Due process, charter violation accusations dominate discussion in Winter Garden

The Winter Garden City Commission will proceed with a forfeiture hearing against Commissioner Ron Mueller.

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The Winter Garden City Commission voted at its meeting Thursday, Dec. 14, 4 to 1, with Commissioner Ron Mueller dissenting, to proceed with a forfeiture hearing against Mueller relating to three charges of alleged violations of the city charter.

At the previous November meeting, the commission voted 4-1, also with Mueller dissenting, to hold a public forfeiture hearing in January 2024 after Commissioner Lisa Bennett voiced concerns pertaining to Mueller.

Although there was debate on how many charges the commission should consider at the hearing, Bennett said Mueller violated three charges in the city charter pertaining to Article II, Sections 14.1 and 14.2.

“The whole point is we did take an oath to uphold our charter when we took office,” she said. “We have a responsibility, and I don’t believe we can pick and choose which amendments or numbers that we uphold. We either uphold our charter, or it’s not any good.”


Bennett first voiced her concerns with Mueller at the Thursday, Aug. 10, meeting.

It started when she received an email from a resident in Tuscany, who is against having golf carts come to the neighborhood. The resident was upset that another commissioner came and took a meeting in her neighborhood, she said.

“She thought it was inappropriate — her words,” Bennett said. “I’ve spoken to Ron on multiple occasions about matters in my district being referred to me so that I can do my job effectively. I can’t do it if I don’t know. I did get an email from (Mueller) afterwards saying (he) took a meeting and … didn’t realize it was my district. But it’s on the opposite edge of my district, so very much so not (his). I’ve gotten people calling me about social media posts, car show, the fountains in downtown, promises that were being made, merchants have complained. … I’d like to have a workshop … I feel like things like this have to be said in Sunshine or on the dais.”

At the November meeting, Bennett reiterated concerns about Mueller violating Sunshine law.

“We’ve received the information that we requested from (the) city manager about a possible forfeiture hearing, and I believe it rises to the level to warrant a hearing,” Bennett said of the hearing.

Mueller said the hearing is politically motivated and an abuse of her office.

“I’m certainly disappointed in Commissioner Bennett and her political stunt here to push something at the election time that is unwarranted and unfounded from the information,” he said. “I find it an abuse of her office and what her people elected her for. I also find the motion rather tinges on the absurdity of the fact that she makes the accusation that we somehow interfered with city employees and city business.”


Following direction at the November meeting, City Attorney Kurt A. Ardaman put together a list of rules, processes and procedures for the commission in respect to the hearing. 

Ardaman also has some alternatives he has discussed with Mueller in reference to the process, but he needed direction from the commission on how to proceed.

During the conversations, Mueller said multiple times his due process was being violated. 

“It would be inappropriate for the city attorney to really speak on this matter at this point (because of) lack of due process,” Mueller said. “I have not retained council yet. … I think it would be appropriate until I have council representing and (then) we can discuss this matter.”  

“Ron, you need to get an attorney,” Commissioner Mark A. Maciel said after seconding Bennett’s motion for the three charges. “If you don’t agree with all three (charges), then let’s just move this, then get the attorney and fight.”

After the motion passed, Ardaman suggested the city not pursue hiring a presenting prosecuting attorney. The commission opted not to take action on the matter at the time.

“I would serve as the commission’s attorney — not as an advocate for or against Commissioner Mueller or for the commission, but it would be, I think, an opportunity to avoid the more stilted, formal presentation,” he said.

The public forfeiture hearing is set to take place at a date not yet determined in late January 2024.


During the public comment portion of the meeting, Norine Dworkin, editor-in-chief of VoxPopuli, asserted Mayor John Rees also has violated the city charter because he has not presented an annual State of the City message. 

“This commission has been very occupied with the prosecution of Commissioner Mueller for alleged violations, and I want to know if the commission is going to give equal attention to the actual violations of the mayor,” she said. “The charter states that the mayor shall do three things and that word is ‘shall’: Preside over the meetings, represent the city in intergovernmental relationships and present an annual State of the City message. I asked the mayor directly when the last time he gave a State of the City message, and he said, ‘Never.’ … This commission has spent an awful lot of time and resources pursuing a commissioner for alleged violations, and what we have here are actual violations of the city charter.”

According to VoxPopuli’s website, Mueller is an individual donor to the nonprofit news source.

Ardaman addressed Dworkin’s concerns.

“This is not something that’s under the prohibited portions of the charter for which the City Commission is the judge,” he said. “There’s a separate section that Commissioner Mueller is involved (in). This is a question about interpretation of this particular part of the charter. … The assertion was that the mayor has violated Article II, Section 11, Subsection 3 of the Winter Garden Charter for failing to deliver an annual State of the City address. … We looked at the actual language. … It doesn’t say special address; it doesn’t define how the mayor is supposed to do that; it doesn’t get into what that actually means. … In addition, there is no charter requirement …as to what the message is to contain or the format of the message. … Twice a year, the mayor sends out a bulletin … highlighting the city’s recent accomplishments and actions, and these flyers go out throughout the city. … The mayor has also participated in (the) West Orange Chamber of Commerce(’s) State of West Orange County lunch and other things. He participates in the actual budget where he chairs the meeting (and) the commission adopts that budget from a fiscal standpoint. … At the end of the day, it looks like the mayor has gone far beyond what his duty would be under that particular provision to deliver an annual State of the City message. … Based on what I’ve seen, it’s an inappropriate accusation.”



Annabelle Sikes

News Editor Annabelle Sikes was born in Boca Raton and moved to Orlando in 2018 to attend the University of Central Florida. She graduated from UCF in May 2021 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a minor in sociology. Her past journalism experiences include serving as a web producer at the Orlando Sentinel, a reporter at The Community Paper, managing editor for NSM Today, digital manager at Centric Magazine and as an intern for the Orlando Weekly.

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