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By Robert Connors
Managing Editor 

Fitzgerald Denied Return to Commission Due to Move Outside District

City Charter Provision States Seat Has Been Vacated

 

Last updated 5/25/2023 at 9:48pm

Robert Connors

Former City Commissioner Kristen Fitzgerald was reinstated to her office by Governor Ron DeSantis last week, but denied the return by a city charter provision due to her move to her mother's home in a different city district.

Editor's Note: This story has been updated to include citation of a written opinion from City Attorney Chuck Galloway to city commissioners, released to the press today.

April 17 - In a surprise twist, former city commissioner Kris Fitzgerald has been denied a return to her open seat on the Lake Wales City Commission despite her sudden reinstatement by Governor Ron DeSantis last week.

Lake Wales City Attorney Chuck Galloway read a statement at the opening of Tuesday night's commission meeting citing a provision of the city's charter which says that a commissioner who moves out of their district has effectively relinquished their office.

Fitzgerald was elected in April of 2021, took office in May, but was suspended July 3 of that year after her arrest on felony charges. She was acquitted by a jury in October 2022.

Although Florida Statutes called for her reinstatement, nothing was heard from DeSantis until last week. Deputy Mayor Robin Gibson pointed out that the statute says that the "Governor shall forthwith reinstate" the exonerated official "and the governor did not do that," taking more than six months to act. There is less than one year remaining in Fitzgerald's three-year term.

In an emotional statement to the three commissioners present for the meeting, Fitzgerald explained that her arrest and the subsequent loss of ability to continue her work with youth as a mental health counselor left her unable to maintain her former residence in her district. She and her daughter have been residing at her mother's home within Lake Wales, but not in her district 4.

Some two-dozen citizens applauded Fitzgerald's remarks.

Recent unsuccessful commission candidate Michelle Threatt spoke in support of Fitzgerald's return to the commission. In an aside to the watching Fitzgerald she said that she hoped she wasn't revealing too much personal information by explaining that Fitzgerald was forced to move after receiving death threats from people in other cities.

In addition to losing her professional and city commission income, Fitzgerald has now been informed that, due to her move, she is no longer entitled to back commission pay she would have otherwise received from her time while suspended.

At the time of her election, Fitzgerald lived at the Preserve, and represented residents of a broad swath of Lake Wales, including the Dinner Lake, Lake Mabel, and Lake Ashton areas.

Chairing the meeting in the absence of Jack Hilligoss, Gibson called upon Fitzgerald to speak first, after telling those in attendance that he presumed they were there in her support, asking speakers to "tell us how" she could be returned to office.

At the close of the meeting Gibson said the commission had no recourse in the situation, as Galloway confirmed the city's charter can only be changed by a public vote of the citizens.

Robert Connors

City Attorney Chuck Galloway, right, conferred with City Clerk Jennifer Nanek (L) prior to the start of Tuesday night's meeting of the City Commission. Galloway found the charter provision which states that a commissioner moving outside their designated district shall relinquish their seat. Fitzgerald admitted that she had given up her residence due to the financial pressures of losing her employment following her arrest. She was acquitted by a jury last October, but she and her daughter have been residing with her mother.

Gibson said that "we're all sympathetic" and suggested giving Fitzgerald time to discuss the situation with her attorney and bring it up at the next commission workshop on May 31, saying that was the "first time that Mr. Krueger could resume the seat would be May 31st."

According to a case cited by Galloway, due to Fitzgerald's move the seat was permanently vacated, making the election of Danny Krueger "not a temporary vacancy," concluding that he should remain in the seat for the duration of the term.

Fitzgerald, 42, is the former director of residential life at the Vanguard School. A licensed mental health counselor, she grew up in Lake Wales and has lived in the city continuously except for her time in college and the US Air Force, where she served as a military police officer.

Fitzgerald has served for more than 15 years as a volunteer with the American Red Cross and is a speaker and workshop leader on behavioral and mental health issues.

Those wishing to view the remarks by Fitzgerald and Gibson may visit the city's video archive by clicking here. The topic of Fitzgerald's situation and public remarks begin at 21:30 minute mark, and Gibson's at the 1:42:00 mark.

 

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