Councilman Edward Shropshire awaits a decision from the Lantana Town Council on Jan. 22 on whether it would appeal a judge’s ruling that kept him on the ballot. Beside him is a Lantana resident, Catherine Phillips Padilla. Tim Stepien /The Coastal Star
By Mary Thurwachter
Mark Allen Zeitler, a candidate for the Group 3 seat on the Lantana Town Council, got what seemed to be celebratory news on Jan. 15. He was informed by town staff that the man he thought would be his opponent, council member Edward Shropshire, had not qualified for re-election. That meant Zeitler, who did qualify for election, would automatically fill the position when Shropshire’s first term expires in March.
But Zeitler didn’t rush to pop open the champagne — a wise decision as it turned out, because that news, as he had suspected, was too good to be true.
“I’m a wait-and-see person,” said Zeitler, 63. “I knew he was going to court,” which is exactly what Shropshire did. The town, Palm Beach County Supervisor of Elections Wendy Link and Zeitler were named as defendants.
Less than a week later, a circuit judge ruled that Shropshire, 67, could remain on the ballot, despite the fact he had not turned in the petitions from registered voters necessary to qualify.
Shropshire said he believed he had qualified after he turned in the certificate of qualification given by Link’s office to Nicole Dritz, the town clerk, before the Dec. 13 qualifying date and that she did not tell him otherwise. Dritz had two jobs at the time — clerk and development services director, a job to which she had been appointed after Dave Thatcher left in November. She now is no longer the clerk.
The snafu leading up to the ruling began after an anonymous concerned citizen made a public records request to look at the Lantana candidates’ qualifying documents and discovered that three of the four candidates (Philip J. Aridas and Karen Lythgoe for the Group 4 seat, and Zeitler for the Group 3 seat) had filed all necessary paperwork. Shropshire’s documents were missing petitions from registered voters, although he did have a certification from the Supervisor of Elections Office saying that he had the petitions and they had been verified.
After the citizen brought this discovery to the attention of the town clerk, Shropshire was told that his name would not appear on the ballot. And Zeitler was informed he won by default.
In Circuit Court, Judge James Martz ruled in Shropshire’s favor.
During an emergency Town Council meeting on Jan. 22, Town Attorney Max Lohman announced the judge’s decision and asked council members (minus Shropshire, who recused himself for obvious reasons) whether they wanted to appeal. Based on Lohman’s recommendation, they voted not to appeal.
Lohman said that by “enforcing the code and getting the result from the court … the town removed any specter of appearing that the town administration favored an incumbent. We did the same thing we’d have done if it was anybody else.”
Dritz’s telling the candidate he was good to go “was a mistake that could have been significant, but for the court’s ruling,” as Zeitler would then have been named winner.
It’s noteworthy, Lohman said, “that the opponent (Zeitler), also named in the case, did not attend any of the hearings and did not have legal counsel attend any of the hearings. So, at this point, it seems to me appealing the case would almost be as if we were pressing forward that individual’s interest. … I think the result of the court still preserves the interest of the public and the town.”
Zeitler, a political newcomer, said he got last- minute notification for the initial hearing on Jan. 17, and wasn’t able to be there for work reasons and didn’t have time to determine whether he needed counsel. He hadn’t done anything wrong, he said, and didn’t know what he could add to the proceedings. He did, however, suspend his campaign, held up on ordering lawn signs and stopped taking political contributions.
The judge, Lohman said, doesn’t believe that this ruling in any way favors Shropshire. “He did acquire the petitions and in all aspects other than physically submitting them to the clerk, met all the requirements and qualifications.”
The clerk is not responsible for correcting errors in paperwork, Lohman said, but the clerk is responsible for verifying that candidates have submitted all the required documents before informing them that they qualified.
When Mayor David Stewart asked Lohman whether the town was setting a precedent by voting not to appeal, Lohman said, “No, sir, it does not.”
The identity of the concerned citizen was not revealed. No logs are kept of people who come to view public records. “Under law … you are not permitted to require their name, to ask them why they want to see it or anything of that nature,” Lohman said.
After the emergency meeting, Shropshire said he was pleased with the result. He said he thought the county’s certificate of qualification was all he had to turn in to the clerk. “All I really wanted was that the people of Lantana had a chance to decide,” he said.
Zeitler said he was OK with the outcome, too. “This way the voters will decide,” he said.
But regarding correctly filing qualification documents, Zeitler said of Shropshire, “Everybody else got it right and he has been through this before. Makes you wonder about his competence.” The election is March 17.