Includes 12-month residency requirement for candidates; commission has 45 days to review.
Ocoee's March municipal election revealed the city had some critical election vulnerabilities, regarding who was eligible to run for the commission, what constituted city residency and when to hold special elections.
Shante Munns, an Orlando resident who’d lost her bid to unseat Congressman Daniel Webster in the 2022 Midterms, had rented an apartment in District 3 and run against incumbent Commissioner Richard Firstner. Firstner handily won re-election, but Munns’ ability to qualify became an election issue.
With an eye toward shoring up election vulnerabilities, the commission appointed a five-member charter review commission in May and tasked it with closing loopholes and clarifying vague and confusing language in the charter. (Ironically, it was forming this charter review commission that required rescheduling the June special election to fill the District 4 city commission seat vacated by former Commissioner George Oliver III in his bid for mayor. The charter mandates when recommended amendments need to be voted on and when special elections to fill commission vacancies are held.)
The charter review commission returned Tuesday, having combed through the charter during five meetings throughout June and July, and presented the city commission with 11 amendment proposals. Ocoee’s new city attorney Richard Geller explained that the group constructed a matrix to compare proposed changes with ordinances in “peer cities,” like Apopka, Winter Garden, Windermere.
Commissioners have 45 days to review the proposals. The charter review commission will then refine the amendments before adding them to the March 19, 2024, ballot for residents to vote on.
Geller walked the commission through the proposed amendments:
1. Section C-8 of the City of Ocoee Charter — [Article II - Powers of the City]— shall be amended to provide that the City of Ocoee’s powers be liberally construed in favor of the city to effect their intended purposes.
Geller said one issue “jumped out at me at the very beginning.” That was that unlike neighboring cities, where municipal powers were “construed liberally,” and limited only by the U.S. Constitution and Florida statute, Ocoee’s charter only granted its enumerated (or listed) powers to be construed liberally. (“Liberal” in this context means an expansive, rather than strict or technical, interpretation of law, not a political designation.)
“The suggestion here is that you construe all the powers of the city to effect their intended purposes, and that’s what this language is attempting to do,” Geller said.
2. Section C-8 of the City of Ocoee Charter shall be amended to provide that the city's enumerated powers shall include the right to acquire or dispose of property, including real property by exchange.
Geller credited charter review commission chair Lou Forges for noting that along with acquiring and disposing of property, the city may want the option to exchange property.
“This is something municipalities do from time to time,” Geller said. “You may need to exchange some property for additional right-of-way, that sort of thing. Section C-8, Paragraph B deals with the acquisition of property, and the second part deals with the disposal of property. Let's be able to do either by exchange.”
3. Section C-11 of the City of Ocoee Charter shall be amended to provide that the candidates for mayor shall reside in the City of Ocoee for at least one year before qualifying as a candidate and to require candidates for city commissioner to reside in the district they seek to represent for at least one year before qualifying as a candidate.
Geller pointed out that neighboring cities like Windermere, Winter Garden and Apopka all require anyone seeking office to be a permanent resident of the city/town or district for one year before running for office.
As an indication of just how deeply the Munns’ candidacy shook the city, the charter review commission drafted a companion ordinance for the commission to consider, requiring proof of residency. Proof, which would be submitted to the city clerk, would include a sworn oath “under penalty of perjury,” along with a voter registration card, government-issued photo identification card and a deeded lease, utility bill or other “clear and convincing documentary proof.”
“The sense of the Charter Review Commission is that this is important to preserve and protect the integrity of elections in the City of Ocoee,” Geller said.
Two additional proposed ordinances that stemmed from the prior election included a proposal to shift the election qualifying period from January to December.
“The existing language in the election code says we have to calculate 46 calendar days plus five business days before the election, and we wanted to make it simple,” said Geller. “The simplest way to do this is to start the qualifying period at noon on the first Friday in December before the election, and the qualifying period would end one week later at noon on the second Friday in December.”
Moving the qualifying period to December also gives the commission time to establish an additional qualifying period if a commissioner resigns to seek another office, as former Commissioner Oliver did. The vacant seat could then be filled in the same election.
4. Section C-17 of the City of Ocoee Charter shall be amended to provide that the successor to the office of the mayor or city commissioner shall be elected at the next regular or general city election if held within 12 months of the vacancy.
“This is actually cleaning up some language in the charter,” Geller said. “I think this is generally understood, but we're making it very precise here in C-17 that when there is an appointee to fill a resigning commissioner's seat, that is to serve as an interim commissioner.”
Geller added that the charter review commission wanted to emphasize that 12 months was the outside for holding an election so they included regular city election as well as general. Just to cover all bases, in the event that the governor sacks the entire commission and an interim commission is installed, the charter dictates that interim commissioners are required to call a special election within 90 days to elect their successors.
“That’s very rare,” Geller said. “That’s never going to happen,”
5. Section C-18 of the City of Ocoee Charter shall be amended to authorize the city commission to provide for an independent annual audit of all city accounts in conformance with the auditor's selection procedures of 218.391 and may designate an accountant or accounting firm in accordance with the procedure set forth in Florida statutes 218.391 for a period not to exceed five years.
A selection committee can be appointed every three years to establish criteria for evaluating auditing firms, but the Charter Review Committee and budget director thought that could be extended to every five years, Geller explained.
“It's incumbent then upon the city to not have an evergreen contract that goes on forever, but to have some kind of outer limit for when the selection of auditor will happen again,” he said. “The idea was let's extend it out from three years to five years because this auditor selection committee makes it highly unlikely that you're gonna have any kind of collusion or fraud.”
6. Section C-21 of the City of the Ocoee Charter shall be amended to authorize the city commission to reasonably extend the requirement for the city manager to reside in the city within one year of beginning employment upon the commissions unanimous approval.
This amendment was suggested by City Manager Robert Frank, who is giving indications that he is considering retirement.
“There is a strong sense on the Charter Review Commission that the city manager should reside in the City of Ocoee. But for that one year period to begin, instead of being so hard and fast, give the city commission a little bit of flexibility," Geller said. "And it must be a very good reason to extend it, because the requirement to extend it requires unanimous approval. So there may be something where a child is gonna graduate from high school, but we need a few more months in whatever school district. That sort of thing.”
7. C-28 of the City of Ocoee charter shall be amended to clarify that the city manager shall determine the city clerk's salary.
Geller explained that this amendment is meant to codify in the charter that the city manager determines city employees' salaries. “There is no separate vote on the city clerk's salary that it is customarily voted on as part of the budget. And that's what this is intending to recognize.”
8. Section C-45 of the City of Ocoee Charter shall be amended to define regular elections as those held at regular intervals for election of mayor and city Commissioner; special elections as those held to fill a vacancy in the office of mayor or city commissioner, for a citizen initiative to approve of an ordinance or a referendum to repeal an ordinance; and general elections as any other municipal election.
This amendment is intended to make the three types of elections in the charter “crystal clear” and outlines when each of those types of elections would occur, Geller said.
9. Section C-45 of the City of Ocoee Charter shall be amended to provide that any person elected to the office of mayor or city commissioner shall be sworn into office immediately prior to the commencement of the next regularly scheduled city commission meeting held after the canvassing board declares the election results.
“The way it is currently written in the charter, the swearing-in occurs at 7:00 p.m., but this city commission begins its meetings at 6:15 p.m.,” Geller said. “It does not make sense to wait for the swearing-in for 45 minutes into the meeting. So that’s to fix an anachronism that’s in the charter.”
10. Section C-49 of the City of Ocoee Charter shall be amended to authorize the city commission to set the dates of elections and dates of qualifying periods for candidates by either resolution or ordinance.
Geller said that charter language is “not so clear” on whether the commission can
set election dates through a resolution as well as an ordinance. Resolutions can be adopted on a single vote while ordinances require two readings and at least one public comment period before becoming law.
“The proposal is to give the commission the flexibility to do either," said Geller. "There may be exigent or urgent circumstances where you would want to set dates by resolution, and you could have the flexibility to do so.”
11. Section C-50 of the City of Ocoee Charter shall be amended to appoint the city clerk to the City of Ocoee’s Election Canvasing Board in addition to two citizens and two citizen alternates appointed by the city commission.
“Currently the city clerk does not serve on the Canvassing Board, and there are pragmatic and practical reasons why she should be on the Canvassing Board because she is the coordinator of elections for the City of Ocoee,” Geller explained.
“It’s important that she be there when the canvassing takes place,” he added. On the various instances where I have sat with canvassing boards for other municipalities, the city clerk was always there and always participated, and that was very valuable.”
Geller said the Charter Review Commission was sensitive about eliminating a citizen position, so they created two citizen alternate positions. “We had two alternates on the Charter Review Commission, and it helped enormously to have additional citizens there to assist,” he said.