City charter requires that candidates be “bona fide residents” when they qualify — and remain so for their four-year term.
Updated Jan. 10 to reflect Ocoee City Clerk Melanie Sibbett's comments.
In late December, when Shante Munns filed the required paperwork to run for District 3 Commissioner in Ocoee’s March 14 municipal elections, the Democratic politician listed a luxury apartment complex, which permits short-term, seven-month leases, just inside the district’s southern border, as her address.
While that may be enough to satisfy the city’s candidacy requirement to run for city commission, VoxPopuli has learned through a public records search that Munns’ primary residence is a four-bedroom home on Lasson Court in Orlando — near MetroWest — that she purchased in 2019 for $299,000.
Unlike its neighbors, Winter Garden, Windermere and Oakland — which all require at least 12 months residency before running for office — the city of Ocoee does not require candidates to have lived in the city prior to mounting a campaign. However, its charter states that “at the time of qualifying,” city commission candidates must be “a bona fide resident of the single-member district which such candidate seeks to represent.” Commissioners need to remain bona fide residents “during the entire term of office.”
Ocoee’s election qualifying period runs noon Jan. 20 through noon Jan. 27.
“This idea of running where you don’t live because you think you have a chance of getting elected is not a new phenomenon. This is common. It’s wrong. Absolutely,” said municipal legal expert Clifford Shepard of Shepard, Smith, Kohlmyer and Hand. The Maitland law firm represents numerous municipalities, including Maitland, Eatonville, Ponce Inlet, Dunnellon, Flagler Beach and Mascotte.
Munns’ primary Lasson Court home has had a homestead exemption every year that Munns has owned it, including for 2023. A homestead exemption allows homeowners to reduce their home’s taxable value by up to $50,000 — and can only be applied to one’s permanent residence. Munns also took a Save Our Homes exemption in 2019 and 2022, another tax benefit that limits annual increases of assessed value of homesteaded properties to 3 percent or the National Consumer Price Index, whichever is less.
“You can only take it on homestead property and you can only have one homestead in Florida at a time,” said Shepard.
Munns also has two businesses registered to her Lasson Court address, according to a search of Sunbiz.org records. Essence Dior was active as of January 2022, while Executive Designs International LLC was dissolved in September. Munns’ campaign entity, Shante Munns Campaign Inc., dissolved in 2021, was registered to the U.S. Post Office in Gotha. Her federal candidate forms — filed when Munns launched an unsuccessful bid in the midterm elections to unseat Republican Congressman Daniel Webster — also listed her address as the post office.
Running for office in a district where a candidate doesn’t reside isn’t uncommon. In fact, the U.S. Constitution doesn’t require candidates for Congress to live in districts where they’re seeking office, just in the state. Shepard pointed to two recent high-profile national examples from the midterm elections: Herschel Walker running for Senate in Georgia although his primary residence for the past decade was Texas, and Dr. Mehmet Oz, whose New Jersey residence gave his Democratic Senate opponent in Pennsylvania, John Fetterman, endless trolling fodder. Fetterman won.
Shepard said local candidates running out of district is common, too, often because of vague or absent language in municipal election law and lax enforcement.
“One of the things I looked for in the Ocoee Charter is a provision you find in many charters, but not in Ocoee’s, that says the city council shall be the sole judge of whether a candidate is qualified or not,” Shepard said. “That’s a very common provision, and I thought for sure it would be in the charter, and it’s not, so there’s even less of an ability to judge [residency] in Ocoee than other places because the council is not the sole judge of qualifications. It just says ‘resident’ and that’s open to interpretation as to what that means.”
"There are no records or documents in the charter that define the word," said City Clerk Melanie Sibbett, who handles all election-related matters. "Any amendments to the charter would occur during the next Charter Review Committee, which would go before the voters."
Munns did not respond to an email request for comment. But Alonzo (or Zo) Mitchell, founder and director of Monarch Strategies, and Munns’ field and political director during her failed bid to unseat Webster, texted VoxPopuli on Sunday: “This isn’t journalism. This is harassment.”
Mitchell had previously insisted that Munns lives in Ocoee after VoxPopuli on Friday attempted to confirm her residency, threatening VoxPopuli with legal action if she was contacted again. He then followed up with a text message: “I’d encourage you to leave her alone completely. I won’t ask again.”
Munns may be the first candidate in recent years to run from outside of Ocoee. By cross-referencing records from the Orange County Supervisor of Elections with records from the Orange County Comptroller’s office and news reports, VoxPopuli found that candidates for city elections have all been all city residents in the past decade.
Indeed, the most analogous situation, according to former District 4 City Commissioner Joel Keller, may have occurred in 2009 when long-serving District 2 Commissioner Scott Anderson lost to current District 2 Commissioner Rosemary Wilsen and then moved to District 3 so he could run the following year against incumbent Commissioner Rusty Johnson. Johnson is now running for his third term as mayor.
“But he [Anderson] had always been a resident of the city,” Keller said in a phone interview. “I mean, even though he moved districts, he had already been the commissioner for District 2 for a while. But that's the closest I could think of anybody just sort of changing at the last minute and trying to run for office.”
Keller, a longtime Democratic political operative who represented District 4 for 12 years and now serves on the city’s Planning and Zoning Board, said he couldn’t think of any reason a non-resident would run for office unless they had an “agenda.”
“Who are their friends? Who's supporting them? Where's the money for their campaign coming from? said Keller, who’s lived in Ocoee since 1990. “To me it seems odd that you'd want to run in a city that you're not living in. If at the last minute, you're moving into a district to run for an office in a community that you've never lived in, that makes me wonder who's behind it? I doubt that it would just be something off the top of the head that the person decided to do. I'd be looking to see whose puppet they're gonna be.”