Winter Garden tables Mueller forfeiture hearing
Editor in Chief
Sunday, January 14, 2024
From left: Mayor John Rees, City Attorney Kurt Ardaman, Commissioner Ron Mueller, Commissioner Lisa Bennett
In a surprise turn of events, Winter Garden’s commissioners voted Thursday to table plans for the forfeiture hearing against District 2 Commissioner Ron Mueller, something District 1 Commissioner Lisa Bennet has pursued since August. They voted instead to hold a workshop on charter rules regarding interactions with city staff. The workshop will take place Jan. 18 at City Hall at 9:30 a.m.
The vote was ultimately unanimous. But it came after 20 minutes of debate, during which Bennett pushed for a hearing before the current commissioners’ term ends, and District 3 Commissioner Mark Maciel made it clear he would not move forward with a hearing unless Mueller had legal representation.
“I don’t think it's fair to Ron, and I think whatever we came up with could be questioned,” he said.
Indeed, the city is currently being sued by Anne Bingler, owner of Crown Pointe Equestrian, for lack of due process during its May and June annexation and re-zoning hearings.
Mueller said Thursday that despite “a noble effort” he’s been unable to find an attorney to take this case. He said that Kurt Ardaman, the city attorney, was aware of “some of the challenges that have been presented,” but did not go into details. He again objected to the conversation taking place on the dais without his having an attorney to advise him.
“What’s it been? Three months?” snapped Bennett.
Mayor John Reese immediately wanted to know if the commission could still proceed with the hearing, asking Ardaman, “Do we need to wait until he has one?”
“I DON’T SEE HOW WE GET THIS DONE”
Bennett had initially called for an investigation in September, following her August complaints that Mueller had spoken to residents in her district, posted about events on social media and allegedly “threatened” to fire city staff. Mueller’s emails to city staff from his time in office were collected in a binder and distributed to commission members Nov. 11, after which Bennett called for a forfeiture hearing to be held in January. [A VoxPopuli review of Mueller's emails found some emails, addressed to the city manager, that were critical of staff, but none threatening any staff member with termination.]
Thursday, Bennett reiterated her call for the forfeiture hearing to be held before new commissioners are sworn in after the March 19 election. “I feel like it needs to be addressed during this term,” she said.
Maciel, who said Bennett had “every right to make her motion” and "understood why Lisa was upset," said “I just don’t see how this is going to happen” within the time remaining before the term ends.
The municipal election is in nine weeks, and the commission has only four meetings scheduled before then. In addition, Mueller is running for re-election. If he retains his seat, according to Ardaman, the commission cannot carry the forfeiture hearing into the next term.
Then there's the matter of attorney preparation for a hearing. “If I was to have an attorney, I’d want to ask for a lot of information, and it’s only fair that he’s going to get that time,” Maciel said. “I just don't see how we get this done. If you can explain it to me and we can do it, great. But that's my concern.”
Mueller made a motion to dismiss the hearing for lack of evidence that he’d threatened to fire any city staff. It died without a second.
Rees then admitted the hearing wasn’t about firing staff — the original focus of Bennett’s complaint — but what the mayor described murkily as “the whole thing.”
He referenced the binder of emails. “There was a tremendous amount of emails. I mean, if all five of us sent that to our staff, we'd have to have three extra people just to go through emails,” he said.
The collected emails had been sent throughout the three years of Mueller’s term; many were “good job!” emails sent to staff.
The mayor pointed out that City Manager Jon Williams had requested that all email go through him, but that Mueller had ‘respectfully declined.’ “It’s not so much suggesting ‘fire’ staff [sic]," the mayor said, "it’s the whole thing, I guess."
Bennett jumped in to say that her “intent” was that “any violations of charter be addressed.”
VoxPopuli has reported previously that the charges against Mueller have been something of a moving target. Bennett originally requested an investigation into threats of terminating staff — city charter Article II, 14.1. September meeting minutes indicate the commission approved an investigation into city charter Article II, 14.2 — interfering with staff. At the December 14 meeting, the commission approved a hearing on three charges stemming from both 14.1 and 14.2. At the time, Bennett said three charges should be heard because the approved September minutes listed three charges, even though only 14.2 was cited.
Despite the discrepancies with the charges, Mueller’s lack of legal counsel and time constraints, Bennett pushed forward with a motion for a hearing date before the election. “The sooner, the better, so we can have it resolved,” she said. “I believe Mr. Mueller has been afforded more than adequate time [to find an attorney], whether or not one chooses to pick up the case. We can’t leave it open indefinitely.”
But Maciel had found his red line. He said that while he wasn’t excusing anything Mueller did and “agreed” with many of the points the mayor and Bennett made, “there’s also the matter of fairness and representation, due process as far as I’m concerned.”
THE WORKSHOP SOLUTION
It’s unclear how the idea materialized. Perhaps he merely wanted a less formal venue with more time to hash out the situation than a city commission meeting affords, but the mayor floated the idea of having a workshop.
Ardaman grabbed that idea and ran with it like he was Bo Jackson heading for the end zone.
He immediately suggested tabling the hearing and focusing the workshop not on targeting Mueller but on clarifying charter language and commission-staff interactions to create specific rules that would govern behavior moving forward.
“It’s an alternative to the consequences of violating the charter?” asked a visibly annoyed Bennett.
That was exactly what Ardaman had in mind. He said that dueling lawyers, arguing whether Mueller did or didn’t violate the charter “doesn't get you really where you may want to be.”
“Our charter is pretty broad,” Ardaman explained. “It says [in Article II, 14.2] dealing with [city administrative officers and employees]. And what does that mean? We can talk about that and get consensus on what that means. If a commissioner violates that in the future, then they are on fair notice. Right now we don't have any decisions by the commission about what each one of those provisions in the charter actually means.”
The mayor tried to regain control of his workshop idea. “That wasn’t really what I —”
But Ardaman charged on. “You can decide not to have that hearing and do a workshop,” he said. He assured commissioners it was “perfectly logical and appropriate” to reverse course on the hearing “because of what you’ve learned over the past two months.”
District 4 Commissioner Colin Sharman, who had seconded Bennett’s motion for a hearing, said he wanted the workshop first before he made any decisions in a hearing. Ardaman talked Sharman into withdrawing his second. Bennett’s motion died. Ardaman's workshop idea prevailed, and commissioners retained the option to have a hearing after the workshop.
Wrapping up the discussion, the mayor acknowledged that working with attorneys, a hearing didn’t “have a proverbial snowball’s chance of being done in the next month or six weeks.” But he held out the possibility of putting together a hearing without any legal counsel for either side.
“The only other way is you go without representation and make a decision,” he said. “Those are what I see as the two options.”