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Councilman Wilson, city officials in court today over residency lawsuit

VERO BEACH — Several people with whom Vero Beach City Councilman Charlie Wilson has shared the dais with the past three weeks will be testifying against him today in a court hearing to determine whether or not Wilson was qualified to run for his seat.

On Tuesday, City Attorney Charles Vitunac stated that he and several council members intend to testify, and that he plans to attest that Wilson was and is not eligible to hold office.

“We still don’t know if you live in the city,” Vice Mayor Sabe Abell said during a council meeting Tuesday, following up with, “We don’t have the money to put Pinkerton on it.” The question has been when Wilson moved back into the city and if the ordinance requires one year of residency any time or one year immediately prior to the qualification period or to the election.

Circuit Court Judge Paul Kanarek will hear argument and testimony regarding the city charter, which states that qualified candidates must have lived one year within the city one year as of the qualification date.

Vero Beach resident Dian George, who filed the suit, claims that the one-year residency must be during the year immediately prior to qualifying for the municipal election.

Wilson, however, contends that the words “immediately prior” are missing from the charter and leaves the rule open to interpretation.

During a recent press conference, Wilson used the analogy of a police officer pulling over a driver for driving 35 mph in a 35-mph zone because the city meant for the zone to be 30 mph.

Wilson has argued that though the charter’s intent might be to have a candidate who has lived one year in the city just before qualifying, that is not what it states and that the lawsuit is political in nature and an effort to “overturn the will of the voters.”

Wilson claims that the entrenched powers at the city have a history of using the “power of the city” to discourage opposition candidates.

During Tuesday’s city council meeting, Wilson proposed changing the ordinance to reflect what the city supposedly meant to avoid confusion going forward, but due to the pending lawsuit, the matter was postponed to the Jan. 5 council meeting and would be subject to any instructions handed down from the court to the city.

Though Judge Kanarek is expected to take all the testimony and arguments Wednesday, he is not expected to issue his opinion on the matter until a future date. When that might be or how long that might take before a ruling is issued is unclear.

Both parties have submitted hundreds of pages of case law and precedents intended to back up their positions. Kanarek is expected to take time to review the material before ruling in this case.

If he rules against Wilson, it could mean his removal from office after being the top vote-getter in the Nov. 3 election. How the city would replace Wilson remains unclear and could be up to the judge to determine.

Options range from the city council appointing someone to serve the remainder of Wilson’s term to the city being required to hold a special election. Another possible avenue would be that the runner up, Ken Daige, would move into Wilson’s seat.

Lisa Zahner contributed to this report

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