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Beacon editorial: DeBary debacle grinds on

Clint Johnson in a 2015 Beacon file photo

Clint Johnson in a 2015 Beacon file photo

CLICK HERE TO READ OUR FULL COVERAGE OF THE RULING

Some nine months after DeBary’s mayor was removed from his duly elected office on rather flimsy grounds, we have a circuit judge’s ruling in the case, and the ruling pretty much guarantees the saga will continue in appellate court.

While Volusia County Circuit Judge Randell Rowe ultimately ruled against Clint Johnson, Rowe also poked holes through most of the arguments the DeBary City Council used to get rid of a colleague they found critical and bothersome.

Rowe should never have been placed in the difficult position of ruling on this.

Johnson’s former City Council mates and DeBary City Attorney Kurt Ardaman argued that the mayor had overstepped his boundaries and issued orders to city staff — a violation of the city charter.

As evidence, they presented several emails among Johnson, then-DeBary City Manager Dan Parrott and Records Manager Eric Frankton. If you squint your eyes just right and view the documents under dim candlelight, you might see something that, in some universe — but not this one — vaguely resembles ordering the staff around.

Judge Rowe quashed that argument, and rightly so.

Then — as is, of course, necessary in a 21st-century trial involving a millennial — city officials pointed to four tweets (short posts made on social-media platform Twitter) in which Johnson lambasted Frankton, Parrott and Roger VanAuker, the city’s director of transit-oriented development.

Johnson tweeted variously that these individuals “need to leave now,” “must go” or “should be fired.”

Elected officials do not shed their First Amendment right to free speech by virtue of being elected. This principle applies to the opinions Johnson voluminously expressed during his term in office — as abrasively as they may have been phrased, at times.

Judge Rowe, once again, rightly rejected the city’s argument, noting that none of the tweets constituted an order to any particular employee.

What prevented Johnson’s return to the mayor’s chair was a 14-word text sent by Johnson to then-Manager Parrott.

“Cancel this ridiculous meeting and quit trying to burn the city before you leave,” Johnson wrote. He was talking about a meeting Parrott had called to discuss suing Johnson for allegedly failing to comply with public-records requests.

Johnson’s attorney, Doug Daniels, argued the text was simply the frustrated rant of an elected official at his wits’ end.

Judge Rowe agreed that the text message appeared to be more of a rant than an order, but said the court could not “substitute its judgment for that of the city council,” as “substantial competent evidence” existed to argue that Johnson violated the charter with that text.

Although Johnson wasn’t restored to office, Daniels seemed mostly pleased with the ruling, noting it provided a good springboard for appeal.

We’re not here to quarrel with the judge’s ruling, either — again, we feel Rowe shouldn’t have been placed in such a difficult position.

The whole ordeal has been a waste of city money, time and energy — and now Circuit Court resources, too.

Essentially an exercise in overruling democracy, it has been an emotionally charged debacle from start to not-quite-end, and has surely taken up headspace in a city with more important concerns.

Johnson’s time as mayor was tumultuous, no doubt, and the young mayor’s statements often lacked the tact of a more experienced political operative, but it’s hard to see how he supposedly bossed around city staff, as DeBary’s attorney claimed.

Remember, the people elected him. It was the right of DeBary citizens to judge Johnson at the polls, at re-election time.

Now, those taxpayers must be questioning how much being deprived of this right has cost them.

The River City is a wonderful place, with much to offer. Pointless court battles and political grandstanding do nothing to enhance it.

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