Cape Coral councilmember Patty Cummings hires lawyer in response to city investigation
These past few months have seen the city of Cape Coral embroiled in two major legal disputes, and now one of the council members could potentially add to the city's woes.
Waste Pro asked the courts to cancel its contract with the city in January, and the former manager is in the process of suing over a charge of discrimination after he was fired in February.
Councilmember Patty Cummings hired a lawyer in response to the city council's vote to hire an investigator after an anonymous complaint alleged that the councilor violated the charter and election laws, according to a letter dated March 22 and sent to the city attorney, mayor, and city manager.
"I'm innocent like I said from the very beginning. There are real issues in our city that we need to worry about, not frivolous lies from an anonymous letter, which was obvious that this person just not like me," Cummings told The News-Press.
On Wednesday, Cumming's letter from her lawyer, Jay P. Lechner of Lechner Law in Tampa, expressed her need to protect her reputation from what she views as a "frivolous anonymous complaint" and any potential consequence from the council's investigation.
Lechner wrote that the way the council and city attorney have handled this issue has resulted in his client suffering public defamation of her character.
"To continue in this course of action would implicate more serious consequences and may warrant her to take more serious legal actions to protect her reputation," Lechner wrote.
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Timeline of the anonymous accusations
Cummings beat incumbent Jennifer Nelson by almost a thousand votes in November to represent District 4.
The anonymous complaint, sent to Gov. Ron DeSantis, claims Cummings never legally resided in the home she listed at the time of her qualification and was still not living in the district she represents.
Matt Caldwell, the Lee County Property Appraiser and former Florida House of Representatives member, had forwarded the complaint to the governor's office in February.
At a previous meeting on March 15, the council voted 6-2 to hire an investigator with Councilmembers Dan Sheppard and Cummings opposing.
The city attorney's office has yet to hire an investigator as of Thursday morning.
Dolores Menendez, the city attorney, previously said it could cost $300 an hour to hire an attorney to investigate.
If the council chooses to, it can hold a hearing depending on what's found in the investigation.
Menendez said there’s no definite answer on if the council can remove a member.
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Cummings lawyer fires back on accusations
Lechner's letter said the anonymous letter's allegations are false and defamatory and that Cummings legally resided in District 4, at 3827 Palm Tree Blvd., before running for council.
"She began leasing this property in or about March 2022, well prior to her deciding to run for City Council," Lechner wrote. "As the homeowner has confirmed, per the terms of the lease, Councilmember Cummings is allowed free access to the residence."
The charter section on candidate eligibility reads:
“Only qualified electors of the City, who have been continuous full-time residents of the City for the entire calendar year immediately preceding their qualification for office… shall be eligible to hold the office of Council member or Mayor.”
Lechner said Cummings' driver's license, voter registration, and mailing address reflect her living in district 4.
In a letter to Mayor John Gunter, Cummings stated that she lived part-time in the district after Hurricane Ian damaged her full-time residence and made finding new housing harder. Hurricane Ian was a near-Category 5 storm that slammed Southwest Florida on Sept. 28, about five weeks prior to the election.
Cumming's lawyer writes that there is no requirement in the city's charter that a council member resides in their district throughout their entire term.
He cited the city charter's eligibility requirement to hold office, which requires a qualified elector to have been a continuous full-time resident of the city for the entire calendar year immediately preceding their qualification for office.
"Councilmember Cummings, now and at the time of her qualification for office and at all times in between, was and had been a continuous full-time resident of the City for the entire calendar year immediately preceding her qualification for office," Lechner wrote.
"Pursuant to the terms of the Charter as it is currently written, residence in the district is only required at the time the candidate files his or her statement of qualifications with the City Clerk," he added.
He did not address the previously discussed forfeiture of office section of the charter, which read as “the Mayor or a Council member shall forfeit his or her office if he or she lacks at any time during the term of office any qualification for the office prescribed by this Charter or by applicable law."
Lechner said any potential action taken after the investigation that would remove her from her seat would be unlawful and reserved only to the governor, who has expressed no interest in acting on the complaint.
"The statute reserves that power to the governor and the governor alone," Lechner wrote.
According to state statute, "the Governor may suspend from office any elected or appointed municipal official for malfeasance, misfeasance, neglect of duty, habitual drunkenness, incompetence, or permanent inability to perform official duties."
Appointed or elected city officials can be suspended from their position if arrested for a felony, or a misdemeanor related to the duties of office, or is indicted or informed against for the commission of a federal felony or misdemeanor or state felony or misdemeanor.
Luis Zambrano is a Watchdog/Cape Coral reporter for The News-Press and the Naples Daily News. You can reach Luis at Lzambrano@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter @Lz2official.
This article originally appeared on Fort Myers News-Press: Cape Coral councilmember vows legal action regarding election probe