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Politics & Law

Winter Garden trades due process for expediency in Mueller forfeiture hearing vote

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Norine Dworkin

Editor in Chief

Monday, December 18, 2023


Minutes from a Sept. 14 Ethics Workshop — buried deep in the Sept. 28 agenda packet — reveal the Winter Garden commission may have erred regarding the number of charges it voted to hear during its upcoming forfeiture hearing.

Updated 12/26/2023 to reflect City manager's comments. 

Updated 12/19/2023 to reflect Winter Garden city clerk comments.

Updated to reflect information from Sept. 14, 2023, Ethics Workshop minutes.

Correction: We were not told the Sept. 14 Ethics Workshop minutes did not exist; we were told a recording of the Sept. 14 workshop did not exist. The minutes are available through a public records request. 

Winter Garden commissioners Thursday voted 4 to 1 to proceed with three charges in the forfeiture hearing against Commissioner Ron Mueller, based on three city charter Prohibitions that the District 2 representative is alleged to have violated.

The hearing is targeted for late January. No date has yet been set. The city is considering conducting the hearing informally, without its own legal representation, to make it more cost effective.

The charges are based on the city charter’s Article II, Sections 14.1, 14.2. They include allegedly requesting “removal” of city staff who report to the city manager (14.1); giving orders to staff; and working with staff without going “solely through the city manager” (14.2).

Prior to the commission vote, there was debate about how many charges the commission would consider — and if the discussion should take place at all. Mueller attempted to table the discussion, with a point of order, stating that any discussion about the matter violated his due process because he has not yet retained legal counsel. Winter Garden is already being sued for lack of due process by Anne Bingler, owner of the Olympic-level equestrian training facility Crown Pointe Equestrian, stemming from zoning and annexation hearings in June. 

City Attorney Kurt Ardaman, who distributed his draft guidelines for procedures for Winter Garden City Commission hearing to consider forfeiture of office, said he needed guidance from the commission for how to proceed in outlining the rules and charges for the hearing. At one point, he floated the idea of waiting for Mueller to hire an attorney, but that idea had no takers. 

Mueller, who is running for re-election in March, maintains the inquiry should be limited to a single charge under 14.1, related to District 1 Commissioner Lisa Bennett’s original, narrow, allegation that he’d directly threatened to fire city staff. However, he told VoxPopuli via email that he was "shocked and surprised" when a broader selection of emails were given to commissioners Nov. 9, expanding the inquiry beyond its original scope.  "I've protested it several times," he said in an email. 

Officials say meeting minutes, “approved in September,” document three charges to be evaluated.

“It was in the minutes, and the minutes were adopted, and it should be on three,” said Bennett, referring to the number of charges.

“Based on my reading of the minutes, it looks like it's all three,” Ardaman said. “Because that's what the motion was, based on the minutes.”

VoxPopuli has been unable to locate any public record of these particular meeting minutes that Bennett, Ardaman and others have referred to. These three charges are not addressed in the minutes for regular commission meetings held Aug. 24, Sept. 14 or Sept. 28. We made a public records request for the minutes from the Sept. 14 Ethics Workshop, held before the regular Sept. 14 commission meeting, which was when Bennett first announced she would pursue a forfeiture hearing. 

VoxPopuli received a copy of the Sept. 14 Ethics Workshop minutes from the city clerk Monday at 4:30 p.m.  — they are still not posted on the city website with the rest of the city's meeting minutes. 

Asked why the minutes are not online, Winter Garden City Clerk Angela Grimmage told VoxPopuli in a Tuesday email that the Sept. 14 Ethics Workshop minutes were "posted in the agenda packet of September 28, 2023, page 284 (publicly available)."

Grimmage said that the ethics training minutes are not posted together with the Sept. 14 commission meeting minutes because workshops have never been used to conduct commission business before. 

"These minutes, which usually merely state that the training occurred, have detailed slideshows that would require extensive staff time for ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act compliance] review, so we provide them upon request," she wrote in her email. "They have never been requested in the past, and they have never had legislative decisions until now," Grimmage said in her email. 

Approved Sept. 28, the Ethics Workshop minutes state that Bennett requested an investigation of Mueller's potential charter violations based on section 14.2 — interference with administration. There's no reference to charter section 14.1 — requesting to appoint or remove staff.

Based on the minutes and the draft guidelines for the hearing that Ardaman distributed, it appears that only one or two charges would be available for the commission to vote on, rather than three. 

Asked to comment, Maciel said, he'd "look into it." Bennett and Ardaman did not respond to requests for comment about the discrepancy in charges and whether the commission vote was now void.  

City Manager Jon Williams, who was not present for the Thursday meeting, sent VoxPopuli  a brief statement by email: 

"The vote that was taken at the last meeting was to clarify the scope of the investigation. There was some clarity that was needed from the motion that was made during the ethics training and the meeting minutes that were ultimately approved.  The action taken during the last meeting resolves the clarity issues and will focus on section 14.1 & 14.2  of the Charter."

Mueller argued Thursday that the entire debate was “inappropriate” because it violated his right to due process.

“Any agreement on how we proceed is a breach of my [due] process here,” Mueller said. He said it was inappropriate to continue discussing the scope of the hearing or any charges to be evaluated until he had retained legal counsel. “We’re lay people here, relying on somebody who’s representing the city and who is working with the prosecution side.”

Commissioners and the mayor countered that they simply wanted to move the process forward. District 3 Commissioner Mark Maciel, who said he was "under the impression" that three charges were listed in the minutes, said Mueller could go back to challenge the number of charges after his attorney was on board.

“I think we just need a decision today, just so we can get this thing behind us,” he said. 

Mayor John Rees attempted to persuade Mueller that not knowing the number of charges to be adjudicated could put his attorney “behind the eight ball.” Mueller responded that he wanted his attorney “to figure it out.”

Bennett made the motion to proceed with a hearing on all three charges. For a moment it looked like the motion might die there on the dais. After several long seconds of silence, Maciel said he’d second it.

“Ron, you just need to get an attorney,” he said. “If you don't agree with all three [charges], get the attorney and fight. If you don't agree, have your attorney present that it's not. Whether it's one or three, let your attorney fight it. Get your attorney. We just have to make a decision whether to move forward with this thing or not.”

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