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Citizen Says Coconut Creek Mayor Violated New Law

A Coconut Creek resident is alleging that Mayor Marilyn Gerber has broken a new law that prohibits the use of tax dollars on political communication by giving a $60,000 grant to a local magazine that permits her to write a monthly column.

Jim Freeman filed a complaint with the attorney general's office this week criticizing Gerber for a column she wrote in the September 2009 issue of Coconut Creek Life discussing a statewide ballot initiative by Hometown Democracy, which would require local voters to approve local comprehensive growth management plans. The column, he said, was openly against the amendment and a violation of a law that went into effect in July.

The law prohibits the use of tax dollars on any communication that advocates for or against a particular piece of legislation.

“We feel that this is a threat to the Democratic process in our area,” Freeman said.

Freeman filed a complaint Monday with Attorney General Bill McCollum’s office, which directed him to contact the Florida Elections Commission. Freeman said he has filled out the paperwork for a complaint and mailed it to the commission Wednesday.

This is not the first time he has butted heads with Gerber or other city officials. Freeman is a part of Concerned Citizens for Coconut Creek, a group that has protested some of the city's growth initiatives. The group formed more than a year ago and successfully blocked development plans that would have placed a pair of big box stores, a Lowe's and a Kohl's, on 42-acres in Coconut Creek that includes one of the last large hammock preserves in Broward County.

Gerber is a relatively popular local official though, winning several consecutive terms and a large amount of votes. She also isn't the first mayor to write a monthly column for the magazine. In 2004 when the magazine was born, the city began granting the publication $60,000 and the mayor was entitled to write a column on government policies.

Her column on the Hometown Democracy issue urges residents to “understand what the impact of your vote will be – or don't vote.”

Gerber said she was not comfortable giving extended comments on the complaint because she has not seen it yet. However, she did say she does not believe she broke the law.

“I think I was very careful not to violate it,” she said.

Simone Marstiller, executive director of the elections commission, said the law is still too new to judge whether there will be a flurry of complaints filed against local officials who are trying to get the word out about certain political issues and using tax dollars.

“Like any other complaint, we would have to take what's alleged and look at the language in the (law) and make a determination of the what's legal or not,” she said.

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