Wilsen: Revelations of former commissioner’s expenses spurred call for reform.
Updated April 22, 2023 to include former Commissioner George Oliver III's comments.
Ocoee Commissioner Rosemary Wilsen did not mince words. She held up a campaign flyer during Tuesday’s city commission meeting. It was one of many sent to voters during last month’s municipal election and it appeared to show that former District 4 Commissioner George Oliver III’s city credit card expenses were much higher than those of the other commissioners.
“Eyes were opened. My eyes were opened,” the District 2 commissioner said. “I don’t think we’ve actually had any personal limits put on us. Now I think it’s time for us to avoid any ethical lapses in judgment, and that’s my opinion. I never imagined this would come to be … but I think we need to address it.”
[VoxPopuli has not independently verified Oliver’s city credit card expenses.]
Wilsen said that no rules currently exist to prevent commissioners from ringing up expensive travel and meal charges on their city-issued credit cards. “Since we didn’t put limits on it, it happened,” she told VoxPopuli after the meeting.
In an aside, Mayor Rusty Johnson marveled that Oliver’s credit card spending was apparently allowed to continue unchecked. “I’m not blaming anybody for that, but how did the city not have an override on what the credit cards were being used for?” he asked.
It was a valid question and one that went unanswered during the meeting. VoxPopuli reached out to City Manager Robert Frank for an answer, but he did not respond to emailed questions.
Wilsen called on the commission to ask Frank to draft guidelines for per diem travel and meals as well as appropriate use for the annual $10,000 discretionary funds that each commissioner receives. The commission approved her request by consensus.
“I think it's time for us to address travel, set limits,” Wilsen said during the public meeting. “I could go out and have a $40 to $50 dinner, if I wanted. Would I? No. But we do not have those limits put on us, and I think it's time for us, as a commission, to expect the same thing that's expected of a city employee.”
Wilsen pointed to a trip she took to Tallahassee earlier this month with the Florida League of Cities to meet with lawmakers during the state legislative session. “Probably three meals were paid for by going to the conference and the events that we went to, so I have no right to ask the city, if I don’t want to go to the lunch, to pay for [a meal].”
With spending guidelines, she said, residents would have a clearer idea of how taxpayer money is being used. “Everyone wants us to be transparent, well, that's transparent. I think you have a right to know when we go somewhere representing the city.”
The request for discretionary fund parameters stemmed from the revelation that Oliver had used some money to fix an individual's septic tank. During the Feb. 16 mayoral debate, hosted by the Woman’s Club of Ocoee, he explained that he had given $500 to repair the septic tank because they were “walking around in two inches of sewage in their home.”
"I don't believe we should use it for the personal benefit of folks,” Wilsen said. “When you help one, you have to help all, and I don’t believe we should do that with a discretionary fund. I think we need to have some definite lines put down on us as commissioners as to what we're going to use those for.”
Oliver pushed back in a Friday interview on allegations that his spending was "out of control."
“Ninety percent of my spending is on scholarships and things in the community. The only time I’ve ever helped any individual was when I was campaigning and ran across a lady with sewage in her house. That’s the only time I went outside the guidelines of helping the high school, the prom committee, the track team, the football team, the award-winning Ocoee Youth Council that I started. I’m the only commissioner that spent my money on town hall meetings, getting information out to the citizens. That’s where my money’s going. So, all these mentions of spending out of control that’s untrue.
He told VoxPopuli that he used his clothing allowance to purchase five City of Ocoee-branded button-down shirts, a blazer and shoes from JC Penney, on sale, to attend Florida League of Cities and National League of Cities conferences.
“Every Florida League of Cities or National League of Cities [conference] I have brought something back to this community and my district,” he said, pointing to a proposal to start a youth council, information about American Rescue Plan Act funds and state bills that could affect Ocoee’s milage rate. "
Oliver noted the mayor's spending wasn't included on the campaign flyer. "Hey, people report what they want to report. But it will come out. At this point, I'm taking the gloves off and I will report line item by line item — who spent what and how they spent it."