Bennett Moves to Oust Mueller Ahead of March Election
Editor in Chief
Saturday, November 11, 2023
District 1 Commissioner Lisa Bennett (left) called for a January forfeiture hearing. She’s complained that District 2 Commissioner Ron Mueller lobbied for downtown events, talked to residents in her district and “threatened” to fire city employees. Mueller calls her action a "political stunt."
Updated Nov. 14, 2023
On Thursday, Winter Garden District 1 Commissioner Lisa Bennett called for the city commission to hold an evidentiary forfeiture hearing that could result in removing District 2 Commissioner Ron Mueller from his seat barely three months ahead of the municipal election on March 19, 2024.
The election qualifying period ended at noon on Nov. 14. Three people to date have filed to run in the District 2 race — Mueller, Danny “DJ” Culberson and Iliana R. Jones, Mueller’s opponent from 2021. Bennett endorsed Jones during that election.
Bennett, who represents the downtown historic district, made her motion in the last six minutes of the 36-minute meeting, which was otherwise taken up with annexation and property acquisition issues, purchase orders, installing artificial turf for the Little League ball fields and approving horse-drawn carriage rides throughout December.
“We’ve received the information requested from the city manager about a possible forfeiture hearing, and I believe it rises to the level to warrant a hearing,” Bennett said, referring to the half-inch thick spiral-bound binders of Mueller’s emails from his three years in office. She had requested the binders be assembled in September. They were distributed to the mayor and commissioners ahead of Thursday's meeting. "I'd like to make a motion that we hold one in January."
District 4 Commissioner Colin Sharman, seconded the motion “for purposes of discussion,” he said. Bennett's motion passed 4 to 1, with Mueller against it.
A Binder Full of Emails
At issue are Bennett’s complaints that Mueller lobbied for downtown events, such as the Cruz N Car Show, once held quarterly; talked to residents in her district; and “threatened” to fire city staff.
“I’ve gotten people calling me about social media posts, car show, fountains in downtown, promises that were being made, merchants have complained,” Bennett said at the Aug. 10 meeting.
Emails in the binder, obtained by VoxPopuli, show that Mueller advocated extensively for the return of the car show, which he stated in an email from May 31, 2022, is the “single most event (sic) I get asked about …” City Manager Jon Williams explained in an email from Nov. 30, 2022, that the city was “not in a position from a staff prospective (sic) to bring this event back at this time.”
In another instance, Mueller requested in a May 14, 2023, email that the city mediate a work stoppage dispute between Cedar Bay Clinic’s veterinarian Dr. Holly Valentine and the general contractor building out her new veterinary office space. Williams responded that the “City’s involvement is limited to ensuring the project is compliant with City/State Building Code.” He suggested Valentine get an attorney to deal with her contractor and told Mueller to “leave the City and Staff out of this issue.”
Emails also show that Mueller often complimented staff on jobs well done and that when constituents shared positive comments with him, he passed them up the chain. But he also brought concerns to Williams and former city manager, Mike Bollhoefer, about what he viewed as problems with some staff members' inability to provide accurate, timely information; insensitivity to people with disabilities; and ongoing issues with staff making recommendations for commission boards and committees.
Winter Garden's City Charter states that commissioners are not permitted to "control, demand, direct, or request the appointment or removal" of city employees, nor are commissioners allowed to "give orders" to employees but rather must deal with staff "solely through the city manager."
“The essence of Commissioner Bennett's accusation is that I have intimidated and threatened to fire employees,” Mueller said in a brief interview after the meeting. "So they wanted a full record and accounting if I've ever contacted employees and done that. Obviously the record's going to show I never did it. I've never threatened an employee or fired them. There are no direct emails about that.
"The second complaint was that I'd actually contacted employees. The charter does have a provision about us speaking directly to employees. But I do think we can have a conversation without, you know, violating any rules. So she has waited these three years to bring this up.”
City Manager Jon Williams said during the commission meeting that he had heard from some staff who “expressed concern over the fact that they were contacted.”
Sharman acknowledged in a Friday phone interview that the current situation was not “comfortable for anybody,” but said, "there's definitely some things to get both sides of the story on, and I want to keep an open mind for that.”
He also suggested that the hearing was “bigger than just one person” and provides an opportunity to establish a process for “how we want to run and operate.”
"At a big corporation you can go to HR,” Sharman said on the phone. “If I send somebody a couple of emails that they don’t like, they can go to HR and you’re in HR having the same conversation. We don’t have that mechanism here.”
Winter Garden does have a Human Resources department.
Processes and Procedures
City Attorney Kurt Ardaman said during the meeting that the city’s charter provided a process for a forfeiture hearing but that “it’s not detailed.” He urged the commission to allow the legal team to provide “some rules and processes and procedures so there would be some suggested guidance.”
He reminded commissioners that while they will act as judges in the hearing, they “must afford due process to all involved.”
The city is currently being sued for lack of due process by the owner of an elite horse breeding and training facility after a June annexation and rezoning hearing that will allow a developer to build 24 homes next to her facility.
In a statement after the motion passed, Mueller described Bennett’s motion as a “political stunt” and an “abuse of her office.”
“I think it’s abusive, and I think it overrides the city manager’s role and duty,” Mueller said, adding that he trusted if there were an issue, the city manager would have brought it to the commission. “Since that has not happened, since there’s no complaint, I find her motion to be nothing more than political rhetoric.”
Mayor Rees said he was “disappointed and frustrated by the fact that we got put in this position. I’ve been here a long time and never dealt with this. I don’t know about being politically motivated but I have a stack of stuff here —” he indicated the binder of Mueller’s emails. “I’m not happy about this, but it’s something that needs to go to a hearing.”
Commissioner Mark Maciel, who represents District 3, said he agreed with the mayor. “Staff has put a lot of work into this. There’s been a lot of research. A lot of hours spent putting data together, so I think it rises to the occasion. Let Ron speak at the hearing.”