FORT LAUDERDALE — John Herbst, the Fort Lauderdale city auditor fired in a late-night meeting in February, won the District 1 commission race by a landslide on Nov. 8. Yet his political future remains in limbo, with four commissioners set to preside over an upcoming hearing as judge and jury — including two who voted to fire him.
Herbst, a political rookie who won his first run for office, is steeled for battle but reeling from the drama.
“I can’t sleep at night,” he said from his Fort Lauderdale living room. “I have PTSD over this whole thing. I have high blood pressure now. I’ve never had high blood pressure before.”
City Hall critics came to Herbst’s defense earlier this year, after three of his commission bosses said they’d lost confidence in him for investigating an anonymous tip about then-Police Chief Larry Scirotto and his job moonlighting as a college basketball referee. Herbst was fired on Feb. 15, ending his 16 year-career as the city auditor, a charter officer who serves at the will of the commission.
The bizarre landscape Herbst now finds himself in materialized on Nov. 14, the day before he was to be sworn in. That morning, two losing candidates — former county commissioner Ken Keechl and real estate agent Chris Williams — challenged Herbst’s qualifications, claiming he’d moved into his District 1 apartment 19 days too late to meet the city’s six-month residency requirement.
“I was shocked when Keechl & Co. filed the complaint,” Herbst said. “I won by 2,852 votes.”
Herbst decided to run not long after Heather Moraitis sent a surprise email on April 1 saying she planned to step down as Fort Lauderdale’s District 1 commissioner.
Herbst says he moved into his apartment in northeast Fort Lauderdale on April 14 and began sleeping there that same night.
The challenge contesting his residency, submitted to City Hall in a sworn affidavit, was based on incomplete and misleading information provided by the Broward County Property Appraiser’s Office, said Barbra Stern, Herbst’s attorney. The property appraiser’s office opened an investigation after getting an anonymous tip in October that Herbst had a dual homestead exemption in Broward County and Highlands County. He does not.
Williams has since withdrawn his challenge. Keechl has not.
“Chris is a great guy who first uncovered the clear, factual residency issues regarding eligibility that Herbst had,” Keechl told the South Florida Sun Sentinel. “Unfortunately he had to withdraw after withering pressure and partisan attacks. Rest assured I will not.”
Williams could not be reached for comment.
Fort Lauderdale’s charter requires that candidates live in town six months prior to running for elected office, but fails to clarify what constitutes legal residency.
Herbst bought a townhouse in Lake Placid last year and has a homestead exemption on the property. He told the Sun Sentinel he plans to buy a home in Fort Lauderdale in the coming year.
Keechl’s campaign sent mailers to voters accusing Herbt of not living in Fort Lauderdale, citing the investigation by the Property Appraiser’s Office that confirmed Herbst bought a home in Highlands County in 2021.
As a resident of District 1, Herbst says the attack ad showed up in his mailbox too.
“The voters saw this,” Herbst said, pointing to the mailer. “And they still voted for me two to one.”
The sworn affidavit Keechl sent to City Hall — which relied on information unearthed by the Property Appraiser’s Office — claims Herbst didn’t establish residency in Fort Lauderdale until May 31, the date the state issued his updated drivers license.
Herbst signed a lease on April 7 and moved into the apartment on April 14, according to paperwork he shared with the Sun Sentinel.
“Based upon the plain meaning of residency, Mr. Herbst established his residency in Fort Lauderdale when he signed the lease for the Fort Lauderdale property, moved his belongings into the property and began living at the property,” Stern wrote last week in a letter to City Hall and the law firm representing Keechl.
Under the city charter, the commission will decide Herbst’s political fate.
Herbst will have to make his case at a hearing in front of a commission that includes two former bosses who voted to fire him from his role as city auditor earlier this year — Mayor Dean Trantalis and Commissioner Steve Glassman. Newly elected commissioners Pamela Beasley-Pittman and Warren Sturman will also be casting votes. They will be sworn in Dec. 6 during a 9 a.m. ceremony at City Hall, nearly a month after the election.
The hearing for Herbst will likely be held the same day the two new commissioners are sworn in, the mayor says.
If the commission sides with Keechl, Fort Lauderdale would hold another election to seat a District 1 commissioner, City Attorney Alain Boileau told the Sun Sentinel. If the commission sides with Herbst, he will be sworn in as the District 1 commissioner and will represent Fort Lauderdale’s northeastern neighborhoods until the next election in 2024.
It was unclear what would happen if the vote is split 2-2.
Would Herbst be sworn in and take a seat on the dais?
The city attorney has yet to answer that question. Trantalis and Glassman say they don’t have the answer either.
If the commission sides with Keechl and insists on holding another election, Herbst says he will take his battle to court.
“If the commission decides I am not a valid candidate, we will file for judicial review,” he said. “I think they’re worried about my experience [as a city auditor]. I can’t be manipulated. I can’t be tricked. I was their advisor.”
On Wednesday, Trantalis told the Sun Sentinel he’s encouraging the city attorney to look into the possibility of turning the whole matter over to the courts. If that happens, there would be no hearing before the commission on Dec. 6.
“It might delay things, but it would remove the highly charged politicization of this issue,” the mayor said. “I don’t think a new commission should start off on the wrong foot with such a divisive issue. That’s why I want the city to take this to court and seek a judgment from the judge, who will apply the law and render a decision.”
Coral Ridge resident Abby Laughlin backed Williams in the election, but doesn’t like how City Hall is treating Herbst.
“I think it’s clear bias,” she said. “They’re afraid of him. He’s smart and he’s a no-nonsense guy. He’ll be a colleague on the board [instead of a city auditor] and he’ll have a voice. That’s a big power shift dynamic.”
Herbst’s attorney agrees.
“John asks questions,” Stern said. “And they’re afraid to have somebody who asks tough questions.”
Laughlin wonders how fair the hearing will be.
“This is beyond the pale if [the mayor and Glassman] get to sit as judge and jury after they fired Herbst,” she said. “And they are strong supporters of Keechl.”
Glassman argues he can remain fair and objective in deciding Herbst’s fate.
“We received an affidavit claiming a candidate was not qualified to run for office based on residency,” he said. “This is our charge: Was this person a resident between March 8 and Nov. 8? That’s the burden of proof. The rest is noise.”
The mayor says he too can be fair.
“The day after the election, when I met John at City Hall, we shook hands and agreed we would both work together,” Trantalis said. “That’s where we left it. And then these affidavits appeared. This hearing is not on the qualifications of a candidate, it’s on the eligibility. And we will look at objective criteria to determine that eligibility.”
Christina Disbrow, who came in third in the District 1 race, declined an offer to join Keechl’s challenge of Herbst’s residency. She now thinks Herbst is getting railroaded.
She was appalled to hear the city would hold another election if the commission sides with Keechl.
“They’re going to do whatever they can do to get their way,” she said. “It’s childish and immature and it shows they’re sore losers.”
Disbrow also thinks the lobbyists who backed Keechl’s run for office are worried about losing influence at City Hall. Keechl was the big kahuna when it came to campaign donations, collecting $110,545, way more than any of his opponents.
If the city holds another election, Disbrow thinks Herbst would just win again.
“The residents are mad,” she said. “I don’t know one person who has said they are worried about his residency.”
Moraitis announced in April that she would step down on Nov. 7 with two years left in her term. Ben Sorensen, who staged an unsuccessful run for Congress, and Robert McKinzie, who ran for county commission and won, also resigned that same day.
Moraitis thinks Herbst should have been sworn in on Nov. 15 as originally planned. The election was certified three days later, declaring Herbst the clear winner, she noted.
“I think they should have sworn everyone in and let the chips fall where they may,” she said. “Why keep waiting? I am not an election denier. We swear in the winners and remove them later if they are proven to have a problem.”
But Fort Lauderdale’s city charter is getting in the way, according to the city attorney.
Under Sec. 3.04 and Sec. 3.10 of the city charter, the commission is the ultimate judge of the election and qualifications. That means the commission declares the election.
“All issues on qualifications have to be resolved before a presumptive winner is received by the city commission,” Boileau said.
Moraitis finds it absurd that three commission districts will have no representation on the dais for nearly one month after an election.
“How long is this going to go on?” she said. “What if something else comes up before the Dec. 6 swearing-in ceremony? We have a two-member body that can’t do anything right now. They don’t have a quorum. Our city is paralyzed right now — paralyzed from even having a meeting.”
Glassman ridiculed her concerns.
“She knows damn well that we have a city manager form of management,” he said. “We have city staff [running things]. We are far from paralyzed. It’s business as usual.”
Glassman argued the city wouldn’t be in such an awkward spot if Moraitis had just stayed put.
“She quit in the middle of her term and created this whole issue,” he said. “And she’s blaming the mayor and me for following the process. She quit and then criticizes the two who stayed on the job. Jesus. She wasn’t worried about representation when she quit in the middle of her term.”
Fred Nesbitt, president of the Galt Mile Community Association, says he never thought he’d see anything like this in Fort Lauderdale.
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“Someone has sour grapes about losing and now they’re trying a Trump-like approach to overturn a local election,” he said. “If they had credible evidence this was true, they should have prevented it before the election. They waited till after the election. Come on. We had a legal election. The voters spoke very clearly.”
It’s not a good look for the city, Nesbitt argues.
“We don’t need this,” he said. “We have a lot of work ahead of us and we need five commissioners working together. If they’re going to fight over petty stuff, it’s going to hurt the future of the city. I hope they resolve this quickly and get it behind us.”
Herbst says he’s planning to stick around awhile.
Will he run again in 2024?
“Yes,” he said without hesitation. “I am filing immediately after the swearing in.”
Susannah Bryan can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @Susannah_Bryan