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Vote over new Winter Garden district map sparks spirited debate at city commission meeting

Instant Photo Poster
Norine Dworkin


Wednesday, March 2, 2022


Norine Dworkin/VoxPopuli

District 4 Commissioner Colin Sharman explains his idea for a voting map with a larger minority district at Winter Garden's city commission meeting Thursday.

To vote or not to vote on the new district voting boundaries map was the subject of an animated debate at Winter Garden’s city commission meeting Thursday.

During the second reading of ordinance 22-01 to establish the new boundaries, required after the 2020 census, District 2 Commissioner Ron Mueller immediately made a motion to postpone a vote so he could have more time to study changes to his district, a move seconded by District 4 Commissioner Colin Sharman. It eventually passed 4-1, with Mayor John Rees opposed, but not before some very lively debate, not typically seen at these meetings.

District 1 Commissioner Lisa Bennett questioned why a delay was necessary since her motion to approve the new map had passed unanimously on Jan. 27. “The reason I made a motion last time was that we appointed a board, and they were all unanimous in their submittal of the map and we had three months when they were meeting to ask questions and a month since the last vote to ask questions,“ she said.

Both Sharman and Mueller indicated scheduling conflicts prevented them from sitting down with Alan Booker, the geographic information systems coordinator, responsible for connecting demographic information to the district map.

“I kinda waited in line for this to happen,” said Mueller.

Sharman told the commission he had an idea for a map that would create a larger minority district. He spoke very generally about what he had in mind: Plant Street as a northern border of one district, take East Winter Garden to the turnpike and split the southern part of the city into two districts.

“I didn’t want to do it in a public forum because if the numbers don’t work, what’s the point of bringing it up?” he said. However, his map, would put him and Commissioner Mark Maciel in the same district and Mueller and Bennett in the same district. The city charter mandates that commissioners live in their districts, so any commissioner moved out of their district could serve out their term but would be unable to run again.

“You guys did the best map, meeting all the checkboxes,” Sharman said, referring to the Districting Commission. “If you were to ignore the commissioners, there could be a better map.” [See “It’s a fairer map”]

Called on by the mayor to weigh in, Derek Blakeslee, chair of the Districting Commission, told the city commission that his group “did a good job on this map with all the parameters we had.” And as much as he enjoyed seeing the commissioners, he added, “my preference is to not have to come back to another meeting.”

Rees was adamant against tinkering with the proposed map. “We each picked a person to serve on this committee [Districting Commission],” he said. “When we appoint them, we want them to come up with the boundaries and districts that they think, without any influence from an individual. Because to me, I think of gerrymandering.”

The mayor added that he’d been through this process several times before. “I always do this at an arm’s length,” he said.

“They went through all the meetings and all the work in coming up with this,” Rees continued. “I don’t think it’s this commission’s job to start to redistricting it or start doing things because I think all five of us could come up with a different version of it.”

Mueller responded that that was “part of the compromise. That’s how we work together to get things done.” He added that he didn’t know what the rush was to vote since the map wasn’t due until December.

According to the city charter, a new districting map needs to be adopted at least 90 days before the next regularly scheduled city election, which, in this case, would be March 14, 2023. If the city commission did nothing, the map submitted by the Districting Commission would become the new voting districts map.

Mueller indicated that he wanted to hold onto neighborhoods where he’d been working with constituents on specific issues, such as drainage and the Riegl helipad. “We all have a few neighborhoods we really love and take good care of.”

Sharman said Mueller was being “self-serving,” attempting to hold onto people he had a “relationship with because they would be supportive of you,” he said. “I would be happy to get rid of Marsh Road but I’m sure if I got districted out of there, they’ll still be calling me at 4 in the morning.”

Mueller denied his rationale was self-serving, adding that he would support postponing a vote for any commissioner who felt they needed more time to examine the map “no matter what your reason was.”

Sharman said he’d only support Mueller’s suggestions if they benefited the city rather than Mueller himself.

“If he comes back and says this is what I looked at and I don’t see a major benefit to the city I’m going to vote for the map that’s on the table, I’m just telling you that right now,” said Sharman who pointed out several times that his map idea was “not self-serving.”

“I quite agree,” Mueller responded.

District 1’s Bennett wanted a time limit for a final decision and suggested that it be made at the next city commission meeting on March 10.

During public comment, Bob Buchanan, former District 2 commissioner, demanded to know why there was a Districting Commission if city commissioners were just going to change what the districting commissioners had done. “Somebody wants to be political about stopping it and going for another two weeks, another month, another whatever. I think that’d be a shame to do for the citizens and/or committee,” he said. 

Buchanan did not elaborate on who was being “political” or how postponing the map vote by two weeks could help any single commissioner since overriding the submitted map would require at least three votes.

Steve Dolgin, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology-educated actuary, who served on the Districting Committee also spoke, saying, "I think we did a fine job, but I won’t be insulted if you folks want to play with it. That’s how it works. If it wasn’t intended for the city commission to make changes, I would imagine the [city] charter would say that we would have the final say.”

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