Quality of life, economic development, first responder support top concerns in Ocoee mayoral forum
In largely respectful discussion, candidates still manage to land a few mild jabs.
The three candidates for Ocoee mayor — incumbent Rusty Johnson, District 4 Commissioner George Oliver III and resident Chris Adkins — staked out their positions during Thursday night’s political forum on issues ranging from support for firefighters and police to economic development to improving the quality of life.
Sponsored by the Woman’s Club of Ocoee, the roughly two-hour event, which was held at City Hall and televised and live-streamed, was largely respectful although a few mild jabs were thrown here and there by all three against each other. The 76-year-old Johnson, who’s seeking his third and final term as mayor, has been a resident for more than 65 years and has served in office for 35 years, previously as commissioner in both Districts 1 and 3. He said he’s running to “finish the job that I started.” Oliver, 54, who announced his bid late last year, is in his second term as commissioner. He said he has fresh ideas and can bring new energy and leadership to the city. Adkins, 46, who acknowledged his less-than-privileged upbringing, said he is “uniquely qualified” given his background and corporate retail experience. He also said he can provide “transparency, efficiency, productivity and, finally, accountability to the city of Ocoee.”
Full-time elected lawmakers? The candidates were split on a question of whether Ocoee should have a full-time mayor and commissioners, who are all part-time now. Oliver said as the city continues to grow, possibly topping out between 75,000 to 80,000 in population, it will be necessary to transition elected lawmakers to full-time positions and pay them enough to support their families but not “hundreds of thousands of dollars.” (District 1 commission candidate Scott Kennedy said during a political forum Wednesday that commissioners could be paid up to $70,000 and the mayor up to $90,000.)
“When you put 40 hours a week into it [the job] … they have a vested interest,” said Oliver, who added that full time lawmakers would devote more of their time to issues like economic development and infrastructure improvements. “They now have skin in the game. Now they need to be bringing more back to this city. If they can’t do that, then they need to line themselves up with another organization and find another job.”
Johnson, who said that as mayor he receives a $700 monthly stipend with benefits like free insurance, said he consistently opposed pay raises and came out against making such positions full time, calling it a “waste of money.” He said: “The job says it’s part-time, but a lot of us work full time, but I don’t expect to be paid full time.” He said the money could be better invested in helping improve infrastructure and citizens’ lives.
He compared Ocoee’s form of government to Apopka, which has a full-time “strong mayor” who makes about $150,000 to $160,000 annually along with a city manager who makes a comparable salary. “You do this out of the mercy of your heart,” said Johnson. He said former Ocoee Mayor J. Lester Dabbs Jr. believed the same thing: “You’re here serving your community that you love and that you want to help, not to try to get paid.” “I can’t tell you whether or not I believe we should be paid full time or not,” said Adkins, who added he would be “pragmatic” and listen. He indicated that it’s worth exploring. Still, he said he would be full time regardless of his pay. “I think that comes with holding city management accountable, which is what I think hasn’t been happening,” he said, adding that many projects are started without being completed or they go over budget. He said Ocoee is the “highest taxed city” taking aim at an earlier comment from Johnson, who said tax rates have declined the past eight years during his administration. Adkins said non-ad valorem and sales tax rates have been raised.
$10K contingency funds
When asked how Johnson and Oliver spend the $10,000 in annual contingency funds they’re given to help residents, Johnson said he gives to charities, especially to benefit high school, arts and health, and organizations for children. He said he doesn’t give money to residents to help them fix sewer problems, evidently taking aim at Oliver who had helped a resident with one such problem. But Johnson said if he had his way he would vote against getting that money now “because I think sometimes it gets paid out to places it shouldn’t be paid out to.” Oliver took issue with Johnson’s comment about him. Oliver said that he helped a resident fix their septic tank because they were “walking around in two inches of sewage in their home.” He said he couldn’t walk away from that and used $500 of his allotment to help them. He also said that a majority of his funds go to youth and high schools.
When asked what he would do with the $10,000 if he was elected, Adkins started by mildly admonishing Johnson, saying “cutting money that we could help other people struggling, never in my book.” He added that the city must help as many people as possible whether youth, school-related or church programs or those who need help, adding he would personally use it to benefit children and food pantries. “I’m never judgmental on how somebody specifically uses that money, if it’s used for good especially if there’s not any stipulations that it can’t be used that way. But I would never cut it. I can tell you that right now.”
Adkins’ qualifications When asked why he was running for mayor since he never held elective office before and doesn’t serve on any volunteer city boards, Adkins cited his work at specialty footwear retailer Genesco where he earlier said he worked his way up from one of its retail stores selling shoes to eventually holding several management positions, including as a corporate auditor. Genesco, he said, taught him leadership skills, enabling him to understand people’s “individual personality” to get more out of them. For instance, he said he looks for “paycheck earners not paycheck collectors,” because the former “work hard to earn that check.” With his deep retail experience, Adkins said he can help the city grow its restaurant and shopping business. He also criticized the city’s boards, citing the turmoil with the Human Relations Diversity Board and problems with other unnamed boards. He said he spends his time helping youth sports, feeding the homeless and those who are disabled. “I just choose to serve in a different way.”
Background checks All candidates agreed that the mayor and commissioners should pass background checks to serve in their positions. “I think everybody should have a background check,” said Johnson, since they constantly deal with the public, including school children. “If you got a problem with a background check, you don’t need to be serving with the city.” Oliver, who said he has security clearances working for the U.S. Treasury Department, said he agreed with the mayor. “That’s paramount for any elected officials," said Oliver, adding that city staff members should have background checks as well. “I didn’t even know that we didn’t do background checks,” said Adkins, who said he received one when he graduated from the Orange County Sheriff’s Civilian Police Academy. “I think it would be obvious, and I think it’s silly that we aren’t already doing them.”
Audits and the Ocoee Music Festival Oliver specifically was asked if he would continue to support the annual Ocoee Music Festival, which is organized and hosted by the city, if elected mayor. This was a subtle dig at the commissioner who advocated for the date of the event (originally known as Founders Day) to be moved from the fall so that it would not coincide with Ocoee Remembers commemorations for the 1920 Ocoee Election Day Massacre. More recently, Oliver had objected to the festival being held the weekend before the election, arguing that Johnson's close association with the event made it a city-sponsored commercial for his candidacy.
During the forum, Oliver said he goes to the music festival every year and supports it, but said he has an issue with how the money for the festival is “filtered” through the city. Oliver wants the city to perform an operational audit, and explained that the festival is a “perfect reason” why such an audit is needed. For example, he said a $50,000 check earmarked for the music festival comes to the city and “becomes the property of the citizens of Ocoee.” He said the funds are kept separately within the city and then are transferred externally, but he said he’s not sure where it goes. “We need to be accountable for every dime that comes out of the city whether it’s donated or generated through tax dollars,” he said. “And that is the problem that I have with the music festival. The accountability for the music festival. How money flows in and out.” Later in the forum, Oliver was asked whether there should be a price cap for an operational audit. In 2018, the city commission unanimously voted to conduct an audit and allotted $50,000. The audit was never conducted because a scope of work was never determined. In 2019, Oliver said, an accounting firm that specializes in municipal audits said it would cost $80,000 to complete an audit during a presentation to the city commission.
Oliver said that it’s important to conduct an audit because he claims that Community Redevelopment Area (CRA) funds are being used for the music festival. Ocoee's redevelopment district, also known as Fifty West, includes 1,070 acres along W. Colonial Drive, between State Road 429 and Clarke Road.
“It is not just unethical, it is illegal. It’s almost criminal to take those tax dollars to spend on a music festival that’s not in the CRA,” said Oliver. He said he received that information from the state of Florida and emails from other city officials. “Still, we’ve been doing it for years to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars that’s being mismanaged and misused. That is why we need an operational audit.” Oliver stated he wanted an operational audit in his opening remarks, “to see how healthy our city is financially. What are we hiding?” In a later question, he reiterated his position for an operational audit in helping improve the quality of life for residents. “We have bonds out there. At some point those bonds are going to come due and are we able to pay those bonds when they come due? We need to know that.” Although the city provides an annual comprehensive financial report to the state, Oliver said it just shows that the city balanced its numbers. With an operational audit, he said an independent company would assess whether the city is properly spending funds. As mayor, he said he would seek an audit, which would then help to create a better strategic plan and vision for the city.
Quality of life and economic development
Asked about improving people’s quality of life, Johnson said that residents should feel safe, pay affordable taxes, send their kids to good schools, travel on good roads and have good retail, which the city is working to diversify. In response to Oliver’s comments about audits, he said the city provides one to the state every year. “For 23 years, we have received a high, clean bill of health.” He also said that the city has been attracting a few companies, like a gun barrel maker and a drill company, but would also like to attract more doctors and other health providers since Orlando Health has a hospital in Ocoee. In his response, Adkins put up a small placard showing Ocoee having higher taxes than other municipalities. “We’re a cash-rich city, but guess what? We don’t spend it right.” Since the city has plenty of cash, he wants to refocus attention to address the quality of life, including improving the fire and police departments, sidewalks and other infrastructure, cleaning up trash and removing graffiti, community programs and improving the waste management service. He said the current city commission has “let you down.”
A little while later, Oliver was specifically asked about the city’s trash service, which was privatized in 2019. He and Johnson both voted to privatize it (and both said they regretted that decision Thursday night) while Commissioner Rosemary Wilsen was the sole vote against the move. Oliver said while it lowered taxes for residents, customer service also declined. “It was a travesty … and I voted yes,” he said, adding he should have listened to Wilsen. In response to new economic development, Adkins said the city needs to become a “destination” through new retail stores, restaurants, attractions and entertainment venues, such as partnering with Fun Spot America, a local theme park. “I don’t know if that would work, but shouldn’t we sit down with them and see if there’s something we can do, maybe?” He added downtown Ocoee needs an identity, which is where he will initially focus as mayor.
Oliver said that he would like to create a tech hub in Ocoee through a partnership with the University of Central Florida that could repurpose empty stores, like the former Bed, Bath & Beyond space at the West Oaks Mall. That, in turn, could attract companies like Amazon or Google.
First responders and crime
When asked about the increase in crime and decrease in safety in Ocoee, Johnson said he checked with the police chief about the crime rate, which isn’t higher than any other surrounding areas. While Ocoee experiences car break-ins and other “minor things,” it doesn’t rise to more serious crimes that occur outside the city. He added that the Ocoee Police Department is considered a top accredited agency and works constantly to protect the public.
But he said it’s been difficult hiring police officers especially when the Covid-19 pandemic hit but a new hiring program has started to help with six officers added last month. He said more will be hired. Oliver also said that the city needs a strategy to attract new officers and train firefighters to the best standards and that money needs to be reallocated to increase the force, currently at about 85 — only 40 of which are patrol officers — back up to 100 to 105 officers. He pointed to $5 million earmarked for a shooting range that has not been built and said that those funds should be made available to staff up the police department. That’s critical, he said, because there will be a nearly 35-percent growth in the population over the next decade and yet the police force may be operating with a minimal number of patrol officers.
While he didn’t know much about the police department, Adkins, who said he’s lobbied on behalf of the Ocoee Fire Department, said he’s heard some “grumbling” regarding the police. “The morale in both departments is unbelievably low. That’s what I’ve gathered from them.” He said the city needs to work “hand in hand with them, get the morale back up.” He said first responders are “at the center of good living.” He also floated the idea of annexing pockets of the city that are under Orange County jurisdiction to cut off criminals' ability to hide out beyond the reach of Ocoee Police. “We need to use our police in our city limits to start handling some things because right now, we’re counting on Orange County to do that, and we’re fighting an uphill battle.”
Regarding the city’s fire fighters, Johnson said it took two years to get a collective bargaining agreement with the department, “which ended up taking the same contract they were offered to start with.” But he called the department “great.”
City Hall and a parking garage
When asked about the status of the old City Hall and future plans for it, Johnson simply said the building is condemned and will be torn down because of black mold, among other problems. “You cannot use it,” he said. “Now, when that building goes down, then it’s open for someone to come and develop” a project, such as townhomes.
A few minutes later, Adkins took issue with the development of the new City Hall. He said it was initially estimated to cost $11.4 million and be built by 2019. But he said the costs swelled to $22 million and the new facility wasn’t finished until last year. “That other $10 million could’ve fixed that old City Hall 10 times,” he said, adding somebody should answer for the relatively short-term use of the old City Hall. Another question dealt with building a garage in downtown Ocoee to alleviate parking issues. Both Johnson and Oliver said the commission is actively looking at such a project, which could cost up to $7 million for a two- to three-story facility. Oliver described constructing a parking garage in the city’s sparsely populated downtown as the classic chicken-and-egg conundrum, asking, “How can we build enough of a downtown to have a parking problem?”
Johnson noted that the commission was also evaluating constructing a parking lot to accommodate about 75 cars.
“Anytime I attend an event down here, I can’t find parking anywhere,” said Adkins, who said he supports plans for a new parking garage but that it should have been planned for earlier. “That’s where I sit on that. We should’ve probably done a better job in the beginning.”
Election Day: March 14. Check Ocoee.org for voting sites.
Early voting: March 6 to 10, 119 Kaley Street, Check OCFElections.gov for hours.
Vote by mail: If you vote by mail, you will need to renew your request for a mail ballot even if you voted by mail in the last election. Prior on-file requests for mail ballots were good through 2022 and now need to be re-filed. Go to OCFElections.gov to request a vote-by-mail ballot.