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Law & Politics

Barred from ballot, former Ocoee Comm. Oliver sues City Clerk, Orange County Supervisor of Elections

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By
Norine Dworkin

Editor in Chief

Monday, December 4, 2023

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Former Ocoee City Commissioner George Oliver III, campaigning in 2021 for his second term. Last week, he filed a lawsuit against the Ocoee city clerk and Orange County supervisor of elections, alleging the Ocoee city commission deliberately sought to disqualify him from the March 2024 election.

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Former District 4 Commissioner George Oliver III last week filed a lawsuit in the Ninth Judicial Circuit Court against Melanie Sibbett in her capacity as Ocoee’s city clerk and Bill Cowles as the Orange County supervisor of elections for disqualifying him as a candidate for District 4 commissioner during the municipal election March 19, 2024. 


Mayor Rusty Johnson and Commissioners Scott Kennedy, Rosemary Wilsen, Richard Firstner and Ages Hart were not named in the lawsuit.


Oliver also filed an emergency motion for a temporary injunction, requesting that Judge Brian S. Sandor find that he is a qualified candidate for Ocoee’s election and that his name be added to the list of qualified candidates before Orange County begins printing ballots for the election.


Oliver’s attorney Leonard Collins of the Orlando law firm GrayRobinson wrote in the emergency motion that the city’s “shenanigans” are "actively interfering with the public’s right to select the candidate of its choosing.”


“If his name is not added to the list of qualified candidates," Collins wrote, "he will not be included on the ballot for election, and residents of District 4, in the City of Ocoee will be disenfranchised.”


A hearing on the motion is scheduled for Tuesday Dec. 5 at 1:30 p.m. at the Orange County Courthouse.


City Clerk Melanie Sibbett did not respond to a request for comment.



EXTRA REQUIREMENTS

The lawsuit stems from the city commission’s 4-1 vote on Nov. 7, which disqualified Oliver from running in the March 19, 2024, election for the remainder of his District 4 term. The commission said Oliver would be eligible to run again in 2025.


Oliver resigned his District 4 seat on January 10, with two years left in his term, to run unsuccessfully for mayor in March. The commission appointed Ages Hart to represent District 4 until a special election could be held to fill the seat. That election was originally scheduled for June 13. Hart was the only commissioner who did not vote to keep Oliver off the 2024 ballot.


“Let the voters decide,” Hart said at the time. Hart is not running in the 2024 election.


According to the complaint filed with the court (a document unaccountably riddled with misspellings), Oliver qualified as a candidate for the June 13 election.


The lawsuit alleges that the Ocoee city commission deliberately sought to disqualify Oliver from the March 19, 2024, election and developed a new interpretation of the city charter with “extra qualification requirements for Plaintiff” to achieve that.


The complaint states, “Members of the commission, from the dias (sic), during the meeting actually asked Plaintiff if he would run for office or not and based their decision to move forward with their interpretation and issuing a directive to the City Clerk concerning disqualifying Plaintiff from qualifying.”


The lawsuit also alleges that Johnson and Kennedy “stated during the Commission meeting that they would not pass their Resolution concerning eligibility of Plaintiff if Plaintiff stated during the Committee meeting that he would not run for office.”


[As reported previously by VoxPopuli, the Oliver decision came during a regular city commission meeting and occurred after discussion on the last agenda item, regarding general challenges to candidate qualifications. Kennedy commented that both he and Firstner had faced candidates in the last election who warranted closer vetting.]



WHAT IS A SUCCESSOR?

The lawsuit accuses Ocoee City Attorney Rick Geller of advising "the city commission that there were additional eligability (sic) requirements that served to disqualify a candidate who previously resigned his position, based on his interpretation of Section C-17 (c).” The complaint does not detail the additional requirements. Attorney Geller is not named in the lawsuit. 


At issue is Geller’s interpretation of the word successor. As VoxPopuli previously reported, the decision that a successor was a different person from the person who vacated the seat, was what led to Oliver’s disqualification from the 2024 ballot. Geller drew his interpretation from Black’s Law Dictionary, the most commonly used legal dictionary, but told commissioners they were “free to disagree.”


Oliver’s position, according to the complaint, is that a vacant seat doesn’t mean the official who vacated it “is prohibited from running for that office after having previously resigned, if the City Charter took that position it would have been included in Section C-11, " Eligibility”.


“Instead, the City had to instruct its Clerk to find Plaintiff ineligible for office because without taking that action, the Clerk would have follow (sic) the plain language of the Charter in C-11 and would have qualified Plaintiff as she did in April for the June 2023 election.”



ELECTION RESCHEDULING

Much is made in both the lawsuit and the emergency motion of former City Attorney Scott Cookson's objections to changing the election date. Meeting minutes from the April 18 commission meeting, included with the emergency motion, quote Cookson saying that the city had an "obligation" to hold the election in June. His retirement announcement soon after the date switch fueled speculation that that event led to his resignation after 13 years representing the city. 


Cookson, who specializes in real estate law, told VoxPopuli at the time that his “resignation should not be construed as anything more than my desire to free up time for me to focus on my firm and other areas of my practice and to permit this new City Commission the opportunity to select and move forward with a new City Attorney.”


Cookson continues to do some legal work for the city.


Cookson's objections notwithstanding, there remains a fundamental misunderstanding about why the city commission rescheduled the election. 


Before being hired as city attorney, Geller, a board-certified specialist in government law, was hired by the city as an independent legal expert to evaluate the charter and weigh in on the election scheduling issue.


In his presentation to commissioners, Geller explained that his strong recommendation to reschedule the election was based largely on the commission's April 18 decision to appoint a Charter Review Commission to address election vulnerabilities discovered during the March 2023 election.  


Forming the Charter Review Commission required that the election be rescheduled. That was to accommodate voting on charter amendments. The city charter mandates when amendments need to be voted on and when commission vacancies need to be filled. Charter amendments don’t require a special election for a vote, so they would be voted on during the next general election, which was March 19, 2024. Had the city not appointed the Charter Review Commission when it did, the June 13 election could have been held as planned.


“That’s the wrinkle that happened,” Geller told VoxPopuli at the time.

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