Ninth Circuit Court rules city commission has no authority over candidates, only its "members."
Judge Brian S. Sandor of the Orange County Ninth Circuit Court Thursday reversed the Ocoee City Commission’s Nov. 7 decision to disqualify former Commissioner George Oliver III from running in the upcoming municipal election and ordered the city clerk to accept Oliver’s qualifying papers within 24 hours of issuing his ruling.
Oliver vacated his District 4 seat in January, with two years remaining on his term, to run unsuccessfully for mayor. Ages Hart, a pastor, pharmacist and active community member, was appointed by the commission to fill the seat until a new commissioner was elected. Oliver was a District 4 candidate when the city's election was initially scheduled for June 13. He was barred from running after the election was rescheduled for March 19, 2024 to coincide with the presidential preference primary.
Oliver filed a lawsuit Nov. 29 against Melanie Sibbett as the Ocoee City Clerk and Bill Cowles as the Orange County Supervisor of Elections to again be declared a qualified candidate and gain access to the ballot before Orange County begins the ballot printing process Dec. 13.
An emergency hearing was held Dec. 5.
Ocoee City Attorney Rick Geller declined to put on a defense, stating in court papers that the Ninth Circuit Court "lacks jurisdiction ... in this matter" and that Oliver was "attempting to force his way onto the March 2024 ballot after his 'irrevocable' resignation, in violation of Florida’s Resign-to-Run Act, and express language in the City Charter governing the election of his 'successor.'"
In his ruling, Sandor wrote that both Sibbett and Oliver testified that Oliver had qualified for the election when it was scheduled for June 13. “But for the city commissions’ decision at the Nov. 7 meeting, there has been no argument the Plaintiff does not meet all of the … listed requirements.”
Sandor also ruled that the commission had no authority to vet the qualifications of candidates because city charter language limits its authority to its own “members.”
“It is clear Plaintiff is not a member of the city commission, and therefore the city commission is not the judge of his qualifications as a candidate,” he wrote.
The city will not appeal, Mayor Rusty Johnson told VoxPopuli.
“The judge made the call that he could run, so, you know, that’s what it is,” Johnson said in an interview at city hall. “That's why we did it, to see what the court said. The court said he can run. He's run before and lost. So, you know, it's up to him. This is just for a year. So, he's got to campaign and run for office again.”
Oliver will face Nate Robertson on March 19, 2024. There is one year left on the current District 4 term. An election for a full term will take place in 2025.
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