Family power a bad idea; Michelle Santamaria accused of breaking election laws

Voters can sometimes get a glimpse of the extremes to which a political candidate will go to win a race. If the candidate is willing to break the rules, what kind of behavior can be expected if he or she gains power?

Voters shouldn’t take a chance to find out in Palm Beach County’s District 6 County Commission race.

Melissa McKinlay
Melissa McKinlay.  Photo credit: AroundWellington.net

Melissa McKinlay, Michelle Santamaria and Andy Schaller are vying for the seat now occupied by Santamaria’s father, term-limited Jess Santamaria. Family Legacy has always been a goal in Jess Santamaria’s playbook. The opinion of many is that he wants to keep political power in the family, which would essentially make this race his re-election, so he can continue the agenda that has drawn rebuke and outrage from his fellow commissioners. In fact, in spite of his eight-year presence on the commission, Santamaria’s fellows have refused to elect him chairman. That’s because most commissioners don’t consider Santamaria a team player, and they are unwilling to tolerate his behavior.

Now comes the really troubling part. Earlier this month, The Palm Beach Post reported on a sworn election complaint against Michelle Santamaria and what the newspaper called “a political committee bankrolled by her father.” The details of the complaint, filed by William James Kellerher, are noteworthy, alleging that the younger Santamaria and her campaign have violated Florida election laws. The complaint also requested that if probable cause is found, Commissioner Santamaria be held accountable for pertinent violations, and that the Ethics Commission investigate his behavior if he is implicated.

Andrew Schaller
Andrew Schaller

The complaint alleged that an advertising insert in the Aug. 18 edition of The Palm Beach Post included a Santamaria campaign flier, and that The Post’s procedures require that such ads be paid for in full at the time of placement. Santamaria’s campaign expenditures report for that time period disclosed no expenses for the ad, and subsequent reports failed to include any Post advertising. Santamaria’s father and his companies “had already ‘maxed out’ on $1,000 contributions to his daughter’s campaign” before the primary, according to the complaint, meaning the commissioner could not have legally paid for the ad himself.

Santamarias
Jess and Michelle Santamaria. Photo credit: artmarshall.org

The complaint also alleged that a plane towing an advertising banner supporting Michelle Santamaria was “observed throughout District 6” on Aug. 26. The complainant’s belief is that the plane was “hired out of the Lantana Airport for two hours or more at a cost of approximately $500 per hour”. But no such expenditure was noted in Santamaria’s campaign reports by the time the complaint was filed. The complaint noted that neither the Santamaria campaign nor a Political Committee named the “Jess & Michelle Santamaria for Honest Government” listed advertising expenditures to date for The Post or airplane banner ads.

The complaint accused Santamaria’s campaign of violating four Florida campaign statutes.

An Oct. 6 Palm Beach Post story reported that Kellerher also complained “that an ad in a church bulletin didn’t include a disclaimer from the Jess & Michelle Santamaria for Honest Government committee.”

Failure by a political candidate to report campaign expenditures in a timely fashion is serious, because it means the aspiring public official is not competing on a level playing field. And if the candidate claims ignorance of the law on a serious issue, it raises the question about his or her competence to serve in public office. If the candidate is irresponsible or lacks diligence about his or her own campaign finances, such an alarming bellwether indicates how trustworthy or competent he or she is to handle other people’s money. Effectively governing others requires that you first learn to properly govern yourself.

(Full disclosure: I have followed this race for over two years and have contributed to McKinlay’s campaign.)

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John R. Smith

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