Ocoee goes to the polls March 14 while Winter Garden and Windermere voters sit out canceled elections — and not for the first time. Why don’t municipal elections have more candidates?
March 14 is Election Day in West Orange County when residents head to the polls and pick their local leaders — mayors, commissioners, council members — who draft zoning ordinances, write budgets, adjust tax rates and decide where you can drive your golf cart. It is government at the most elemental and impactful level.
But of the three municipalities slated to hold elections in two weeks — Winter Garden, Windermere, Ocoee — within VoxPopuli’s coverage area, only the latter will hold one. In Winter Garden and Windermere, there won’t be any elections because none of the candidates had an opponent.
There are several explanations why uncontested elections occur, specifically in small towns. University of Florida political science professor Dr. Michael McDonald said reasons may range from local citizens reluctant to put their hat into the political ring to their lack of knowledge that such seats are even up for grabs.
“Elections are not held unless there is more than one candidate running, so there is little knowledge voters have about the existence of these offices, especially some of the more obscure ones like water and soil conservation districts,” McDonald said. “For small localities, it may be that there is only one person who wants the job. I also suspect candidate filing deadlines for local offices are not widely advertised and thus largely unknown to a locality’s citizens, absent some stimulus to spur interest, such as a scandal involving the current office holder.”
Orange County Supervisor of Elections Bill Cowles said another reason is that many municipal elective positions are not full time and offer little to no compensation.
Windermere’s six town council members, for instance, are all unpaid. In Winter Garden, the mayor’s compensation is $12,000 while commissioners earn $7,200 as well as life and health insurance benefits with dental and vision care, for which they receive a $1,424 stipend if they opt in, although not all do. In Ocoee, the mayor receives $9,300 — divvied up as a $4,500 salary and a $400 monthly stipend. Commissioners receive $3,900 annually plus a $325 monthly stipend for $7,900. Like Winter Garden officials, they also receive health and life insurance benefits. Oakland officials earn $599 annually.
“I think also those who serve would tell you that it's also a challenge to balance between a professional life and to also be a public servant, and doing much of that after hours,” Cowles, the county’s top election official for 27 years, said in a phone interview. “That is much different than when you talk about a federal state, county, school board positions [and] county commissioners because they are paid at least at full salary, and then they determine how much time they're going to work at their positions, but they have benefits and all that. So from that standpoint, offering yourself up in a city election or a town election can also be almost considered volunteerism.”
A major reason few candidates step up to run is simply because many don’t have a beef with their municipality’s operations.
“A lot of it has to do with how the city residents feel about how their city is being run,” Cowles said. “And when city voters are satisfied, they tend not to run.” For those who do run, they typically have concerns with how a city’s being run or feel the government isn’t paying attention to their specific interests, he added.
Another reason is simply fear of being put under a critical eye while campaigning. “I think it's a combination that they're satisfied with what's going on in their city, or they also see the challenges of offering themselves up to run,” Cowles said. “You add to that, the scrutiny that elected officials go under in today's political social media environment, and so some shy away just from the sheer fact that they don't want to put themselves into the backgrounds and social media.”
People who run for office are concerned with how their city is being run or who believe the government isn't paying attention to their specific interests, says Cowles.
Not every city has the same cycle for elected terms. Some have four-year terms, some have three-year terms. Both Ocoee and Winter Garden are moving from three-year terms to four-year terms this year. Windermere officials serve two-year terms.
Until last year when Town Commissioners Rick Polland and Joseph McMullen came up for re-election, the town of Oakland hadn’t held an election in 16 years — the longest stretch Cowles told VoxPopuli, that he’d seen as supervisor of elections. In 2006, Ramona Phipps beat Sam Carr for a commission seat, and when Phipps resigned in 2012, Rick Polland was appointed to her post and ran unopposed for two terms. Polland easily won reelection in 2022 against upstart Matthew Bunevich.
Cowles said Oakland’s 16-year streak reflect both citizen satisfaction with how the town is being run and a lack of candidates in the small town.
Windermere held a contested election in 2021, with four candidates, Mandy David, Tony Davit, Mike Hargreaves and Bill Martini, running for three council seats. This year, the town won’t hold an election on March 14 because three candidates qualified for the three seats: incumbent Council Members David and Davit and Tom Stroup. Since they were unopposed, an election was deemed unnecessary. In the last 10 years, five of the town's 10 elections have been uncontested, according to Town Clerk Dorothy Burkhalter.
Windermere Council Member Molly Rose, who served twice on the council before coming out of retirement last year to fill an empty seat, said in a phone interview that the town has a lot of talent. “I think that it's better to have new blood every few years. Keep the town active and not just have one set or one group of people making all the rules.”
Since the town is operating well and has had stable taxes for more than a decade, she said local residents are satisfied with the government service and don’t want to see large changes. Still, she would like to see more residents running for town council.
Cowles said that elected officials are those closest to the citizens, and if citizens are satisfied with how the city is functioning, then they're satisfied with those elected officials.
Winter Garden canceled its March 14 election when no one emerged to challenge Mayor John Rees and City Commissioner Lisa Bennett for District 1. The City Commission unanimously approved a resolution Jan. 12 that the two were reelected “by virtue of no opposition” for four more years, according to the meeting minutes. The oath of office will be administered March 23.
In response to a question about Winter Garden canceling its election, City Clerk Angela Grimmage wrote in an email:
“The residents who love the city of Winter Garden also love and respect the vision of its leaders. In my 20-plus years of serving this community, I have found that when people are happy with their local government, there is no opposition.”
Cowles expects there will be far fewer uncontested elections in 2024 as candidates run for school board, county commission, the state house and Congress. It’s very rare, he said, for unopposed candidates to get elected at the federal, state and county levels.