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Winter Garden

City commission candidate Ron Mueller has lots of ideas for Winter Garden. He just needs to get elected in District 2 first

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By
Norine Dworkin

Sunday, February 21, 2021

Founding Editor

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Paul Morrison/VoxPopuli

Agile transformer: "We do incremental pieces to be successful and build on each success.... As needs change, we’re not locked into the plan."

If there’s a sizable Star Wars fan base in Winter Garden’s District 2, it’s possible that Ron Mueller may have the election locked. The 56-year-old candidate for city commissioner has a love for the franchise that rivals any teenage boy’s (I know from this for I have a teen who speaks of nothing else, except, maybe, the Avengers).


Walk into Mueller’s home, past a calico cat named Katie, keeping a wary eye on the bundles of campaign literature on a card table, awaiting volunteers to pick them up for distribution, you can't help but notice that a Lego R2-D2 is hanging out on a sideboard. Across the room, BB-8 squats on another. The dining room table centerpiece is a Millennium Falcon. 


“It can still do the Kessel run in 12 parsecs,” Mueller jokes when I message him to fact-check the model. I make a mental note to ask my kid what a "parsec" is. 


We wander into Mueller's office where framed credentials of the Disneyland and Disney World Star Wars races he's run hang behind his desk. And yep, on the bookshelf — it's Baby Yoda. Naturally. 


Meanwhile, six cats meander in and around. Mueller picked four of them literally off the streets (technically, one came off the West Orange Trail), so he may have the kitty rescue voting bloc nailed down too. One cat, Andrew, whose coat is the color of rich espresso, even has his own Instagram account . If you’ve been to a Cruz N Car Show, you may have spotted Andrew chillin’ on top of Mueller’s cherry red 1988 Alfa Romeo Spider Quadrifoglio


“The guys at Main Street Collision have a heart attack every time they see him on their paint job, but it is the life of cats,” Mueller told me in an email.


Mueller came to Winter Garden by way of St. Louis in 2017. But before he landed in this corner of the world, he’d spent eight years aboard fast-attack submarines in the U.S. Navy. He was part of the invasion of Grenada; the invasion of Panama that ousted dictator Gen. Manuel Noriega; Desert Storm; and an under-ice mission to the North Pole that earned him a Blue Nose Certification. He received a Navy Expeditionary Medal, given for service in foreign conflict.


After the Navy, Mueller went to Florida State College in Jacksonville, earned a bachelors in business, and then went to work for KPMG, AG Edwards, Wells Fargo and other companies where he specialized in risk management and agile transformation (more on that below). In November, Wells Fargo let him go in a Covid-19-related downsizing. The unexpected free time has allowed him to campaign full time and work on a neighborhood park reclamation project.


I sat down with Mueller, masked, in his living room, on opposite ends of a long couch, to hear his take on the Dillard Street revitalization project, expanding Winter Garden’s golf cart community, burying power lines underground and making sure we preserve our green space. Once we started talking, Katie, the campaign cat, curled up in my lap to supervise the interview. Purr-fect.


Norine Dworkin: You were posted in the U.S. Navy on a nuclear submarine. Tell me, what was that like?


Ron Mueller: There is no greater sense of community than on a submarine. There are between 100 to 110 people. You may be down there for a short exercise or a few days. My longest time out was 159 days.


When you’re on a submarine, you learn adaptability. You have to know every job and position on a submarine because if something were to happen and someone were to be sick or injured or a death occurred, you have to be able to step into that role, whether it’s driving the submarine or shutting down a nuclear reactor or firing a torpedo or simply cooking. You have to know all of those things to support the remaining members of the crew.


ND: Adaptability sounds like a good quality to have as a city commissioner. What other skills, qualities or experience would you draw on from your nuclear submarine days that would help if you were elected commissioner?


RM: What an interesting question because there are so many facets that do. There is so much about learning to work together because we have to work together to stay alive. There’s only so much air in the “people tank” as we call the submarine. Anything that can contaminate that air — whether it’s smoke or fire or chemical — could kill all of us. We always have to be alert. We always have to be watching out for each other. We always have to be helping each other. And we have to be good at communicating with each other.


That’s the essence of being a city commissioner: working with your peers, working with city staff, listening to voters, understanding the situation and being aware of it at all times. There’s a lot of study, a lot of research, both on a submarine and on the city commission. Each city commission meeting there’s a packet that’s hundreds of pages long, and you have to read and be well-briefed on all of the material in there to make an educated vote in support of your community.


ND: After you left the Navy, you worked with KPMG and AG Edwards, which was bought by Wells Fargo. What did you do there?


RM: I have extensive experience in risk management and what we call agile transformation. Here’s how that applies to the city as well. Let’s say we have a large project that will take us years to complete. We start now and in two to three years we deliver it and say, “I hope this is what everyone wanted.” What happens when it misses? Or if market conditions or financial conditions change in our community? Now we’ve got something we don’t want.


In agile transformation, we see the bigger picture, and we break those big plans into smaller features and we deliver those in small succession so we can gauge how well we’re attaining our objectives and meeting community needs. As needs change, we’re not locked into the plan.


We may have a beautiful vision for Dillard Street and how we’re going to change the street. But what about the businesses along Dillard? How will that transform and change? Today’s not the day to figure that out. Today’s the day to get the road fixed and understand how those businesses could be successful and how they apply to our community. Do we need more retail? Do we need more restaurants? Do we need more parking? More places to stay? All those are factors. And as we continue to grow we do incremental pieces to be successful and  build on each success. Everyone wants to talk about a massive government plan. But if we take small steps, we make a more measured response that’s far more successful, and people can reap the rewards much sooner.


Even if something doesn’t go well, we learn from that, and we’ve not invested millions of dollars and years of time. That’s part of what we need to do as a commission. Take little steps, step back, see if it’s what we need and continue investing with our business leaders and members of the community to outwardly grow.


ND: Let’s talk about Dillard Street because that revitalization plan is in the Community Redevelopment Area that’s bringing back East Winter Garden. When the Miami urban planning firm Dover, Kohl & Partners held their meetings with East Winter Garden residents and business leaders and other stakeholders in 2017, one concept that came out of those meetings was the idea of “One Winter Garden,” uniting the east side and the downtown. Not that long ago, if you were Black, you didn’t cross Ninth Street.


RM: No, you did not. This was a Klan-active area.


ND: By making Dillard more pedestrian friendly, with a sidewalk and trees, it’s meant to connect the two communities, and we’re a step closer to the One Winter Garden idea that was paramount for the residents in East Winter Garden.


RM: The Dillard revitalization begins with the street’s physical transformation. We’re going to take the five-lane road and fill in that middle section as a grass and plant median. Then we will take the northbound lane, and make it a single lane coming out. Southbound will be two lanes. And we’ll have bicycle access.


We’ll also replace the traffic signals at Plant and Dillard and Story and Dillard with roundabouts. Traffic studies have shown that those allow traffic to travel more smoothly. When people say, “We’re losing lanes! It’s going to cause traffic!” More lanes do not help traffic. People tend to use roads with more lanes, which causes more traffic. Reducing lanes will encourage people to use alternate routes. And not having people back up at stop lights anymore at major intersections will certainly help traffic flow.


The second project is the revitalization of the East Side. There’s several million dollars set aside. The land’s been purchased. And one of the great things the city is doing, especially when we’re talking about African-American communities, is working with civic organizations, churches and leaders in the area to understand what we need to do. One of the things so many communities have failed on with African-American communities is they have gone into the communities, taken over the land, knocked out the houses, built up big, expensive homes, and you see African-Americans pushed out and upper-class white society move in.


We have diversity and we’re proud of our diversity here in Winter Garden. So when we’re revitalizing an area and putting in civic centers and shops and stores, and helping to bring up the standard of and the quality of homes that are there, that is to ensure that that community stays there and grows and is not pushed aside.


But many of the homes in Winter Garden are still in the county. They were never annexed. We’ve been doing voluntary annexation for years. But it does leave a problem, especially on the East Side, because there are some homes that are known as drug houses and some that are known to harbor gangs out of downtown Orlando. The criminals know which houses are on city property and which are on county property. We have a great Orange County Sheriff’s Office, but the response time for the Orange County Sheriff to get out to a house can be 20-plus minutes, if at all, whereas Winter Garden Police respond very quickly.


It’s the weakest link concept. The value of your home is tied to your neighbor’s. In East Winter Garden, people are very good, hard-working people, and they’re proud of their homes. If they have to live next to a county house that’s known for drug trafficking and gang violence, we need to address that. One of the best ways to address that is to make sure everyone is in the city and getting the same level of protection and scrutiny. We are one community that way.


ND: What other issues are on your agenda?


RM: Getting the road down on Dillard Street is the first major step. The second thing is, I like a lot of what Winter Park did. I want to work with Duke Energy and the State Emergency Management Agency (FloridaDisaster.org) to see how we can take those ugly power lines that run along Dillard Street and run them underground. Not that Duke’s not willing to do it, but they don’t want to pay for it. They want us to pay for it. So, does Winter Garden pay for it? Does the county pay for it? Does the state pay for it? Can we get guidance from SEMA on how we do that?


I also want to make sure we’re not just putting building after building. No one wants to walk down a Fifth Avenue-type of thing where it’s just store after store after store. Having some green space. Like I appreciate Mount Dora, but Mount Dora lacks green space. It’s just shop after shop, building after building. I want to make sure we’re enjoying both. I want something that thrives with nature. Putting those together then allows the right business people to come in. We need to start building better retail, which attracts better restaurants which attracts better retail, and that cycle continues.


There are things the city can do. I’m not much in favor of TIPs — tax incentive plans. But the city could help encourage things through building an approval process that’s more streamlined, making it clearer what it takes to get here, holding our standards high and maintaining them so that people coming in understand what it is to build and operate here. We can help with things like water, sewer and storm. We can make those things easier if we absorb some of that work if that’s what it takes to get the right businesses in. So we can have a collaborative relationship to make businesses prosper and work well here.


Expanding our golf cart community is a big selling point here in Winter Garden. It increases the value of homes. People are more likely to live here. Giving people the ability to go down the length of Dillard — it’s a long street, maybe longer than some people want to walk — opens up better business flow. We also want to cut down the car traffic. I can fit a lot more golf carts in one parking space than cars. And it would be kinder to the environment.


ND: We are going to be living with Covid-19 for a while. Infectious disease specialists have said we will not be able to vaccinate our way out of this pandemic. Vaccine efforts are definitely picking up, and that is definitely a plus. But according to Johns Hopkins University, while a vaccination can prevent you from getting as sick if you get Covid-19, it’s not clear whether those who’ve been vaccinated can still get infected and transmit the virus to others. Plus, there are  now four virus variants, circulating — Japan just announced it  identified a new variant. Some variants respond to the vaccines, but the Brazilian variant is vaccine-resistant and the new Japanese variant may be as well. All of which leaves us with masks, social distancing, avoiding indoor crowds. If elected, what will you do as a city commissioner to help keep Winter Garden citizens safe?


RM: There is no more existential threat now than the virus. It has not only resulted in nearly half a million lives lost in America and 30 million Americans infected, it has closed businesses, affected the way we travel, how we socialize, how we live, our entire work structure is changed. I understand that it can be fatiguing. We want to go back to normal. I respect people’s feelings that way. But as we see these variants, we need to be more diligent than ever.


President Biden issued an order for a 100-day mask mandate. It started on Feb. 2 and as stewards of our community, one of the paramount things we can do as city commissioners is to keep our community safe. That’s what we do. We pave streets and make sure the sewers work and that there’s fresh water, and that police, fire and trash work well, and we do it at an economic level so that we’re not taxed to death. But that also means we make sure you’re healthy and safe.


As leaders, we should always have our masks on. In any government building you enter, a mask is absolutely required for every member. And that includes the city commissioners who sit on the dais at meetings and don’t wear a mask. That’s unacceptable in my book. If elected, I’ll be expecting the people sitting to my left and right to be wearing a mask that covers both their mouth and nose.


Likewise, despite Gov. Ron DeSantis’s orders, we can and should enforce mask rules at city-sponsored events. That means enforcing that at the Farmers Market. We have the signs. We now provide free masks when you walk in — there’s a nice little box of them. We put lots of hand sanitizer around. But we need to be more Disneyesque, and say “If you don’t wear a mask, we’re going to ask you to leave.”


Winter Garden is a retirement community. We have a lot of people of older age, and they are a higher-risk category. Think about that. Winter Garden is also 53 percent minority, and we’ve understood that minorities are disproportionately affected by Covid-19 — highly disproportionately. So when we take our elderly and our minorities into account, that is a recipe for sickness and death. We’ve got to take this more seriously. We have to start enforcing that with our businesses. This is the expectation.

Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings has put out stricter rules, fining bars and clubs for failing to enforce mask policies. We need to do that here. If every place you go will start requiring a mask, people will get in the habit of wearing a mask.


ND: The mayor and the commissioners are the ones who appoint people to serve on the various committees and boards that help run the city. These committees and boards are almost exclusively white and predominantly male. The benign explanation is that it’s easy to tap the people in your circle to ask them to serve. But these positions are also not very well advertised, and if you don’t routinely visit the city website, you may not know what’s available. This practice leaves out those who might want to have a voice in the community but might not know the mayor or a commissioner to ask to be on a board. How would you make these boards and committees more reflective of Winter Garden’s population?


RM: That’s a great question and a challenging one because I’m a white male, and I’m running for public office, so I fit in the very category that I believe isn’t diverse enough. But I will also say that during my time at Wells Fargo as a leader, I had the most diverse team of anyone in my division. Forty-two percent of the staff was female. We also had people from India; we had African-Americans, veterans, LGBT, people from their early 20s to early 60s. Having that group of people together gave a different perspective because people come in from different walks of life and solve things differently.


My commitment as a city commissioner is to expand the horizons of the people we serve with. There is great benefit to asking folks who have served the past to help provide guidance. In serving on the Charter Review Committee, the chairman was previously on that board and his knowledge and experience was instrumental in serving in 2019 and 2020. But for the most part, it was the same folks again. That was the first time I got to serve on a board, after many, many attempts. And, as a new person, ultimately seven of the nine ballot initiatives were motions that I made. We can’t stay in the framework of using the same people to do the same things and expect a different result.


We need different perspectives. How many board members, or committee members, live on the East Side? That’s part of our community. Our community is bigger than Plant Street between Park and Dillard. It’s a lot bigger, and we should have people from every walk and every area come out. I know it’s volunteer, and I know it’s simple to just ask the same people to keep serving, but there are a lot of people out there who would want to serve. You have to open the door and invite people. You have to have a voice for them, especially if they’re not invited to the table in the first place. As a commissioner if I’m sitting at the table, I’m going to open up the invitation. That’s what I’m going to do.

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