Naples council election wades into abortion debate with 'sanctuary city' calls

Karl Schneider
Naples Daily News

Naples city council candidates have spoken on local issues ranging from water quality to growth and development, but some residents are asking candidates to lay out their thoughts on abortion.

Municipal elections in Naples are to be nonpartisan in nature, according to the city’s charter, and there are concerns in the community that the issue of abortion pushes them into partisan politics. The election is set for Feb. 1.

An anti-abortion rally, subsequently postponed, was to take place last week in an effort to encourage candidates to be bold on the issue and support declaring the city a "sanctuary for the unborn."

In case you missed it, subscribers:Will Naples outlaw abortions? Not anytime soon, some councilmen say

Previously:Texas abortion ban heats up debate in Florida: How available is abortion now?

Teddy Collins, part of the anti-abortion Action for Life organization, coordinated the event independently of the group.

“I think the conservative base is tired of people running pro-life and putting this issue at the bottom of barrel,” Collins said. “We look at it as (abortion) is taking lives, why isn’t this at top of their list? When people are working as solid conservatives and are not taking this on, it is very disappointing.”

Collier County residents Leroy and Kay Chamness show their support to proclaim the city of Naples as a "sanctuary city for the unborn," Wednesday, June 16, 2021, at Naples City Hall.

Stacy Vermylen, Naples resident and member of the League of Women Voters, said inserting abortion in the city election is about politics, and the anti-abortion group is only interested because Naples is affluent and has a high national profile.

The city elections should not be about party politics, she said.

"'Be a good Republican and vote Republican,' or, 'You can't possibly want Democrats on council,'" Vermylen said. "These have nothing to do with how you feel about water quality, or the environment or garbage collections. It's kind of saying the approach should be you should just follow your party, but every citizen should think about things that affect them day to day."

“It’s almost that it has no place in this kind of election,” she said. “The feeling is that it is an inappropriate use of pressure to say, ‘You shouldn’t vote for someone because they may be a Democrat,’ instead of, ‘They may be the best for city council.’”

Vermylen referenced the city charter and said the founders of Naples felt party politics were not relevant in these elections.

Pat Rambosk, city clerk in Naples, said the charter clearly states the nonpartisan nature of council elections.

"As long as candidates aren't representing parties and not signing up as either when they run, we're good on our side," Rambosk said.

A party, whether Republican or Democrat, a political committee or some other nonprofit can support candidates, but candidates do not declare a party during the race or on the ballot, she said.

Last May, Pew Research published findings that say abortion is an issue “that sharply divides Americans along partisan, ideological and religious lines.”

The report is based on a survey of 5,109 U.S. adults and goes on to say that Democrats and Democrat-leaning independents “are 75 percentage points more likely than Republicans and Republican leaners to say abortion should be legal in all or most cases.”

In Florida, state law preempts municipal governments from regulating abortion clinics. This statute was upheld in 1985 by the state Attorney General’s Office and again last year when Manatee County commissioners, in a 4-3 vote, sought to establish the county as a “’Safe Haven’ for developing children who are inside their mother’s womb.” 

Residents in Naples sit on both sides of the issue, with abortion rights group Not In Naples formed to oppose any ordinance declaring the city a sanctuary for the unborn.

The group urges council members to focus on the goals already laid out in its vision statement and has collected more than 2,000 signatures urging against the ordinance.

The five candidates running for three open city council seats mostly agree the issue is not meant to be decided at the city level.

Previously:Naples City Council candidates speak at virtual forum

Candidate views on sanctuary ordinance

Ray Christman

Incumbent council member Ray Christman said the issue is better handled at the state and federal levels.

“It’s the position I’ve taken from beginning,” Christman said. “This was not issue appropriate for our local government or any local government to consider. It’s an issue for courts, and we all know it’s being actively litigated at the state and federal level as we speak.”

Incumbent Vice Mayor Terry Hutchison wrote in an email that Naples residents come from all around the world with different backgrounds, philosophies and political ideologies.

“Elected representatives, including me, make decisions based on core values, our beliefs, the values of our constituents and what has been instilled in us through years of experience,” he wrote. “I believe it is not only abundantly clear, yet also extremely important to our community, for our municipal elections to remain nonpartisan and in compliance with (the city charter).”

John Dugan is a Realtor and former management consultant seeking a seat on the Naples City Council.

John Dugan said he doesn’t view the issue as city business.

“There’s an education piece of this in terms of talking to both sides,” Dugan said. “The second piece is timing: Is now the time, with broken governance, for us to take this on particularly from a lot of people from outside the city? I’m perfectly happy to dialogue, but I want to know that is a priority to city people. I’m concerned this could be a distraction, and we’re a municipality in a state that has state laws.”

The Naples City Council candidates for the 2022 municipal election are Beth Petrunoff, Vice Mayor Terry Hutchison, Councilman Ray Christman, Ian Rudnick and John Dugan.

Beth Petrunoff said council should not pursue an ordinance establishing Naples as a sanctuary city for the unborn.

“It conflicts with other laws in place,” Petrunoff said. “Right now, it’s being decided at the Supreme Court level and maybe some state things. Why would we introduce that when it could be turned over or it’s conflicting? It’s not for a city to decide.”

Ian Rudnick agreed that it’s not a city issue.

“I don’t think a municipality with 14 square miles should be addressing something like that,” Rudnick said. “There’s other issues that a municipal government should deal with and leave that to something of a broader political issue.”

Karl Schneider is a Naples Daily News reporter. You can reach him at kschneider@gannett.com. Follow on Twitter @karlstartswithk