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Thursday, October 28, 2021

City Commission special election could be set for early November, Alachua County extends mask mandate

Gail Johnson’s at-large seat is expected to be vacant early October

The Gainesville City Commission met Aug. 26 to discuss the enforcement of Alachua County’s newly-renewed seven-day mask mandate and to plan a special election following Commissioner Gail Johnson’s resignation.

On Aug. 23, Commissioner Gail Johnson announced her intent to resign in late September because of concerns with City Manager Lee Feldman’s employment, unfulfilled city promises and a lack of commitment to racial and gender equality in the city, according to her Facebook post.

The commission met Aug. 26 to discuss plans for a special election to replace Johnson, which could be as soon as early November. Details about the election are still tentative, and finalized election dates are unclear as of that evening.

The city has 60 days to hold an election after Johnson’s official resignation letter, which it expects to have around Oct. 1, according to city codes. At the meeting, commissioners discussed holding an election on Nov. 2 or Nov. 16 to bypass holidays such as Veterans Day, Thanksgiving and Hanukkah.

Qualifying for an election must take place 50 days before the election, meaning candidates could qualify to run as early as Sept. 13 if the election takes place on Nov. 2. To run, candidates must be a resident of Gainesville for more than six months before they run for office.

Whoever replaces Johnson will serve until the end of her term in 2024, city clerk department head Omichele Gainey said at the meeting. Johnson said her last meeting will be on Sept. 23, and her last day in city hall is a week later. Election dates also depend on when Johnson officially puts her resignation in writing.

Commissioners also spoke in support of early voting and mail-in voting but expressed concerns about costs.

Gainesville’s last standalone election cost about $193,000 to $196,000, city attorney Daniel Nee said at the Thursday meeting. To decrease the cost, the city could reduce the amount of early voting days or even combine precincts.

Commissioner Reina Saco discussed decreasing early voting from six to three days to lower costs. She also opposed having the election close to Thanksgiving to ensure UF students and staff can vote.

“They deserve a say in this,” Saco said. “I know we don’t have many great choices available, but I don’t feel entirely comfortable with that one because of the number of people that could potentially be excluded.”

Mayor Lauren Poe supported combining voting precincts but mentioned the city would have to ensure residents know where to vote if they’re used to their usual precincts.

On Aug. 24, the Alachua County Commission also voted to extend the mask mandate emergency order and the county’s state of emergency, which was initiated Aug. 5. The seven-day-long mask mandate requires those age 6 and older to wear masks unless they are medically exempt.

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It’s difficult to keep masks on children, which is why the county decided to update the mandate to exempt those younger than 6, county spokesperson Mark Sexton said.

Residents and visitors who do not wear a mask and are not medically exempt can face monetary citations of up to $500, according to the order. Code enforcement officers and police officers from cities and the county can issue warnings and citations for those who go against the mandate, Sexton said.

“We do want citizens to know now that if you refuse to comply with an emergency order that carries the full weight of the law, that you are in jeopardy of receiving a citation,” Sexton said.

The City Commission discussed enforcing the county’s mask order at the city’s meeting Thursday. City Manager Lee Feldman proposed the city police enforce the mandate rather than code enforcement officers, as police have experience in de-escalating potentially confrontational situations.

Christina Pushaw, press secretary for Gov. Ron DeSantis, tweeted on Aug. 24 the Alachua County’s emergency order is invalid. However, Sexton disagreed.

The emergency order is not in violation of Florida laws, including the Florida Senate law stating that DeSantis can void emergency orders, Sexton said.

“There is no debate here, though,” he said. “What we are doing is absolutely legal and anyone who uses that Governor’s order as an example of why it’s not legal is either confused or deliberately spreading misinformation.”

Contact Meghan at mmglone@alligator.org. Follow her on Twitter @meggmcglone.

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Meghan McGlone

Meghan McGlone is a UF junior majoring in journalism and English, and this year she’s the City and County Commission reporter. In past years, she’s served as the University Editor, the Student Government reporter, and other positions. Her favorite past time is eating gummy worms and reading a good book.


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