Ocoee special election in limbo as city seeks legal opinion on charter
Updated: Apr 20
Candidate "shocked," qualifying period to proceed
Ocoee’s June 13 special election for District 4 city commissioner is in a state of limbo after Tuesday’s city commission meeting as commissioners hit the pause button to seek legal guidance about what constitutes a “general city election” in the city charter. The commission will take up the issue again on May 2. Ages Hart, who lives in District 4, was appointed interim commissioner.
The unexpected decision, which caught city staff and the two declared candidates off guard, came after three residents urged an expedited, professional review of the city charter — stemming from the candidate residency issue in the last election — and raised questions about the timing of the special election.
The city charter mandates that a special election be held within 90 days of a vacancy if a general city election isn't slated to be held within 12 months of the vacancy. However, if a general election is expected within those 12 months, then there would be no need for such a special election. (Commissioner George Oliver III resigned his seat to run for mayor in January, but it was not effective until March 21 when Rusty Johnson was again sworn in as mayor.)
“My question is if the county’s having an election for the presidential primary on March 19, 2024, and the vacancy in District 4 occurred on March 21, 2023, shouldn’t that election qualify as 12 months?” asked Angel de la Portilla, a former Ocoee commissioner.
Next up was Brad Lomneck, who ran the campaign for the newly elected District 1 Commissioner Scott Kennedy. “It looks like Angel stole my thunder,” Lomneck said. “I hate it when he takes my homework. I left all my notes at Bike Life yesterday. We should wait till the next national election that rolls around since it is within the year.”
Jason Mellen, recently appointed to Orange County’s Tourist Development Tax Citizen Advisory Task Force, echoed the others’ calls for immediate charter review and delay of the special election until the presidential primary.
Suddenly, the idea of changing the special election date — which the commission determined at its March 21 meeting and which was posted on the Orange County Supervisor of Elections Upcoming 2023 Municipal Elections page — was being re-litigated as commissioners parsed the charter’s meaning of “general city election.”
“I don't see a definition, a clear definition, of the next general city election,” said District 1 Commissioner Scott Kennedy, who described the city charter language as “convoluted.”
He said a “plain reading” of the charter text would indicate that there would be an election in the next 12 months, negating the necessity for a special election. “I think the March 2024 primary would be sufficient to me. That's my interpretation. I'm not a lawyer.” Later on in the meeting he came back to the topic, explaining, “The plain reading says ‘general city election.’ And then we say ‘What that means is … and we use some other words. That’s not plain reading. That’s interpretation, and I don’t want to go there without counsel and advice on the proper thing to do.”
District 3 Commissioner Richard Firstner said he supported changing the date. “If the charter allows us, that’s the smart thing to do," he said.
As commissioners rallied around the idea of delaying the election, they found themselves at odds with the city’s own attorney, Scott Cookson.
“The language in the city charter is if there is a city election within 12 months, then you can hold it,” Cookson told them. “This March election is not a city election. Our next city election is not until 2025. We have an obligation to hold a special election in this circumstance. It’s unfortunate that there's a disagreement on this, but, it's my interpretation, my reading of the charter, that we have to hold the special election as originally scheduled.”
Kennedy said while he respected Cookson’s opinion, he needed to know why the presidential primary in March 2024 wasn’t a general city election. “I think it is. I think most people would think it. And we're gonna waste a lot of money, and I'm not in support of that.”
At one point the mayor called for a motion to change the special election date, but Cookson quashed that, pointing out that the special election was not on the evening’s agenda and residents had not had an opportunity to voice their opinions about a date change.
“I think it would be improper to make a motion to change a special election at an unadvertised city commission meeting,” he said.
The commission settled for adding the special election to the May 2 agenda and soliciting an opinion from an election law specialist.
Any shift now would upend the election calendar. The qualifying period would still open Friday, April 21, and run through Friday, April 28, but candidate packets would need to contain a notice about the possibility of a date change, City Manager Robert Frank said at the meeting.
Ballots must be printed and mailed to overseas residents no later than 45 days ahead of an election, which is April 29. The commission won’t address the issue again until May 1. City Clerk Melanie Sibbett told VoxPopuli that she is conferring with Bill Cowles, Orange County supervisor of elections, for advice on how to proceed.
For the candidates, the situation is unreal.
Candidate Nate Robertson addresses the city commission April 18, 2023. Video Norine Dworkin/VoxPopuli
“Three days before qualifying opens we’re going to now say that the city charter is not ‘plain’ in saying that if there’s not a general city election within 12 months there should be a special election,” Nate Robertson told the commission toward the end of the meeting. “Obviously, you know I’m a candidate in this election. I am very concerned about this change all of a sudden that seems very odd to me.”
Robertson later told VoxPopuli via text that he was “shocked" and “confused” as the situation unfolded during the meeting.
“I believe the Special Election (sic) should take place on June 13 as already decided by the Commission,” said Robertson, who’s been low-key campaigning since January. “I will continue with my campaign kickoff Thursday night as well as all of my campaign efforts to secure the support of District 4 voters.”
Former Commissioner George Oliver III, whose decision to run for mayor with two years left on his term necessitated the special election, sees the attempt to change the date as setting “a very dangerous precedent.”
“Last night’s discussion was more serious than changing a special election,” Oliver told VoxPopuli in a text. “The conversation was about taking away the ability to vote for over 31,000 registered voters in Ocoee. They want to bypass the charter by using the commission to override the charter. That is very dangerous. Suppressing the vote vs totally taking it away sets a very dangerous precedent.”
Oliver told VoxPopuli he would consider challenging any decision to delay the election.