Updated: Jan 29
City Attorney attempts to clarify a confusing issue ahead of the March 14 election.
It may seem like common sense that political candidates should live in the district where they’re running. But sometimes the rules that define such residency requirements may not be so, well, precise.
Take for instance Ocoee’s rules for running for the city commission in the March 14 election. Its city charter says: “Each candidate for the office of Commissioner shall, at the time of qualifying as a candidate for such office, be a bona fide resident of the single-member district which such candidate seeks to represent.”
So what does “bona fide resident” mean “at the time of qualifying”? VoxPopuli posed that question at the Jan. 17 city commission meeting during the public comment period. The intent of the question was to get some clarity over former Democratic congressional candidate Shante Munns’s recent filing to run for the District 3 commission seat — although her specific situation wasn’t cited.
At the city commission meeting Tuesday, City Attorney Scott Cookson responded to VoxPopuli’s question, attempting to provide clarity of that section in the city charter.
Cookson said that it's not necessary for candidates to have lived in the city for a specific period of time before running for office, but that the charter requires that candidates be residents at the time of qualifying, which started Friday and will continue through Jan. 27.
“They need to be living in the city of Ocoee,” he said. “Your primary residence, whether that's a rental property or home ownership [within Ocoee], would meet the qualifications of residency.”
However, he said if a candidate had a rental in Ocoee with a primary residence elsewhere, then that would not meet the residency requirement. The city charter does not state who makes the final judgment on residency status. Cookson said that that task would “fall to the city clerk” as the city’s election official. He also stressed that it was premature to make any decisions before qualifying.
In Munns’s case, she listed an apartment complex on Casa Mirella Way, which is within the District 3 boundaries, on her candidate qualifying form, filed Dec. 28, 2022. However, VoxPopuli has reported that her primary residence is in the city of Orlando, near MetroWest, while voter records confirm her Orlando address is where she’s registered to vote.
Munns has not responded to multiple emailed questions about her residency and her motivation for running for the seat, which is held by incumbent Richard Firstner. He appeared to welcome her challenge.
During an interview at the city’s Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration at the West Oaks Mall, Firstner said: “If she qualifies and meets all the qualifications and is able to run, that's wonderful. I think that's great. I'll accept any challenge. But it's not up to me to decide whether she qualifies as a full-time resident or not, we'll just have to wait to see what happens.”
There are two other races in Ocoee where residency doesn’t appear to be a problem. The two candidates challenging Mayor Rusty Johnson for mayor — Commissioner George Oliver III and Chris Adkins — are longtime Ocoee residents. So is Scott Kennedy, vice chair of Ocoee’s Planning and Zoning Commission, who announced Friday that he’s running for District 1 Commissioner.
Putting Munns’ residency status aside, she would still provide a challenge in a municipal election year where opposition has been scarce. Only Kennedy has so far filed to run in District 1, and both Winter Garden's and Windermere’s elections were called off because none of the candidates had opponents.
The last time Firstner had an opponent was 2016 — his first race for public office after retiring from a 14-year run as Ocoee's fire chief. In that three-person race, no candidate won more than 50 percent of the vote, resulting in a run-off against financial strategist Marc A. Price.
However, Price withdrew from the race before the run-off. Now living in Miami, Price told VoxPopuli in a phone interview that he didn’t want to put the city through the added expense of another election. He and Firstner remained friendly, he said, and he’d phoned him first before informing the city clerk of his decision to withdraw.