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Affordable housing, public safety, city accountability dominate Winter Garden candidates forum

Three District 2 and District 3 city commissioner candidates joined Star 94.5’s Monica May for an "evening of fact finding," hosted by the National Congress of Black Women. 


Winter Garden Candidates Forum
Moderator Monica May (left) with DJ Culberson (seated left), Karen Mcneil (center) and Ron Mueller (right) at the Winter Garden Candidates' Forum hosted by the National Congress of Black Women on Feb. 21, 2024. Norine Dworkin/VoxPopuli

Three candidates running for city commissioner in Winter Garden’s District 2 and District 3 gathered onstage in the auditorium at West Orange High School last week for what moderator Monica May of Star 94.5’s Monica May’s Point of View and host of the podcast One Take Live, called “an evening of fact finding.” 


“It’s not a debate,” May said of the Feb. 21 forum, which was hosted by the Orlando Chapter of the National Congress of Black Women, which provides education on the political process and promotes Black women in politics. “It’s just getting to know people who would like your vote. They want to represent you on the commission here.”


Joining May were District 2 Commissioner Ron Mueller, District 2 challenger Danny “DJ” Culberson and District 3 candidate Karen Mcneil. Mcneil’s daughter came out to support her mom, and Culberson’s husband/campaign treasurer Bradley Loomis and their three sons were in the audience as well. 


Iliana R. Jones, also running in District 2, and Chloe Johnson, also running in District 3, were both invited to the forum but did not attend. One of Johnson’s surrogates told VoxPopuli that she chose not to attend because she thought the forum was going to focus on national issues because it was hosted by the National Congress of Black Women. 


Icebreakers and negative attacks

Unlike a typical forum with two-minute opening statements, stiff policy questions, rebuttals and closing remarks, May ran the event like a relaxed, fun rap session with friends. She bantered with the audience and encouraged them to participate and above all – to vote.


May opened with ice-breakers, like What’s something that no one knows about you? and What are you most proud of? It didn't yield any Never have I ever-type details but the audience learned that Mcneil works with the special needs community and that Mueller — instrumental in getting $50,000 in the city’s budget allocated for a trap, neuter, vaccinate and return partnership with Pet Alliance to stabilize the city’s stray cat colonies — also rescues animals in his spare time.


Mueller said he was most proud of the sense of “unity” that he said had grown up in Winter Garden, including the Diversity, Equality and Inclusion resolution the city passed in 2022. 


“There is a certain group of folks in this city who want to make sure you are not heard. If you don’t vote a certain way, if you don’t think a certain way, if you don’t pray to a certain god, and if you are not a heterosexual, cisgendered male, they’re going to go on without you."

Indeed, Mueller and Culberson, while opponents, often praised each other for their ideas and for running clean campaigns that focused on policy not personal attacks. The two live in the same community, as does Jones. 


Culberson was asked how working in the restaurant business has prepped him for politics, something he said in his candidate profile. He said that prioritizing quickly, having contingency plans and building a good team were the key takeaways. In applying it to the commissioner’s job, he said that he had goals, and there were many ways to achieve them. 


“Sometimes you have to shift. Sometimes you have to bend and sometimes you have to take a different course,” Culberson said. “But ultimately the only thing that matters is that you get the job done.” 


In her campaign profile, Mcneil said if elected, she wanted to emulate former Winter Garden commissioner Mildred Dixon. Dixon was the first Black woman to sit on the city commission, and she won her seat by initially challenging the city’s at-large voting process under the Voting Rights Act, arguing that the city’s voting disenfranchised minority voters. May asked how Mcneil hoped to walk in Dixon’s shoes. 


“I know I can walk in Mildred Dixon’s shoes because 20 years ago when Mildred Dixon was alive, I trained under her,” Mcneil said. “One of the reasons I’m compared to Mildred Dixon is because I have a strong-willed mind. No one can persuade me out of what I feel is correct for my community. I know I can walk in her footsteps because I trained up under her, and I will have the same tenacity that she had. 


May offered Mueller an opportunity to address the attack ads that have been pinging registered Republicans’ phones, a mailer that said he was against the Second Amendment, and the city commission’s five-month pursuit of a forfeiture hearing that ultimately came to nothing.  


“What we’ve seen is tens of thousands of dollars in PAC money being spent in this negative campaign of falsehoods, talking about violations of Sunshine Law — it was’t true. Violations of the charter — not true,” said Mueller who noted he had spent $1,463 on his campaign as of that evening. “Somehow I have the magical power to change the U.S. Constitution and remove the Second Amendment. I was very surprised at $96 a week as a city commissioner I could do that.”


Affordable housing 

Moving on to discuss housing, Mueller said that Winter Garden homes and apartments have gotten so expensive people have been priced out of the city. “People can’t afford to move out of mom and dad’s and buy a house in Winter Garden. They certainly can’t afford those ‘affordable’ $2,500 a month apartments.” 


He wants to build apartments that would rent for $500 a month and homes that would cost $120,000 to $150,000. He pointed to two potential sites: 18 acres where the former Orange Technical College-West Campus sits on Story Road and 15 acres on Colonial Drive, north of Avalon Road. 


Orange County Public Schools owns the technical college site, and Winter Garden purchased the Colonial Drive land for a possible land swap last year to find a home for a school bus depot. While the city recently “discouraged” the OCPS bus depot proposal, the city manager told VoxPopuli the 15-acre parcel was still an option. So, it's unclear at this time if those sites would be available for residential construction.


 “People can’t afford to move out of mom and dad’s and buy a house in Winter Garden. They certainly can’t afford those ‘affordable’ $2,500 a month apartments.” 

Mcneil said the city was planning to introduce “container homes” into the Historic East Winter Garden community to help with housing there. These are 1-, 2- and 3-bedroom homes constructed from shipping containers


Culberson said that Winter Garden wasn’t going to solve the problem by itself and that the city had to work with surrounding cities and the county. And, he added —to applause — “we’ve got to keep people on blast when they’re not upholding their end of the bargain.”


“There is the available space. There is (sic) the available funds. There are the people who will do the work — and a lot of them will do it for free. How many people are building homes for Habitat for Humanity? How many churches are doing that? We will do the work. All we need is the support from the city, the support from the county. And it’s our job as folks who are sitting up here and you folks sitting out there to hold these people accountable for blocking all of this progress. We can’t do it alone.” 


Infrastructure and public safety

Culberson slammed the city commission for streets that need to be repaired around Dillard Elementary School in District 1. 


“There are numerous brick roads that are upended, that are sand pitted, specifically around Dillard Elementary and the streets behind there,” he said. “Where’s the accountability for the people making these decisions?” 


Culberson praised the city manger, but said, “The accountability has got to stop with the people making those votes. Where’s the vote on infrastructure spending that we need to maintain the home prices we’re paying? What happens to your home value when your roads are falling apart? What happens to your home value when your kid gets hit by a car because we didn’t staff appropriately?”


Public safety was another topic that resonated with candidates. There was concern about kids walking and biking to school in “the wee hours of the morning.” Mcneil said the community had to get involved. “We need to be a village,” she said, echoing the African proverb. “We need to look out for our children. If that means we need to get up early to make sure we stand on corners, to make sure we walk with these children, then that’s what we need to do. 


May suggested exploring the Soldiers to Scholars program operating in MetroWest where honorably discharged student veterans from across the U.S. Armed Services escort elementary schoolchildren from the MetroWest apartment community to Eagles Nest Elementary School.


“They walk them from their door to the school and at 3 o’clock, they’re walking them from the school. And it has reduced a lot of the fighting, the pushing, the shoving, the crying,” May said.  


Mcneil said it was a “wonderful idea,” and that she’d add that to her safety platform, which also includes vigilance against police harassment. Later in the discussion, she suggested the city explore building a pedestrian bridge over Colonial Drive's six lanes of traffic. “Put a bridge over that street. That would make it very safe for them to cross.”


“We need to look out for our children."

Culberson took the mic and said, “We have a $12 million reserve fund. Are you telling me, we cannot find folks willing to stand out there and direct traffic? We have the available funds. We have it.” He credited Mueller with working to “improve the community,” but said “the other folks on the commission haven’t.” 


“Where is the accountability for them? Where is the accountability for the folks who make these decisions, choosing where that budget money goes? Because that $12 million isn’t doing anybody any good sitting in the bank. It could be protecting our kids. It could be improving a lot of the structures around the city. And you just need someone in office who can help get that done.” 


Prosperity and a seat at the table 

May asked what ideas the candidates had for ALICE families. ALICE stands for Asset Limited Income Constrained, Employed. These are families that earn just above the Federal Poverty level, but not enough to make ends meet. They’re disproportionately people of color. 


Culberson, who said both of his parents worked two jobs, pivoted to talk about one of his main issues: child care. He said that one responsibility the city has “overlooked for years at this point” is that a quarter of the city’s population is under 18. 


“Those people need to have a safe place to go when mom and dad are working," he said. "And mom and dad need to have an affordable place to send their kids so they can continue to go to work so they can continue to pay those bills and not wind up out on the streets.”


Again, he pointed to the city’s “healthy reserve,” which he suggested could be tapped for city-funded child-care and youth leadership opportunities. But at base, Culberson wantsto help people “get to work, so they can pay their bills so they can climb that ladder so they can live the American dream.”


“Center Street was always known as our commercial property. We need to rebuild that, revitalize Center Street. We need the same amenities that they have in downtown Winter Garden."

Meanwhile, Mueller talked about attracting new businesses to the area so that Winter Garden isn't reliant on property taxes to fund the city, and “we don’t have to raise taxes.” Winter Garden’s millage rate is 4.5 percent. Mcneil said she’s been working on plans for a commercial space with shops and dining on Center Street, similar to Plant Street Market, that she calls Historic Center Street Marketplace.


“Center Street was always known as our commercial property. We need to rebuild that, revitalize Center Street," she said. "We need the same amenities that they have in downtown Winter Garden. At one time, we could not even patronize down there …..”


“Wait … wait … wait … wait … wait … wait …” May jumped in. “You just kinda slid that in. Roll that tape back!”


With folks from the audience chiming in, Mcneil explained that Black people from the east side were not always welcome on the west side of Winter Garden, even after desegregation.


“Thats how we got Bouler Pool,” Mcneil explained. “They used to go uptown to swim in the pool up there, and a lot of the residents started complaining about them coming there, and they built the pool down here in East Winter Garden at Zanders Park.”


“We’re talking about 1980s,” Mueller interjected. “We're not talking ancient history.” 


Mcneil praised the city though, saying the staff had been “working very closely with me” and seemed receptive to her ideas for her commercial center. “Things have changed,” she said. 


Culberson did not agree, saying that if people couldn't see what was going on, he didn't want to be the one to "break your hearts." Earlier in the evening, Culberson had been asked why he hadn’t served on any city committees or boards before running for city commission. He explained that he’d applied for several committee spots but had never been selected. 


“If you don’t vote a certain way, if you don’t think a certain way, if you don’t pray to a certain god, and if you are not a heterosexual, cisgendered male, they’re going to go on without you,” Culberson said, as some in the audience nodded their approval. 


As his last word on the subject before the evening ended, Culberson said, “There is a certain group of folks in this city who want to make sure you are not heard. They want to make sure that I’m not heard. They want to make sure that my family doesn’t get to sit at the same table they do. Make no mistake about it. And those are the people who are making those decisions. So, what you can do? Speak up. Be loud. Put people in power that are going to challenge the status quo.”


 

The 2024 Municipal Election is March 19.

Early voting begins March 4 and runs daily, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. through March 17.

See our 2024 Election Guide for all the details and candidate profiles.




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