concerns as to whether voter fraud was committed during the petition process.
Jordan provided council members with documentation that the petition circulator, Maria Gomez, purchased a home on Highway 160 in July 2021 through the Federal Housing Administration home loan program, a requirement of which is that Gomez is to occupy and establish the property as her primary residence.
Jordan noted that records show Gomez updated her driver’s license to reflect the Highway 160 address in August.
Attorney Kevin Forsthoefel, an attorney with Tallahassee-based Ausley McMullen law firm which represents Gomez, responded to a Feb. 4 residence inquiry from Jordan to stress that Gomez is a qualified elector for the City of Bonifay.
“Since moving to Bonifay in October 2019, Ms. Gomez and her family have resided, uninterrupted, in an upstairs apartment located at 121 N. Waukesha Street and they continue to live at that address today,” wrote Forsthoefel in his response on Feb. 9. “Ms. Gomez has a utility account in her individual name at the 121 N. Waukesha Street address and is registered to vote at this address.”
Still, Jordan says the optics of Gomez’s signed promise to occupy the out-of-city residence is enough to give the City pause on moving forward with the petition.
“I’m not qualified to state that there is definitely voter fraud, but there is certainly the appearance of impropriety,” Jordan told council members. “While the City is not implicated in any allegations of fraud, we should certainly avoid perpetuating it.”
Meanwhile, Gomez states her mortgage should not be a factor in the council’s decision on whether to act on the referendum.
“This is not about me, Maria Gomez,” she said. “This is about the City Council ignoring its legal obligation under the City Charter to place a charter referendum submitted by 10% of Bonifay’s registered voters on the ballot. A number of unfounded allegations were raised at [Monday] night’s Bonifay City Council meeting to personally attack me, a private citizen, and deny Bonifay residents the ability to decide for themselves whether the City Clerk should be elected by the people she serves.”
“I am a Bonifay City resident and voter,” she added. “The City Attorney’s allegations about my relationship with my mortgage company are completely false. Further, my private dealings and communications with my mortgage company are not the City’s business.”
Jordan responded to the statement by pointing out that mortgages are publicly recorded documents.
“This mortgage was provided to me by a concerned citizen; however, from the City’s perspective, whether or not Mrs. Gomez has committed mortgage fraud is irrelevant to whether the petition was generated lawfully,” said Jordon. “Mrs. Gomez apparently told the FHA that this out of city address would be her permanent residence as of July 2021. Just a few weeks later, she did update her permanent address with the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, which would be expected if she intended to occupy that home as her primary residence. The City is not questioning whether Mrs. Gomez committed mortgage fraud; it’s questioning if she was living outside the city limits during the same time she was telling citizens that she was a resident of the City of Bonifay and signed the petition herself as an elector.”
“It is not possible to claim a permanent residence outside the city limits while still maintaining your voter registration and the right vote inside the city limits,” Jordan added. “The allegation of election fraud is based in the fact Gomez presented herself as a qualified elector by both signing the petition and when speaking with city residents, some of whom may not have been comfortable signing the petition had they known she was not actually a city resident.”
“Notwithstanding Gomez’s assertion that she has always lived at 121 Waukesha Street, her driver’s license never reflected that address,” added Jordan.
“It listed an address in Sarasota, then she changed it to the Highway 161 address. Florida law requires citizens to update their address within thirty days of changing addresses and Gomez has never listed 121 Waukesha as her address.”
Jordan went on to note that although the Supervisor of Elections did initially certify the ballot, 12 days after the certification, she received notice from the State of Florida that Gomez had updated her address to the Highway 161 address.
“Mrs. Meadows sent a notification of the change of address to Gomez at the new address, as required by Florid law, and Gomez did not object to that change or try to change her voter address to 121 Waukesha,” said Jordan.
Jordan provided council with examples of Florida case law that showed that if there are allegations of fraud, those are sufficient to pull a ballot initiative off a ballot.
“Under Florida law, election fraud is never cured by holding the election,” she said.
Jordan went on to say that she has “turned over her research to the appropriate authorities” for investigation.