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Joel Keller feels perfectly fine and he'd like his job back, please

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Norine Dworkin

Thursday, February 25, 2021

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Norine Dworkin/VoxPopuli

I’ve fought federal, county and city government for citizens, and I keep winning. I've always been a fighter for what we need for our community.


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Before Joel Keller will agree to an interview, he wants to know if I’m “okay with dogs.”

As soon I arrive at his Ocoee home I immediately see why. Two enormous Great Danes greet me at the door: one, a standout harlequin; the other, a beautiful pewter-y hue.

Their noses reach my chest. “They’re still puppies,” Keller tells me. I cannot imagine where those noses will reach once these “puppies” are full grown.

Keller, 67, who lives here with his wife, the “puppies,” and a cat that clearly rules the roost, is one of four candidates running for city commissioner in District 4.

This is a nonpartisan race, but Keller’s not shy about laying down his bona fides. He’s a seasoned Democratic politician from Goshen, New York. At 19, he was the youngest elected town chair of a political party in the United States. At 20, he was the youngest county-level Democratic Party officer in the country. At 22, he was co-campaign manager for Henry “Scoop” Jackson, the  longtime U.S. senator from Washington who ran against Jimmy Carter for the Democratic presidential nomination. Few people understand the way government and politics work like Keller does. If he were a West Wing character, he'd be perpetual strategist Josh Lyman. He even looks a bit like Bradley Whitford

“My first campaign I ever went door-to-door for was back in high school in 1970. Here it is 51 years later, and I’m still knocking on doors asking people for votes,” he laughs.

Keller, who’s lived in Ocoee for 31 years, was personally tapped by the outgoing city commissioner Nancy Parker to run for her seat when she retired. He won her old seat in 2006 then represented Ocoee’s District 4 for 12 years — until Commissioner George Oliver defeated him in 2018, becoming the first Black city commissioner in the city of Ocoee. Keller himself described Oliver’s election to the Sentinel as “a milestone” for the city that 100 years before had lynched a Black man for trying to vote.

The defeat turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Two months after the election, Keller was diagnosed with esophageal cancer. He spent the next two years fighting cancer. There was surgery to remove two-thirds of his esophagus; radiation; chemo. Today, he’s finally cancer-free.

Now Keller wants the commission seat back. And he’s coming with a list of things he noticed are pretty much where he left them three years ago.

“It was good to have time off to fight the cancer,” he says. “Now it’s time to get back to see if we can help the city.”

We sat down at the kitchen table, with the dogs sprawled nearby, while Keller laid out his priorities for another term.

Norine Dworkin: Commissioner, you’ve been away for a while, would you like to remind District 4 voters of some of the things you did in office?

Joel Keller: I’m the fighter for the citizens. In 2007-2008, when FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] re-determined the flood plain ,and a large part of Ocoee was going to get hit with higher insurance rates because they were now in a flood plain where they hadn’t been before, I fought the federal government and they rescinded it. Insurance rates went back down for the people it was going to affect.

Orange County wanted to put a garbage refuse transfer station right across from McCormick Woods on McCormick Road. There are about 400 homes in that neighborhood. I heard about it and led the fight against the county on that. There’s no transfer station there.

The city of Ocoee decided they wanted to get rid of the fire department ...

ND: WHAT?! The city wanted to ditch its own fire department? How is that a good idea?

JK: The city manager thought it would be a good way to save money to get rid of the fire department and let the county handle it. There was one commissioner who brought it forward to the board. I opposed that. I led that fight and showed them that it was cheaper to keep the fire department. When they finally took the vote, it was 5-0 to keep the fire department. The citizens and the fire department were very happy.

So I’ve fought the federal government. I’ve fought county government. I’ve fought city government for citizens, and I keep winning. I’ve been a fighter  for what we need for our community.

ND: You want to get all Ocoee residents consolidated into one zip code — 34761. I didn’t realize there was more than one zip code for Ocoee. Why is this important to residents?

JK: We have seven zip codes in the city of Ocoee. Most people don’t realize that. You ask people what the zip code is, and they say it’s 34761. However, we have people living in Ocoee with an Apopka zip code, with a Winter Garden zip code, with Orlando zip code. It’s just because of how the postal lines are drawn and how close you might be to other areas. Rose Hill for example has an Orlando zip code. When we first moved in 30 years ago, we had an Orlando zip code, and we petitioned the post office to let us change it to Ocoee. The value of our house went up $10,000 in one day.

ND: Is that why it’s important to have an Ocoee zip code?

JK: That, and because insurance rates for car and home are also based on where you live. If you’re in a zip code with higher crime or other problems, you may have higher insurance. When there are hurricanes and your drivers license says you live in Orlando or Apopka instead of Ocoee, it makes it more difficult to say “I’m an Ocoee citizen; can I get my sandbags?” Well, your license says Orlando. Go to Orlando and wait on their line. Or when you want to sign up for the Jim Beech Center. It just makes it more difficult for people who live in Ocoee but have one of the other six zip codes. My goal is to get everyone into 34761. I’m disappointed that this hasn’t gotten anywhere since I’m off the board. That’s another reason I need to be on the commission.

ND: How close to resolution is the zip code issue now?

JK: It basically takes an act of Congress. It passed the House, but it died in the Senate. But I got it out of a congressional committee once. I think I can get it out again because I know how to work with Congress and the state houses to get bills passed. I see where it died since I’ve been out, and I know it’s something the citizens want.

I can move things. It’s just a matter of keeping after it. It’s like any bill in federal or state government. The first time, it’s not going to go through. It takes a couple of years. But you have to have the follow through. Without me there, we haven’t had the follow through to get it done. It takes a person who’s going to own it, and then it takes the others to get behind it and say “OK, do it.” With the federal government, you’ve got to work with your lobbyists up there to make sure it’s still being brought before the various legislators and various committees it has to go through for approval so it can get to the floor for a vote.

When I was commissioner, I used all but one week of my vacation every year doing city business, whether it was going to Tallahassee or going to Washington or somewhere else for city meetings. We’re all part-timers. If you don’t have the time to do that, you’re not going to be able to push things like this. To me, it was an important thing. I used a lot of vacation time to try to get it done. Now that I’m not there, I don’t see that being pushed any more.

ND: The fire department doesn’t seem to be very happy with the city right now. Can you weigh in on that?

JK: We have a fire department that has gone from being very proud of being the Ocoee Fire Department to having a morale issue, it seems it’s becoming more of a training ground for other departments: get hired in Ocoee, and once you can say you’ve got some experience go somewhere else. That never was the case. And I’m seeing that over the last three years. That again bothers me with the commission.

That’s a major turnaround when, all of a sudden, you’ve got issues with the morale in a department that not only was fully funded and had all the positions filled, but we had one of the highest fire ratings in the country because of how good our fire department was. You don’t give a union everything they want, but where is the fair bargaining? It seems to me it shouldn’t take you three years to bargain out a fair contract with the city. The city commission votes and the union votes. What are we doing that all of a sudden there are contract problems to the point where people feel they have to leave because they can do better elsewhere?

We weren’t the highest paid, and I don’t think we should be. But I don’t think we should be on the bottom either. I’m not sure where we are. That’s one of the things I want to look at and see why we had a super-excited, well-working, well-oiled fire department, and now I want to say there are 10 openings in the fire department. That’s two trucks — half a shift. There’s one truck per fire station, and we’ve got four stations in the city. If I take out four people, that’s one truck. That’s a station. If I take out eight people, that’s two stations down. I got two more out because I’ve got 10 opens, I’ve got two and a half stations down on any given day. I’m paying overtime. Why am I having to pay overtime?

If the contracts are done right, I should be saving enough money that I don’t have to have be paying overtime to people. You have to have good morale with your police and fire unions. It’s just another thing that bothers me that something’s wrong.

As commissioner, I used to go out on the rides with the police. And I spent a night — a 24-hour shift — in all three (then we only had three) fire stations. I went out on every call and saw what they were doing and saw the issues that they had. For instance — numbers on homes. I would love to see that addressed. If there’s a fire, I’m gonna find it; I’m gonna see the flames. But if I’m looking for someone who’s having a heart attack because I’m a paramedic and I can’t see the number on the house, how do I get in there as quickly as I can?

There needs to be some consistency so that when you pull up on a street, you can find that house immediately — “Is this one, 21, or is that one, 21? ‘Cause I gotta be in that door now!” When you go out there and spend 24 hours with them, those are the things you see during the run.

ND: Wasn’t there another big project that got left in limbo? Tell me about that.

JK: We got some startup money to move the outdoor police firing range. Most people don’t know where the firing range is in the city of Ocoee, but it’s in District 4, off of Clark Road on the north side of the Jim Beech Center. One of the things I’d been looking at when I was on the commission was getting it moved.

ND: Is it away from houses?

JK: It is right now. But as we build up Clark Road on the west side, more houses are going to get close to it, and my concern has always been that eventually it’s going to get too close and you’re going to have somebody’s ricocheted bullet going through someone’s house. So I wanted to get it moved. We got startup money to do it. We were going to build an indoor range. And the whole price tag was going to be $7 million. We thought we could get offset from the state and federal government to help because we have one of the few ranges in the area, and it's used by several local municipalities, including Winter Garden, Windermere and Apopka. It's also used by the Secret Service, the DEA, the FBI and a few other federal groups. When we went up to the state house, we approached it as a regional firing range for the police with indoor classrooms so they could create scenes to practice drills and a large enough paved area to practice offensive driving. We got seed money to get it started with the state budget. Then Gov. Rick Scott line-item vetoed it.

ND: So where’s the money now?

JK: We haven’t gotten it from state. That money needs to be re-approved. We’re looking to put our own money into it, too; it won't just be state money. That was one of the things I was looking to put into the budget. When I left, it was in the five-year plan to get the firing range moved. This is one of the things I’m going to be looking at.

A lot of federal groups use the range too, so I’d like to get some of their buy-in to help pay for it. Seven million dollars from a federal or state point-of-view is not a lot of money to build something. But from a city point-of-view, that’s a huge chunk of my budget.

ND: Commissioner Oliver and Mayor Rusty Johnson don’t particularly like each other. And Commissioner Oliver suggested in an Orlando Sentinel article that the mayor asked people to run against him. Did the mayor approach you to ask you to run again?

JK: No. I did have people ask me to run, but the mayor wasn’t one of them. When I decided I was going to run, I let the mayor know.

I saw the article in the Sentinel where Commissioner Oliver said that the Mayor was pushing people to run against him. If I was trying to get someone out, I certainly wouldn’t want more than one person against me. Because I’m splitting the vote. If I want you out of office, and I have me, Lori and someone else running against you, then the people who aren’t for you are going to split their votes between the three of us, and you’ll get all your votes and you’ll get re-elected. So it makes no sense for the mayor to say “You need to run! You need to run! You need to run!” He would defeat his own purpose if that was the case. It sounds good, and it’s a good sound bite That’s the problem with sound bites. They sound good. But no one stops to look behind them to see if they make sense. It wouldn’t make sense to have three people. You defeat your purpose.

What I see is that people didn’t like how George was doing things and decided I can do it better, I’m going to run against him.

Everyone knows you have to fill potholes and make the roads straight and make the water and sewers run. But it’s the other parts that go along with it that you have to be willing to put the time in and, to some extent, have a little bit of know-how about how it gets done. That’s what I bring to the table. I’ve been there and done it. I’ve been doing this for a long time, and I would like to be back in there.

It was a close election last time. If people were really happy with my opponent, there wouldn’t be four of us running.

Election Day is March 9. Polls will be open 7 A.M. to 7 P.M. Early voting is March 1 to 5 at the Orange County Supervisor of Elections office 119 West Kaley Street, Orlando, FL 32806 8 A.M. to 5 P.M.

If you voted by mail in the general election, you should receive a ballot for the municipal election. Such requests are meant to be good for two elections. But check your status to be sure

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