Uncertainty looms over whether ex-auditor will be sworn in as Fort Lauderdale commissioner Tuesday

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – Nearly one month after winning their respective elections two of the three city commission-elects, Dr. Warren Sturman for District 4 and Pamela Beasley-Pittman for District 3, will be sworn in Tuesday morning.

Fort Lauderdale’s former city auditor John Herbst, who won District 1 in a landslide, is still facing a residency qualification challenge filed by a rival which means his swearing in is pending a quasi-judicial hearing about the challenge scheduled for after the swearing-in of the other two.

While the two other commissioners-elect are likely to be sworn in, it remains to be seen whether John Herbst will take his seat.

Herbst won the District 1 seat during the November election, roughly nine months after he was fired from his position as city auditor after conducting a probe into the city’s former police chief and his work hours.

Mayor Dean Trantalis led the charge to fire Herbst. Trantalis penned a letter to Attorney General Ashley Moody asking for an “advisory opinion” on the city’s District 1 race.

Fort Lauderdale’s city attorney said Trantalis sent that letter without his knowledge.

Following the election, two of the candidates who lost that race, Christopher Williams and Kenneth Keechl, filed a residency qualification challenge the day before Herbst was set to be sworn in.

Williams later withdrew his challenge.

Herbst said his April lease at an an apartment in the district meets the residency qualification.

Even though Keechl signed an affidavit stating its statements are “true and accurate to the best of (his) knowledge,” apparently, he can’t vouch for it.

Fort Lauderdale’s City Attorney Alain Boileau said, in an email, that Keechl’s attorney stated: “Mr. Keechl has no personal knowledge of the matters raised in his affidavit.”

According to the email, Boileau also wrote that Keechl’s attorney will not be available to attend Tuesday’s challenge because he is currently overseas.

“Mr. Blank’s automatic email response states this morning states the following: “[b]e advised, I will be traveling internationally through Dec. 11. and will have only limited access to e-mail during that time.”

“Seemingly, Mr. Blank will also not be available or present on December 6. Nevertheless, with this posture Commissioner-Elect Herbst cannot be afforded the due process to which he is entitled and by law is the presumptive winner of the election, as certified by the SOE, and has no burden or duty to prove his entitlement without due process,” wrote Boileau.

“Based upon the foregoing, it is my opinion and recommendation that without the ability to provide the requisite due process for Commissioner-Elect (Herbst), any hearing or meeting on this subject would be void ab initio, and essentially without legal effect,” Boileau’s email said. “As such, I would recommend foregoing any further action on the challenge submitted under Sec. 3.04, including the scheduled quasi-judicial proceeding, and proceed with the receipt of all Commissioners-Elect pursuant to Sec. 3.10 of the City Charter.”

Keechl has not responded to Local 10 News’ requests for comment regarding his affidavit.

In a statement Monday afternoon, a city spokesperson told Local 10 News: “We do not intend to republish a new agenda. We have spoken to the Mayor, who is the chair of the meeting, and he will ask if the challenger is physically present. If the challenger is not present, then the hearing will not be considered and we will promptly proceed to swearing in and receiving all new Commissioners.”

The attorney who, per the city attorney’s Saturday email, now appears to be representing Keechl is Jason Blank. Records show Blank is the Treasurer for the political committee Progress Fort Lauderdale.

During the election, Herbst’s attorney Barbra Stern said Progress Fort Lauderdale sent out a text message that read: “It’s Mayor Dean Trantalis and I’m with Ken Keechl. He’s the best candidate to work with us to deal with the cost of living, manage growth, and move our community forward. If you love Fort Lauderdale like I do please remember Ken Keechl. We need Ken! Paid by Progress Fort Lauderdale.”

Homestead exemption issue

Herbst has maintained his lease for a Fort Lauderdale apartment in District 1, signed by himself and his landlord in April, meets the city charter’s requisite of living in the “City of Fort Lauderdale for six (6) months immediately preceding the date of the election.”

During his appearance on “This Week in South Florida,” Trantalis made reference to a homestead exemption issue.

The Mayor’s letter and the affidavits filed by Herbst’s rivals, two men who lost the race, both reference a property Herbst owns in Highlands County.

Herbst stated his plan was to retire to that property, but life happened: he was unexpectedly fired after serving 16 years without a disciplinary record and then decided to run for the commission seat.

According to the Department of Revenue, when it comes to filing for a homestead property tax exemption, “permanent Florida residency required on January 1,” which means next month is when Herbst would be able to update the filing to reflect that the Highlands County property is no longer his primary residence.

“Homestead exemptions take effect January 1 of a calendar year and once that time has passed you can’t back date your homestead exemption,” said former state and federal prosecutor David Weinstein, who reviewed the election challenge affidavits, city charter, and the Mayor’s letter to Florida’s Attorney General’s office.

“In January of 2023 Mr. Herbst can withdraw his homestead exemption for a piece of property that is outside the place he needs to reside in order to be a sitting commissioner and then this is not an issue, so in some respect, this is all premature,” Weinstein said. “When we get to 2023 homestead might be an issue, but it is not really an issue right now.”

Herbst’s investigation into ex-police chief

During his appearance TWISF, Trantalis once again referred to Herbst’s investigation into a complaint that the former police chief was working a second job on the taxpayer’s dime as a “secret investigation.”

However, both the city attorney and the city manager at the time said they were apprised.

Boileau told Local 10 News that he “was apprised of the forensic investigation early on.”

Then-City Manager Chris Lagerbloom told Local 10 news he was “apprised as well.”

Herbst has always maintained he was wrongly dismissed.

About the Author:

Christina returned to Local 10 in 2019 as a reporter after covering Hurricane Dorian for the station. She is an Edward R. Murrow Award-winning journalist and previously earned an Emmy Award while at WPLG for her investigative consumer protection segment "Call Christina."