- January 3, 2018
OCOEE — At the end of the July 7 Ocoee City Commission meeting, Mayor S. Scott Vandergrift announced his retirement as mayor, effective at the end of the month.
“As of the 31st of July, I will be tentatively retiring,” Vandergrift said. “It’s due to ill health and a couple other things.”
Vandergrift, often seen in his signature “Mayor Ocoee” cap and red Toyota Prius, has been Ocoee’s mayor since 1992 — nine consecutive terms. He also was mayor from 1973 to 1975 and a city commissioner from 1967 to 1969.
Scott, an Ocoee native, graduated from Jones Business College with a bachelor’s degree in management and marketing. He served from 1958 to 1960 in the U.S. Navy and has been a licensed real-estate broker and Realtor for more than 30 years.
Scott also was involved in the Ocoee Lions Club, Rotary Club of Ocoee, Ocoee Little League, Ocoee Bulldogs, the West Orange Chamber of Commerce and the Ocoee Jaycees, and served as president of the Ocoee Volunteer Fire Department.
City Attorney Scott Cookson said the commission would need to set a date at the Aug. 4 meeting for a special election for someone to serve the remainder of Vandergrift’s term, which ends in 2016.
District 4 Commissioner Joel Keller said he believed District 1 Commissioner John Grogan, as mayor pro-tem, would become interim mayor as of Aug. 1 and have to appoint someone to replace him. Grogan would then lose his seat once the new mayor was elected, unless that electee would be Grogan, Keller said, although he was not certain that he was correctly interpreting the Ocoee City Charter in that regard.
Vandergrift, an Ocoee native, said he has enjoyed being mayor for about 25 years.
“There’s a little guy inside of me that says, ‘You want to help people,’” he said. “Every now and then, I can put him to sleep, but sometimes, he makes me help however I can. In high school, I was very active that way in FFA. I helped establish Ocoee Little League as one of the founding fathers of it, perhaps more as a way of helping adults. I guess it’s helping as many people as you can from your position.”
Vandergrift’s inspiration to help Ocoee in politics began with a group of teenagers who rented a city building for dancing every other Saturday, he said. They had an off-duty police officer on site, who would check the dark parking lot with a flashlight, among other responsibilities, he said.
“The police officer complained he had a flashlight that would go through eight batteries a night,” Vandergrift said. “So someone asked me to get a streetlight in the parking lot. I did some research on it and found out it would cost almost nothing. I asked the commission to get the streetlight. They didn’t deem it necessary, so I ran for office and got a streetlight put up. Some people get upset enough with government to run.”
Vandergrift was upset with the mayor enough to follow his term as commissioner — back when commissioners were not divided into districts — with a run for mayor in 1969 that hinged on a sewer project, he said.
“I had started out with a small project, making it pay for itself,” Vandergrift said. “The guy whose house was near it put up a big stir. He overwhelmed me in the next election — I ran for mayor and lost. Four years later, I ran again because … he turned out to be an insufficient mayor. If you had a problem and disagreed with him, he’d say, ‘I’m the mayor and that’s it.’”
Vandergrift won that election and became mayor for the first time in 1973, and after his first term, he decided to take years off for fishing and doing other things in the community, he said.
“Almost 20 years later, in 1992 — never take your eye off the government — I watched them fire 10 people with the reason of a shortfall in the budget, and I think three months later, they matched the shortfall,” Vandergrift said. “I went to a commission meeting to appeal, and they wouldn’t listen to me. I knew something was fishy. The city manager outlived a couple elected officials, knew everything about the city and didn’t want to be interrupted by anyone.”
Vandergrift believes in open government and getting all involved, and his costs of $500 per month to be mayor go toward that, he said.
“It’s been an absolute delight to work with Mayor Vandergrift,” said Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs, a West Orange resident. “In so many ways, and as a longtime resident of Southwest Orange County, I’ve always felt like he was my ‘local’ mayor. I didn’t live in Ocoee, but he really cares for all of the communities in West Orange County.
“He’s a friendly guiding force and has really overseen the transformation of Ocoee and that part of the county,” she said. “And of course, he’s simply one of a kind — there will never be another Mayor Vandergrift. He’s been an absolute champion for economic development in the region and has devoted himself to improving the lives of Ocoee’s families and senior citizens.
“I hope he thoroughly enjoys his retirement — he’s worked hard and deserves it — but I’m going to miss him,” she said. “I know that the entire Central Florida region will feel the loss.”
Windermere Mayor Gary Bruhn and Oakland Mayor Kathy Stark agreed.
“Mayor Scott, as his residents and a lot of us call him, served the City of Ocoee for almost three decades,” Bruhn said. “He was always accessible to his residents, whether at Little League games, various city functions or at his favorite café. His love for his city, his commitment and service is something all of us can admire.”
Oakland Mayor Kathy Stark said: “It has always been clear that the mayor loves Ocoee. He has the best interests of those who reside there at heart. I wish him the best.”
Vandergrift counted West Orange and Ocoee high schools among the greatest accomplishments for the community while he has been mayor.
For about 16 years, some Ocoee students — including Vandergrift — had to take buses to Lakeview High School — now a middle school.
“The story at that time by the School Board was they were going to build areawide schools out here, like West Orange,” he said. “Well, 16 years later, they hadn’t built a school, and they decided to move it to Winter Garden. As a commissioner, I fought it and won, with a lot of help. We stayed in Ocoee until they built West Orange High School and probably forced them to do it. Ocoee and Winter Garden went to school together a long time. About a third of Ocoee students still go to West Orange, and about 25% go to an Apopka school. That’s no way to build a community.”
Another accomplishment has been the growth of Ocoee, which, during Vandergrif’s tenure, has more than doubled in population — from 15,525 residents in 1992 to 39,172 in 2013, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.
“How do you hold on to that small-town atmosphere with so many people moving in?” he asked. “It took a year to build a post office and three years to afford it. It’s like a new city.”
Other achievements include introducing recording to the commission, getting an Ocoee television channel for city meetings — now live online — sitting by the road with a sign asking people to talk with their mayor and developing a play teaching people how municipal government works, he said.
“The closer you can keep the voter to the person who’s elected, the better off you are,” he said.
Movement complications lead the reasons Vandergrift is stepping down.
“Somewhere between six and 10 doctors … are trying to decide what’s wrong with me,” he said. “I don’t walk well. I don’t feel dizzy but then just lose balance out of the blue, not consciousness. It doesn’t look good in the public eye. I’m riding a scooter to my mailbox, so it doesn’t take three hours.”
A failed tooth implant also makes Vandergrift wary of being in public, he said.
“You can’t see it unless I’m smiling, and I like to smile,” he said. “If I were 90, I’d be in great shape, but I just turned 75.”
As such, he wants to travel, but inhibited mobility, two heart attacks in 15 years and a quadruple bypass in the 1990s can make that tough. The death of his wife about one-and-one-half years ago has played a role, too, he said.
“I’m out of warranty, but if I don’t like the outcome of the next election, maybe I can run again,” he joked.
Contact Zak Kerr at [email protected].
Here is a look at some of S. Scott Vandergrift’s experience in the community:
• Mayor, 1973-75, 1992-present
• Ocoee commissioner, 1967-69
• Member of the Florida League of Cities, Quality Cities and Environmental Quality Committee
• Charter member and past president of Tri-County League of
• Member of the United Nations Association of the United States
• Member of the Ocoee Lions Club
• Board member of the West Orange Chamber of Commerce
• Member of the Orange County Civic Facilities Authority
• Member of East Central Florida Planning Council member
• Member of Friends of Lake Apopka (FOLA) member
• Associate member of the West Orange Senior Citizens
• Lifetime honorary member of Florida Sheriff’s Association
• Charter member and past president of the Ocoee Jaycees
• President of Ocoee Volunteer Fire Department
• 16-year charter member of Ocoee Little League. Served as president, assistant district administrator, sponsor, umpire, groundskeeper and coach.
• Founder and president of the Ocoee Water Ski Club
• Sponsor of Ocoee Bulldogs Football
• Member of Rotary Club of Ocoee