Candidate, District 3 City Commissioner
Never held elected office
Child Development Associate degree, Council for Professional Recognition, 1999
Honors the commandments in Exodus 20, the Torah and the Hebrew Israelite names and customs
Entrepreneur, single mom to two adult daughters and lifelong resident of East Winter Garden, Karen Mcneil, 60, is running for city commissioner in Winter Garden’s District 3. She faces fellow Historic East Winter Garden resident Chloe Johnson in the election on March 19.
City commissioners serve for four years. The job is part time and pays $7,200 annually, and includes life insurance and health insurance with vision and dental care.
This race marks the first time two Black candidates have squared off for a seat on Winter Garden’s city commission. Regardless of the outcome, there will be a Black woman on the commission for the first time in nearly 20 years, when Commissioner Mildred Dixon served. Dixon filed a lawsuit, with other plaintiffs, that claimed Winter Garden’s at-large elections were unfair to minorities and violated the 1965 Voting Rights Act before she took office. She served for nearly seven terms, starting in 1985. When she died in 2006, Charlie Mae Wilder was appointed to serve the remainder of her term.
Following in their footsteps, Mcneil is another outspoken advocate for her community. She has pushed Winter Garden for a speedy resolution to longstanding drainage issues the city inherited when it annexed Historic East Winter GardenLINK from Orange County. And she’s gone toe-to-toe with city officials on other issues as well.
“I’ve been up here to talk to you guys before, so I’m quite sure you remember me. If you don’t, I’m gonna let you remember me now,” Mcneil told the city manager and other officials in June in a standing room only crowd of Historic East Winter Garden residents who had gathered to hear about the neighborhood revitalization plans. Then she lambasted city leaders for characterizing the neighborhood as a drug haven and not creating spaces where restaurants and pubs could be built for adults to gather. “I hear you keep saying that we can hang out at Zanders Park where the children are. We are adults and we need a place for adults to hang out.”
Mcneil says she may not be a politician, but she is a “people-tician,” willing to implement solutions that benefit all of District 3 and its residents.
She has a plan to revamp Center Street by introducing a market place, similar to Plant Street Market. The idea is to give residents a place to socialize, allow small business owners to flourish and to revitalize the historic district of East Winter Garden. Mcneil said in an email that she started Fresh Start Entrepreneurs, Inc., to prepare residents for their own entrepreneurial endeavors with the idea that Center Street market place could be their starting point.
Mcneil manages two other businesses: Mcneil’s Preschool Home LLC and Mcneil’s Adult Daycare for special-needs adults.
In a recent phone interview, Mcneil shared her concerns for District 3 and her goals as commissioner.
Mcneil is a member of VoxPopuli’s advisory board, a position she will resign if elected.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
VoxPopuli: Why are you running for city commissioner?
Karen Mcneil: I'm a lifelong resident of Winter Garden, and I live on the east side. So as far as the east side, I saw that a lot of things that are done in the other areas are not being done in our area. So this is one of the main reasons that I decided to run for city commissioner, because I want to make a change. I don't consider myself a politician. I consider myself, if you can understand this, a “people-tician.”
I’m for the people, yes ma'am … I'm here to make sure that, as best as I can, I can get things done for the people. Because I know how it is to be able to live in a neighborhood, and, you know, you see things that need to be done, and it's not getting done.
VoxPopuli: What are some of the major issues that you see within District 3 and in what specific ways are you hoping to address them?
Karen Mcneil: One of the main issues that I have seen is public safety. And I know that public safety looks different in every community, so I plan to talk to each community to find out what their issues are. The number one thing that I'm going to do when it comes to public safety … is make sure we have safe roads as far as when people are coming through. If they're speeding, speeding bumps [should be placed] in those areas. Make sure there's enough lighting in the area and also work the neighborhood watch programs.
VoxPopuli: Do you have specific public safety concerns in Historic East Winter Garden?
Karen Mcneil: In this area, we've had a lot of shootings with some types of gangs going on. [The Winter Garden Police Department is working on] a program that they're gonna be rolling out [An app called Winter Garden PD that uses Tip411 software]. It’s for people that want to be witnesses and that are scared to tell if they see anything. This program will let residents call in anonymously and tell what they witnessed [but] not be able to track who was calling...That'll make it more comfortable for the people to be able to call in and let them know what they witnessed.
VoxPopuli: Who is your role model for working as a city commissioner?
Karen Mcneil: Well, I don't know if you ever heard of a city commissioner that was for District 3. It was a very long time ago. She has a building named after her where they have community services. Her name was Miss Mildred Dixon. As far as we're concerned — and I'm not the only one that feels this way — she was the only one that got stuff done for our area. So I want to have the same type of legacy she left: to do something for the people, where they're gonna remember me when I'm here and when I'm gone, that's gonna benefit them as far as public safety as far as historical value of landmarks. I'm also working with the special needs community…I want to actually do something for the people. So when I leave here, they can say the same thing that they say about Miss Mildred Dixon. She was the one commissioner that got stuff done for the people.
VoxPopuli: What are some of the things Commissioner Mark Maciel has done that you wish to continue or improve on?
Karen Mcneil: Well, to be truthful, I really don't know anything that the current commissioner has done. And I'm just being honest, I really don't. The only thing I can think of that he did was purchase a rooming house on Center Street. That’s the only thing I know that he did in this area.
VoxPopuli: How do you plan to reach voters beyond your community in Historic East Winter Garden?
Karen Mcneil: The way I plan to appeal to the other areas in District 3 is to have meetings with HOAs in the communities and other areas where I would be able to go there and talk to the community and the residents of those communities to find out what their concerns are. Because at this moment, I'm not aware of their concerns. So we're going to have the meetings where the community can come out, ask me questions, and tell me what their concerns are so I can be able to help the entire district.
VoxPopuli: What do you believe sets you apart from your opponent Chloe Johnson?
Karen Mcneil: I am a more seasoned person, if you know what I mean. So I've been around the block more times. I was in Winter Garden when there was dirt roads. So I've seen it get established from that and improve from that. I'm not on a lot of different boards or anything like that because I want [to be in the] community actually doing something in the community. So that's why I started the Fresh Start Entrepreneur program that teaches residents how to start a business. I actually like to do something that's gonna actually help the people, not just talking about stuff. A lot of these organizations around here, all they do — I'm just being honest — is talk. But they're not doing anything. So I am trying to do programs in the area that's gonna actually help people be able to become self-sufficient, as well as boost the economy.
VoxPopuli: Regardless of who wins this election, there will be a Black woman serving as District 3 commissioner. What are your thoughts on that?
Karen Mcneil: Oh, that makes me feel… Oh, I'm so excited about it! Because, you know, as far as Chloe goes, I know her parents. I was raised with her parents. I know her … We talked about this, me and her talked about it. I told her, Hey, one thing that we need to do is get the current one out of there. So once we get the current one out of there, whoever wins between us, we will support each other.
VoxPopuli: Currently, the city of Winter Garden has a resolution in place that bars journalists from asking elected officials questions before, during and after city commission meetings. Civil rights and media organizations have said this law is unconstitutional and violates the First Amendment and Florida statute. What do you think about reporters being able to ask questions of elected officials?
Karen Mcneil: Well, that's very easy because I've been on [VoxPopuli’s] board. So I support it 100 percent because it's very well needed. You know, I really appreciate what Norine, [VoxPopuli’s editor], is doing in our community, advocat[ing] for our community, and I support press freedom 100 percent. I'm not a media person, however, some of the questions that she's asked the city of Winter Garden, I’ve asked them as well. Because I'm an advocate for this community.
VoxPopuli: City staff work closely with developers on projects and then recommend building projects to the commission for approval. Sometimes those projects may not be right for our community. 30 N. Park, squeezed onto the lot at Park Avenue and Plant Street next to the West Orange Trail, and the Smith + Main apartment building, with its Mediterranean style architecture, are good examples of this. Would you be able to vote against a specific project even if the staff recommended it?
Karen Mcneil: Most people know me in this area, and I'm a strong minded person. If it’s not for the benefit of my community, no one is gonna be able to persuade me to do anything. I am here for the people. I am not a politician. I am taking on a politician role, but I am not a politician. Again, I am a “people-tician.” If it's not for the benefit of my community, I am not gonna be persuaded to do anything or change my mind about anything.