Ocoee Election 2024
Ocoee votes to bar former commissioner from 2024 special election for D4 seat
Editor in Chief
Thursday, November 9, 2023
Basing their decision on the legal definition of "successor," Ocoee's city commission decided former Commissioner George Oliver III cannot run in the March 19, 2024 election to succeed himself for the District 4 seat he vacated to run for mayor. He can run again in 2025.
The Ocoee City Commission voted 4-1 Tuesday to prevent former Commissioner George Oliver III from running in the March 19, 2024 election to reclaim the District 4 seat he vacated to run unsuccessfully for mayor earlier this year. Mayor Rusty Johnson and Commissioners Scott Kennedy, Rosemary Wilsen and Richard Firstner voted to block Oliver. Commissioner Ages Hart, who was appointed to fill the District 4 seat until a replacement was elected, voted against the measure.
“I’d like to see us go through and let the voters decide who sits in this seat,” Hart said ahead of voting. “This seat is an honor. This seat belongs to the people. I’ve had the privilege to sit in this seat for a period of time. I have much respect for this seat. I do think changes need to be made, but I want to make sure the people … at home I have four bosses, but sitting in this seat, I have 8,000 bosses.”
The qualifying period for the upcoming election is noon Dec. 1 through noon Dec. 8. There is one year remaining in the current term. The seat will be up for election again in 2025 and will be open to all candidates. Oliver will be eligible to run again in 2025.
The vote was the last item on the meeting agenda, and it came at the end of nearly an hour of discussion about how the commission could challenge a candidate’s qualifications for office. Kennedy began the discussion, asking for clarification on how that process might work.
“As I understand it in the charter, for the commission to be the determinant of the qualifications of candidates, we don't have a process or a procedure to force that to come before the commission,” said Kennedy who represents District 1.
“In my own election, I had an issue that I thought probably the commission should have been forced to speak about," he continued. "Commissioner Firstner had a candidate that I also thought the commission should have had a role in speaking about. And there's been the question brought up, a lot of people have said that, we'll just put it out there, some candidates shouldn't be allowed to run for a seat they vacated to run for another office.”
City attorney Rick Geller explained that the commission has the authority to “subpoena witnesses, administer oaths, require the production of evidence … even have evidentiary hearings.”
An Urgent Question
Questions of candidate qualifications became more urgent after the March municipal elections when there was a candidate running from Orlando to unseat Firstner in District 3 and when Oliver resigned his seat too late to allow a successor to run in the same election. Background checks and a 12-month residency requirement are among the charter amendments that city residents will vote on in the upcoming March election that could remedy the election issues that cropped up.
That still left the question of whether a commissioner who vacated a seat could run to retake it and finish out the term. The answer to that hinged on the definition of the word successor. Geller, a board-certified specialist in city, county and local government law, said he believed that referred “to two different people.”
He pulled out a copy of Black's Law Dictionary and read, “The definition of successor is ‘a person who succeeds to the office, rights, responsibilities, or place of another; one who replaces or follows another.’” Then he turned back to the charter. “‘The successor shall serve for the unexpired term of the member who created the vacancy,’ he read. “That would lead me to the conclusion that that is referring to two different people, and that the successor would not be the one who created the vacancy.”
He added the commission was “free to disagree.”
Residents speak out
While the commissioners were largely in agreement, several Ocoee residents were not. Speakers were passionate, and the mayor admonished two to stop interrupting others or he’d remove them.
Vivian Light Johnson, who lives in District 4 said, “I'm bothered by the interpretation that successor doesn't mean who the citizens voted as the successor, not the commission deciding that we already are going to pick who the successor is. I live in this district. I've already been put upon with my vote by the change in when the election is being held and an interim person being put in position.
“So I am really against this whole interpretation by the dictionary of a successor," she continued. "Successor is who we, the citizens, vote. Anybody should be able to run for office. And we'll make that decision if they don't qualify. We are intelligent citizens. Thank you so much.”
“We underestimate what the citizens and taxpayers will actually vote on, and this seems like a way to try to act like they don't know what they're doing," said Chris Adkins, of District 2 who ran for mayor in the last election against Johnson and Oliver.
Adkins noted that the successor discussion should have come before the commission sooner and that the issue seemed “personal.” In the past year, Oliver had clashed publicly with Kennedy over Human Relations Diversity Board issues and had accused Wilsen and the mayor, without evidence, of violating Sunshine Law. His and Johnson’s prickly relationship was often on display during commission meetings. At one point during the meeting Kennedy asked if Oliver planned to run. Wilsen swiftly replied, “I don’t think that’s the question. The question is what the charter says.”
When Oliver stepped to the podium to speak, he attempted to draw a parallel between the commission’s preventing him from running in 2024 and the 1920 Election Day Massacre.
“A hundred years ago, 268 people were disenfranchised. Some people lost their lives just to vote. Here we are, 100 years later, we’re still perpetuating astigmatism (sic) of voter disenfranchisement when at least four of you went against the charter,” Oliver said.
“It clearly stated that an election should have been held, whether I was qualified or not, that an election should have been held June 13th, but it wasn’t," he continud. "It wasn't held because it was an interpretation that was made by an attorney who had the influence over the commission. Because if this was a court of law, you would have heard one interpretation from one side, you would have heard another interpretation from another side. And it would have been left to a judge to determine which interpretation was correct. In this case right here, we're making our commission judge, the jury and executioner. This is what we're doing.”
The mayor pushed back. “It always has to come back to 1920. This has nothing to do with this charter tonight. Nobody was disenfranchised in the election. It was an open, public election.”
The last speaker to comment was Brad Lomneck, who said he attended every charter review commission meeting and asked “a lot of questions." He was blunt. “One of the questions I asked pointedly to Attorney Geller was, Should Commissioner Oliver be able to succeed himself in this election?” The time to ask that was in the Charter Review Commission. So I'll ask again, Attorney Geller. If Commissioner Oliver were to put in his qualification paperwork, would he qualify for this election coming up to fill the remaining year of the District 4 seat?”
Geller indicated that Oliver would not qualify. “The common understanding of a successor, as a matter of law, in contracts that are entered into every single day, is that the successor is someone else," he said.
In an interview after the meeting, Kennedy told VoxPopuli, “So many people have said to me that he shouldn't be allowed to run to succeed himself. I said, Read the charter. I read the charter. What City Attorney Geller provides is confirmation that, yes, you’re right."
Oliver did not respond to a request for comment about the commission’s decision.