Read our exclusive Q&A with Orange County Commission District 1 candidate Nicole Wilson.
Family: Married; mother of three
Education: Bachelor’s degree in human services and psychology, Mercer University; Juris Doctor degree and honors certificate in environmental law, Barry University College of Law
Qualifications: My subsequent legal experience includes work in public-interest law and more specifically working on behalf of nonprofits on environmental issues. Member of: Florida Bar, Florida Bar Animal Law Section, Florida Bar Environmental and Land Use Law Section, Orange County Bar Association, Orange County Children and Family Services Board, League of Women Voters Orange County, Voter Services Committee, Natural Resources Committee, Central Florida Association for Women Lawyers, West Orange High School SAC and PTSO boards. Volunteer/coordinator for West Orange High School band and orchestra, Orange County Public Schools, Leadership Orange Class of 2018, creator/current chair of Ultimate Warrior Scholarship for WOHS seniors, founding board member of Dolphin Education Fund, former Lake Whitney Elementary PTO president.
2) Why do you want to represent District 1 on the Board of County Commissioners?
I am motivated to work tirelessly on behalf of the people of Orange County District 1 as commissioner because I love my community and the amazing, diverse people that live and work here. We chose this amazing area over 20 years ago and raised a family here. I believe our best days are still ahead, but we have to have thoughtful, compassionate leadership moving forward. I’ve been in front of the Commission dozens of times over my years as a resident and have more recently been disappointed by the incumbent’s lack of interest in residents and their concerns. I’ve been dismayed by the incumbent’s betrayal of the public trust by voting to destroy taxpayer-purchased conservation land for the benefit of private developers and voting to spend $700 million tax dollars on extra ballrooms in an empty convention center. And I have been disgusted by recent revelations of unpaid taxes and personal benefits from public contracts. I want to represent all of the people of Orange County — not a select powerful few — and I believe District 1 residents deserve honest, ethical leadership.
3) Why are you the best candidate?
I have no ties to any business receiving large county contracts or construction deals. I would serve Orange County with transparency, accessibility and accountability. I pledge to restore the public trust in our local government. With my combination of legal and social-service education and experience, I believe I am uniquely qualified for the job of a county commissioner. In addition to my professional qualifications, I have been a community activist volunteering with the League of Women Voters, Lawyers for Election Protection and the American Constitution Society. I’ve also been involved locally as a Girl Scout troop leader, PTO president and marching band booster. I have experience navigating the Orange County Charter, the muni code, Florida Statutes and the Florida Constitution, providing me a solid understanding of the role of local government. Finally, unlike the incumbent, I am not beholden to any special interests or deep-pocket donors.
4) What are three unique challenges faced by District 1, and how would you address them?
No. 1, economic recovery and smart budgeting. Orange County residents need honest, ethical leadership in the face of the current economic crisis. District 1 is the proud home to some of the world's most famous destinations and also home to the essential employees who work hard to keep those destinations running. Local government should prioritize the needs of residents affected by recent closures, providing resources in the short term and implementing more robust long-term economic-recovery plans. Our economy is dependent on service workers, and they deserve to have a voice in local government. As Orange County begins to recover from the pandemic, we have a unique opportunity to raise the stock of all essential workers, making them our primary concern. The incumbent's vote to spend $700 million on extra convention-center ballrooms while ignoring the housing crisis is the modern-day equivalent of “let them eat cake.”
No. 2, poor growth management. So much critical infrastructure has been an afterthought for the incumbent and her predecessor. The result of greedy growth and big developer influence — subdivisions missing sidewalk connections, whole neighborhoods dangerously far from the fire department and emergency services, dangerous intersections, tragic pedestrian accidents, overcrowded schools, clogged roads, flooded neighborhoods in Gotha, degraded canals on our beautiful chain of lakes, and declining water and quality. I will take a thoughtful and measured approach to growth. I will include residents in the decision-making and put the needs of citizens before the wants of the developers. The incumbent tries to paint this approach as bad for business, but I think that is a false narrative. The reality is that dangerous, clogged roads, overcrowded schools, and polluted water are bad for business, and we have to get our priorities straight and put the people before profits.
No. 3, health and safety. The health and well-being of all Orange County residents is a top priority for me. In the wake of a public health crisis, it has never been more apparent that local government has a role in the health and well-being of local residents. Orange County needs reinvigorated preventative health and wellness programs. Orange County should prioritize special programs for seniors and children. Our community's most vulnerable citizens need easy access to services and an abundance of clear, helpful information from their local government. Orange County Public Schools does an amazing job of educating our young people, but we must consider the whole student — including access to health care and preventative programs, nutrition and mental-health resources. Our young people deserve to grow up in a clean, safe environment, and working alongside our amazing teachers, I would work to ensure that safety. A walkable, bikeable Orange County is achievable with good government planning and public input. My vision for Orange County includes better sidewalks and trails for residents in the pursuit of health and wellness.
5) COVID-19 has largely affected Central Florida’s tourism sector, much of which is housed in or near West Orange. This has affected many District 1 residents and businesses. What is the county’s role in helping those affected?
District 1 is the tourism epicenter of Florida and, as a result, residents have suffered due to the COVID shutdowns. Even before COVID, our service workers lacked sufficient wages to afford housing in Orange County. Many service workers need to work 96 hours a week to afford a two-bedroom apartment in Central Florida. Our local government had the opportunity to increase wages but didn’t. Our local government had an opportunity to expand affordable options for working families and they passed on that, too. The Orange County Commission had the opportunity to protect workers with paid sick leave and, surprise surprise — they did not take any action. I would oppose any handout to a large, profitable business entity without having some assurance that the employees of that entity get a benefit. I would link all tax breaks and subsidies offered to big businesses with the opportunities and benefits offered to workers of those businesses. I oppose the $700-million Orange County Convention Center expansion and think those tax dollars should be used for infrastructure projects and other post-COVID tourism drivers. Spending tax dollars on ballrooms is reckless when service workers are worried about keeping a roof over their heads.
6) West Orange County is one of the fastest-growing communities in the country. What has gone well? What can be done better?
I believe good growth management is possible with good leadership. My vision for our community includes an abundance of green space, walkable/bikeable areas and sustainable transportation options. It always puzzles me when I hear the establishment politicians say, “We didn't expect this kind of growth” when asked about lagging infrastructure. They absolutely know that a change to high-density zoning means lots of people on roads and lots of kids in schools. It has always boggled my mind that a builder has to make sure irrigation is installed to get a certificate of occupancy but there is no thought put into whether there is a seat in a classroom or a safe intersection at the entrance of the neighborhood. Also, I would prioritize protecting the environment by retaining more forests, re-treeing lost forests, scrutinizing any projects that would impact our waterways and holding polluters accountable. I would rely on the expertise of environmental scientists and biologists, not special-interest groups.
7) Traffic and roads continue to be challenging in District 1 — particularly through the town of Windermere. What needs to be done to improve this area of West Orange?
Traffic issues across District 1 is another symptom of the growth issues I previously touched on. The existing Orange County leadership rubber-stamped growth, and as you sit in traffic this morning, you can thank her. There is no mystery to what will happen on local roads when you approve thousands of new homes in an adjacent rural community. Going forward, I would require developers to invest in the infrastructure needed for residents, including sidewalks and bike lanes. We need walkable/bikeable communities — not mega-developments surrounded and cut off by highways.
8) What is your long-range plan for public safety (police, fire, etc.) in Horizon West?
The public safety issues facing people in Horizon West, including distance to emergency services, is also a symptom of poor growth management. When the sitting county leadership approves residential development but ignores the need for fire and rescue for those residents, you have to ask yourself who they were considering while handing out approvals. I've heard from residents who were very concerned about their own safety in the event of a fire or medical emergency and they have gone unheard.
9) How will you advocate for the municipalities in District 1 — Oakland, Ocoee, Windermere and Winter Garden — as a member of the County Commission?
The Orange County Charter is our governing document, and all commissioners have an obligation to follow the mandates provided in the Charter, the Florida Constitution and the U.S. Constitution. The Orange County Charter provides that “county government be reflective of the people of the county and should serve them in achieving a more responsive and efficient form of local government with improved cooperation between the county and municipalities within the county; and, in order to empower the people of this county to make changes in their own government.” I entered the race for District 1 commissioner after witnessing the current commissioners’ disregard for the mandate to be responsive and to be reflective of the people of the county. Inner-local agreements and community should also be reflective of the people and their needs. Each of the municipalities in Orange County has unique characteristics and challenges and deserve collaborative cooperation between county and municipality to provide responsive, cohesive governance.
10) How will you work to improve the County Commission’s communication and cooperation with Orange County Public Schools?
I am a public-school advocate and am proud to have worked alongside Orange County’s amazing teachers and staff as a preschool teacher and substitute teacher before returning to law school. We are also proud parents to three Orange County Public Schools students, and I have held board positions on public-school PTA/PTO and SACs for the last 15 years. Along with other amazing teachers and parents, I helped create an educational fund to supplement ever-shrinking public-school budgets. As PTO president, I included a legislative board chair to help teachers and parents navigate the rapidly changing legislation during Rick Scott’s tenure. I currently coordinate marching-band volunteers for the West Orange marching band, and I helped develop and currently chair the Ultimate Warrior Scholarship Fund. I am also an OCPS Leadership Orange graduate. With my current OCPS connections and long-standing friendships with teachers and administrators, I am well-suited to make sure Commission decisions work harmoniously with OCPS plans and goals.