Winter Garden City Commissioner Ron Mueller will need to defend his actions, after the City Commission voted 4-1 to hold a public forfeiture hearing in January 2024.
Commissioner Lisa Bennett voiced concerns about Mueller violating Sunshine law and also said he has spoken to residents in her district rather than directing them to her.
“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. But the very fact that she makes this motion kind of usurps the city manager, who is responsible for such people and would have had the responsibility to bring this to our attention should it have risen to the point that it was a problem.
“Her interference actually (compounds) the problem, and she becomes part of the very issue itself,” Mueller said. “I think it’s abusive. It overrides the city manager’s role and duty, who we have the utmost faith and trust in. If it was an issue, he would have brought it to us and asked us for some review, but since that has not happened, there’s no complaint by him, I find her motion to be nothing more than just political rhetoric.”
The election qualifying period, which began Tuesday, Nov. 7, ran through noon Tuesday, Nov. 14.
Two others have filed to run in Mueller’s District 2 area: Danny “DJ” Culberson Jr. and Iliana R. Jones.
Bennett first brought up her concerns with Mueller at the Thursday, Aug. 10, meeting.
Bennett said it started when she received an email from a resident in Tuscany who is against having golf carts come to the neighborhood, and the resident was upset that another commissioner came and took a meeting in her neighborhood.
“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 you afterwards saying you took a meeting and you didn’t realize it was my district. But it’s on the opposite edge of my district, so very much so not yours. 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. … I know we’ve said (this) before, and you’ve always been kind, especially in public, but your actions don’t match your words, and that’s happened with staff as well, and they’re hesitant to say anything when you’ve threatened to fire them.”
Former City Commissioner Bob Buchanan alluded to the Sunshine law not being followed by a commissioner at the Thursday, June 8, meeting.
“The individual commissioners, if they have a problem or if they have a concern, they should go to you (City Manager Jon C. Williams), right?” he asked. “They should not text the other commissioners. Is that going through Ethics Commission? When I was on the board, I had to go to a meeting every year that told me what I was supposed to do and what I wasn’t supposed to do. It seems to me like we’ve got a commissioner on this board (who) doesn’t seem like he has to do that. He texts directly to the other commissioners and even wants them to give him a call. That’s totally against the Sunshine law, and I want some direction as a citizen. I don’t want to see my board up here messed with, because if anybody answers him, they’re in violation of the Sunshine law, and they could be removed, as well as him.”
“Over time, I’ve had staff come to me when they have been contacted and expressed concern with the fact that they were contacted,” Williams said at the November meeting.
“I guess from my point of view, I’m disappointed and frustrated about the fact that I feel like we got put in this position,” Mayor John Rees said. “I’ve been here a long time and never dealt with this. So, you know, I’m not happy we’ve been put in this position, but after looking at everything, I think that we have to go to a hearing. I don’t know if it’s about being politically motivated, no more than I’ve got a stack of stuff here.”
Commissioner Mark A. Maciel agreed with Rees and said staff has put a lot of work into this.
“There’s been a lot of research, a lot of hours spent putting data together, so I think it rises to that occasion,” he said. “Let Ron speak at the hearing.”
City Attorney A. Kurt Ardaman said the city’s charter provides a process in respect to the forfeiture hearing, but it is not detailed.
“If the commission does move forward with that, what I would suggest is that you allow us to recommend back to the commission some rules, processes and procedures, so there would be some suggested guidance,” he said. “You all are the judge of the qualifications of the commissioners, each individual commissioner, and this process is your process, but you certainly must afford due process to all involved.”
Bennett amended her motion to reflect Ardaman’s suggestions.
The city has provided no additional comments at this time. No date has been officially set for the hearing.
Because of the holidays, the next Winter Garden City Commission meeting will not take place until Thursday, Dec. 14.