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In strained debate, Ocoee city commissioners split on giving themselves a pay raise, resulting in failed effort

Instant Photo Poster
Dibya Sarkar

Managing Editor

Thursday, August 5, 2021


The Ocoee City Commission (from left to right): Larry Brinson Sr., Rosemary Wilsen, Mayor Rusty Johnson, Richard Firstner, George Oliver III.

An effort to double the salaries of the Ocoee mayor and four city commissioners failed on a 2-2 tie after a tense debate Tuesday night.

The failed proposed ordinance would have raised the annual salary of the mayor to $9,422, up from $4,500, while commissioners would have seen a bump in yearly pay to $8,375.11, up from $4,000. The increases reflect 3-percent hikes beginning in 1998, which was the last time the commission saw a salary increase. The proposal was brought up last September as part of the final budget hearing. If the proposal had passed, the increases would not have taken effect until after the March 2023 election.

Mayor Rusty Johnson and District 3 Commissioner Richard Firstner voted against the measure while Larry Brinson, Sr., commissioner for District 1, and George Oliver III, commissioner for District 4, voted for it. District 2 Commissioner Rosemary Wilsen was out sick. Johnson appealed to the others to delay the discussion until the Aug. 17 meeting to give Wilsen a chance to weigh in.

All four attending members said they work long hours and enjoy helping their constituents. But Johnson and Firstner said they viewed the job as a public service and the salary didn’t matter to them. The other two commissioners said salaries should be raised as an incentive for future office holders.

“It doesn’t go well towards encouraging or attracting very qualified people to sit upon this commission,“ said Brinson during the meeting. “If you want to attract people, sometimes you will get what you pay for. And, in this case, we want the best and the brightest.” He called it a “travesty” that salaries haven’t been raised since 1998.

Few members of the public spoke about the issue. At the beginning of the discussion, resident Brad Lomneck requested the commission delay the meeting so Wilsen had a chance to voice her opinion. A local business owner, Jennifer Yon, proprietor of Bar 5 Lounge and Grill at West Oaks Mall and who also owns a boutique public relations and management firm, asked whether the increases would hurt any community programs. (At the end of the night when the public was given another chance to speak, Yon stressed the importance that commission members have skill sets and knowledge, such as in technology, that can benefit local entrepreneurs and residents.)

In addressing the business owner’s question, Brinson said the increases wouldn’t financially hurt any programs. “This is what I refer to as fiscal dust,” he said. “It is almost nothing when it comes to the budget of this city. And, so, to have someone say that this is something that we should not be doing is all kinds of wrong because I don’t know anyone — and I really do mean this — I know no one … that has taken a job and been in that job for 25 years and not gotten a pay raise. That’s ridiculous.”

The discussion over commissioners’ pay raises comes as the city is in the middle of contentious negotiations with its unionized firefighters who have not seen a raise in three years. (Prior to that, the starting salary for firefighters had not increased in 15 years.) The department has been grappling with low morale and other costs (read VoxPopuli’s story here) that has resulted in multiple departures of firefighters to other municipalities: 33 in the last three years.

“There’s no reason why we should be voting for your salaries when our firefighters don’t have a contract right now,” said Ocoee resident Lomneck, who also commented at the end of the meeting (well after the vote had taken place) when the public was offered a chance to speak again. He said Ocoee’s firefighters’ salaries are still not at the level of their peers in Winter Garden and, until the department’s contract is settled, the commission should not be asking for higher salaries.

Since the mayor and commissioners’ pay raises wouldn’t go into effect for two years, Oliver said there was no guarantee the current officeholders would benefit from an increase. “This is for the future of our city,” he said. “This is for our future mayors and our future commissioners. That’s what this pay raise is for.”

Oliver said it made no sense to deny future office holders a salary increase when, in 2008, the then-commission voted for a “lifetime pension,” suggesting that Johnson would benefit from that move. “That is ludicrous,” said Oliver. “That is hypocrisy at its best.”

He added that he’s on the record that he would not take the pension, if eligible. “I would not take a pension if I’m not putting into it,” he said.

Johnson, who said he’s been working for the city for 35 years, said he didn’t plan on taking the pension because he’s not planning on retiring and will run for re-election in two years. “I don’t want the money. I’m doing this,” he said. He added people don’t have to earn a high salary “or be a rocket scientist to do this job.” He said an “average person” should have the chance “to come up here and run for office.”

Firstner said when he was first elected to his seat, he didn’t even know what the salary was, but it made no difference. While he respected what his fellow commissioners said, adding they had “good points,” he said personally the money didn’t matter. “You can take it all away today if you want and it wouldn’t bother me one bit,” he said. “I don’t do this for the money. I do this because I feel committed to my life as a public servant.”

At the end of the meeting, Pastor Robert Young with the Tabernacle of Glory Apostolic Church appeared to agree with Brinson and Oliver, saying that increasing salaries would attract individuals with different skill sets. “The idea that people run for office for free or for little based on what was said seems to me to be not congruent with how things are. People serve but they expect [a] reasonable remuneration,” he said.

Young then added an “awkward observation," saying that Brinson and Oliver, who are both Black, voted for the raise, while Johnson and Firstner, who are white, voted against it. He didn’t offer any explanation other than that it was “weird.” Lomneck, who spoke right after Young, said he didn’t understand Young’s comments that “there’s a racial issue … I don’t get that one bit.”

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