After months of conversations, the Winter Garden City Commission voted not to hold a forfeiture hearing for Commissioner Ron Mueller following discussions related to the City Charter.
At the Nov. 9 commission meeting, the City Commission voted 4-1, with Mueller dissenting, to hold a public forfeiture hearing in January.
However, at the Jan. 11 meeting, commissioners voted to hold the workshop to clarify the way forward for a possible forfeiture hearing.
City Attorney Kurt A. Ardaman said the charter provides that a City Commission member shall forfeit their office if during the term of office the commissioner fails to: maintain residency and voter registration requirements of section 12 of the charter; violates any express prohibition of the charter; is convicted of a crime involving moral turpitude; or fails to physically attend three regular, consecutive commission meetings without being excused by the City Commission.
At the special meeting Friday, Jan. 26, Ardaman clarified the workshop was not a hearing to consider forfeiture of office and that Sunshine laws are not part of the charter discussions.
After several motions were made, withdrawn and workshopped, Commissioner Lisa Bennett made the final motion and the commission approved it unanimously.
City Attorney Kurt A. Ardaman clarified the motion: “The commission has received (copies of emails) that rise to the level of a possible forfeiture, but we will not hold a hearing on those emails, but direct the city manager, city attorney to bring back guidance to the commission.”
Commissioner Colin Sharman believes the commission should look at ways to make the charter more clear.
Before the commission began its discussion, Ardaman reviewed the city’s “commissioner-manager” form of government in which the manager serves as the chief administrative officer, as well as defined certain terminology in the City Charter.
According to the charter, this means, the “city manager shall be the chief executive officer of the city and responsible to the City Commission for the management of all city affairs placed in the city manager’s charge by or under this charter.”
Bennett made an initial motion that received a second from Sharman, which he later withdrew.
“My issue has been that it is not just that the charter has been mistaken and violated,” Bennett said. “We have a stack here of just some of the emails directing staff, threatening to fire people if Ron didn’t get his way. We’re not elected to … get what we want at all costs. If we all acted this way, our city wouldn’t get anything done. It’s very evident, just by the evidence in writing that we’ve reviewed, that violations of 14.1 and 14.2 are there. So, I would make a motion that we find Ron guilty of violating the charter, section 14.1 and 14.2, and we give him one, and only, warning, and then we direct the city attorney and the city manager to find him the language, even though ‘solely’ means ‘solely,’ there are some possible ambiguities that can be addressed, and bring back rules and decorum so this never happens again.”
“I took Lisa’s things as trying to get a warning and not have a forfeiture hearing,” Sharman said after the initial motion. “I took it as her taking advice from us (and) constituents at last night’s meeting and realizing that, hey, maybe we just need to move forward and see what happens. I didn’t take it as she was trying to do anything different.”
Sharman believes as a commissioner, it is “common courtesy” to direct constituents to the appropriate district commissioner to handle.
“I would never hold a community meeting in another commissioner’s district or HOA,” he said. “That’s just professional courtesy. … If you go and do things in somebody’s district and upset them, they’re going to shut you down and not see your point of view. … I would be furious if somebody took an HOA meeting, Town Hall in my district.”
Bennett said this has happened to her, but her issue is the way staff has been treated.
“You don’t treat people the way that you do … and then get in a public setting and compliment them,” she said.
A majority of the workshop’s conversation was directed at Mueller, although Ardaman said the special meeting, approved at the January commission meeting, was intended to discuss certain provisions in the charter and not a single commissioner’s actions.
“One of the first rules that we established for this workshop was that this workshop was not about Ron Mueller,” Mueller said. “It is about the charter and how we interpret it and how we move forward with the charter. Regrettably, Commissioner Bennett didn’t follow through. … That’s not what we were here to do today. The reason that we came here today and had a workshop … was to talk about how we go forward with the charter.”
Ardaman reviewed the two provisions under the City Charter — Article II, Sections 14.1 (appointments and removals) and 14.2 (interference with administration) — that Bennett said Mueller has violated. She first voiced her concerns with Mueller at the Aug. 10, 2023, commission meeting.
Under appointments and removals, the charter states the commission and its members shall not “control, demand, direct or request the appointment or removal of any city administrative officer or employee whom the city manager or any of the city manager’s subordinates is empowered to appoint or hire.”
The charter also states: “Except for the purpose of an investigation pursuant to this charter, the City Commission and its members shall deal with the city administrative officers and employees solely through the city manager.”
Mayor John Rees emphasized he believes it’s “common sense” that if something is needed from staff, commissioners need to go through the city manager. He said he has never had these kinds of issues in his experiences with the city.
“I was told by a previous city manager that he had asked Ron not to do this anymore,” Rees said. “I was told that our current city manager had done that. Then, there was an email in writing that said, ‘Please … do not continue to send emails to staff and copy the city manager,’ and it continued on after that.”
City Manager Jon C. Williams also spoke about staff’s perspective.
“First and foremost, it places staff in an awkward position of potential charter violation, (and) it can be interpreted as attempting to influence staff with respect to operation,” he said. “The reality is that by putting staff in that position, it forces them, or us, to choose between doing something an elected official wants versus the majority of the commission. … Every city manager can take a different approach to commissioner and staff interactions. I will say, prior to being promoted to city manager, I, along with all of your senior staff, were put in this room and were told, in no uncertain terms, that we were not to have an interaction with a certain commissioner. And if it was found that we did that, then we would be fired.”
Editor's note: Questions regarding accusations that Commissioner Ron Mueller violated Sunshine Law were included in previous reporting about discussions related to the proposed forfeiture hearing. This was inaccurate. Sunshine Law concerns were not part of any discussions related to the City Charter. We regret the errors.