Some rambling moments, but few surprises as commissioner candidates for Districts 1 and 3 fielded residents' questions at the Woman's Club of Ocoee event.
Traffic, congestion, growth and development, fiscal matters and diversity emerged as some of the top constituent concerns Wednesday night during an Ocoee political forum where four candidates sought to make their case why they should be elected March 14 to the city commission.
Sponsored by the Woman’s Club of Ocoee, the roughly two-hour event, which was held at City Hall and televised and live-streamed, offered few surprises. Candidates opened and closed with short statements about why they should be elected. In between, hosts asked questions fielded from the in-person and viewing audience.
In District 1, Scott Kennedy, who most recently served as vice chair of the city’s Planning and Zoning Commission, and local tech entrepreneur Shuantae “Hope” Bellamy are competing for the seat currently held by Commissioner Larry Brinson Jr., who said a few weeks ago that he would not run for a second term. He didn’t offer a reason why he’s leaving.
District 3 Commissioner Richard Firstner is seeking his third – and last – four-year term on the commission. Firstner, who was the city’s longtime fire chief, retiring in 2009 before deciding to run for office in 2016, will face challenger Shante Munns, a former high school track coach-turned-small business owner who most recently ran unsuccessfully as a Democratic nominee for Congress in the midterms.
Traffic and growth
Throughout the forum, several questions dealt with traffic and congestion as well as the city’s rapid growth in population.
Bellamy said that when developers come into town, they meet with the mayor, commission and staff but not with the residents, who hear about such issues after the fact. He gave the example that the street he lives on became a thoroughfare one day. He said the elected officials and boards should be held accountable for why developers weren’t meeting with the community that needs to become more aware of the developments.
Munns said the city needs economic development and sustainable growth that takes into consideration open and natural space and maintaining natural drinking sources. With development, the city needs to be deliberate and slow in its progress. “We do not want to become like Kissimissee where they’re overgrowing in population” that has created congestion and pollution.
Firstner said District 3 is just about built out and there is no more usable land where large developments can be constructed. He said the city keeps a close eye on multifamily residences and he said many residents don’t want apartment housing in their communities. He said the city should focus on maintaining infrastructure, including roads, and adhere to zoning ordinances. Kennedy has said previously that his top priorities are improving traffic and congestion and adding more roads will help with that. “We have to balance the growth that we already have with more infrastructure,” he said. He said the city needs to bring the residents and the county together and sit with developers to preserve the character of Ocoee. Managing new development over the next five to 10 years that maintains the city’s appeal is “good business for the developers.” He also said the downtown master plan should also be reviewed now with increased inflation and ensure the city is on target. He said the Charter Review Board should expedite its review of the charter, which has revealed some weaknesses, earlier than the scheduled update in 2027. Bellamy, who described himself as a “tech guy,” said Orlando is becoming the new Silicon Valley along with other municipalities that are becoming “smart” cities. However, while Ocoee’s population grows, “it’s not becoming smarter,” he said. One example, he said, would be employing a gunshot detection system that could help police pinpoint gunfire.
Organizations like the ACLU have raised serious concerns about privacy, high rates of false positives, and over-policing in communities of color with this technology, which relies on hundreds of microphones to be deployed throughout cities.
A question asked whether the candidates supported an independent audit of the city’s finances. Kennedy — who is a licensed CPA and chief financial officer of the Orlando-based building materials distributor, R. S. Elliott Specialty Supply — said there are several candidates in “these races and other races that I think are spreading misinformation” that the city doesn’t have an external audit. While the comprehensive annual financial report is prepared by the city’s internal financial team, he said included within that report is one by an independent auditor. “I’ve heard people say there isn’t an external audit. There is,” said Kennedy. “I’ve heard people say we should have an operational audit to see where the money goes. A financial audit is an audit that sees where the money goes. We have that in the city, and I think the staff does a wonderful job.”
His District 1 opponent Bellamy — founder and CEO of Zigs Nation Digital Network, which creates children’s educational and entertainment content — said there’s no reason not to have an audit. He said he would be in favor of having an audit as long as it’s not costing residents any more money. He said he would want to know where the money would come from to conduct an outside audit. “I’m for it,” he added.
Munns said she supports conducting quarterly independent audits so any funds that are mismanaged could be caught earlier rather than at the end of the year. “This way it holds accountability more often than just one time a year.”
However, Firstner said the city has won awards for its financial practices. While he said that he doesn’t object to an operational audit, he said he would want to see a defined scope of work and its costs. “Operational audits can become very, very expensive,” he said. “They do the finances once a year, and that seems to be enough. If we do that on a quarterly basis, we’re going to be spending more money on audits than we are on anything else.”
Full-time v. part-time commissioners
When asked whether Ocoee should transform its government from a city manager-style to full-time commissioners and a mayor, the candidates were split. Firstner and Kennedy said they would be opposed, while Munns and Bellamy were in favor.
Firstner complimented City Manager Robert Frank for his longevity in the position and his “outstanding job” in managing the departments and working with the city commission. He said it would be difficult for a city like Ocoee to transition to a strong mayor form of government “and operate as well as we are now.”
Munns, who runs a small business, said full-time elected officials can get a lot more done whereas some part-time officials may view it as a “hobby.” She added: “Based on some of the issues we have going on within the city of Ocoee, I think they need to put a little more time and effort in. Get those feet wet.” She said when officials become more engaged, they can do a better job of resolving matters.
Bellamy, who runs his own tech company that he recently announced on Facebook he will be taking public, also supported making elected officials full time. He said officials working on a part-time basis aren’t getting things done. “You should be committed to the city that elected you in that position. When you come part time you give part-time results.” He said few residents show up at evening meetings because it’s difficult for them, but the city should hold meetings at different times and go out to the community more. Bellamy told VoxPopuli, in a forthcoming story, that he would not accept a salary if elected. I don’t want it because I’m not working for a paycheck. I’m working to serve my people. You can’t pay me for that. “
“I’m totally against that,” said Kennedy, referring to changing commissioners to full-time. He said the city staff do get things done, while the job of elected officials is “to express the will of the people that they represent and make tough decisions on behalf of those people.” He said their job isn’t to implement day-to-day operations. Plus, he said it would likely cost the city upwards of a half million dollars more in salaries for the commission and mayor ($70,000 per year for commissioners and $90,000 for the mayor), which is money that could be better spent on infrastructure and traffic safety.
Diversity and Inclusion
Candidates were asked about their vision for celebrating inclusion and diversity in their districts.
Bellamy said there are a lot of different ethnicities within District 1 but nothing that represents everybody as a whole. “There definitely needs to be an inclusion even here at the city level,” he said, suggesting that non-English speakers may not have been getting service in City Hall. He said more multicultural events need to be conducted.
Kennedy, who served on the Human Relations Diversity Board (HRDB) and on the subcommittee for the Ocoee Remembers July Perry event, said the city’s population has become diverse and rich over the last two decades. The city, he said, issued a proclamation and an apology for the Ocoee Massacre. He said the city needs to celebrate all cultural events and its diverse citizens, he said. “You promote it, you stand for it and you encourage it.”
Firstner said it is “not really very logical” to celebrate, support and organize diversity events in District 3 because it consists mainly of gated communities. “And just by nature of the gated communities, they want to be left alone, they don’t want you to come into it.” But citywide, he said the HRDB does a wonderful job commemorating the Ocoee Massacre, the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. parade and other events. However, he said there should be more diverse events that include Hispanic-, Asian- and Native Americans and others.
Munns, however, said that the city is not “cultivating an atmosphere for diversity.” While she said there are gated communities in District 3, there is also another section in the district with trailer park homes that need aid and assistance. She also took issue with the city apologizing for the Ocoee Massacre because it doesn’t help people who’ve lost their properties. “Do the people, the descendants of them, do they get reparations for those properties? How are they compensated? They have not been compensated at all,” she said.
Munns seemed unaware of the Randolph Bracy Ocoee Scholarship Program, created by the state senator during the 2021 legislative session to provide $6,100 in financial aid to descendants of the Ocoee Massacre and Black student residents of Ocoee who continue their education after high school. She also asked what Ocoee has done during Black History Month in February. She said the city needs to do better.
Munns’ ties to Ocoee and her residency were repeatedly probed during the forum. She was asked why she’s running for office in Ocoee when her primary residence is in Orlando. She replied that the supervisor of elections and state of Florida have qualified her as a candidate who lives in the district. “So if they have any other concerns concerning that, I think they should take it up with the state of Florida. And, as for my residence, yes, I do live here in Ocoee. It doesn’t matter how many properties I own, my residence is in Ocoee.”
Later in the forum, she was asked if she would give up the homestead exemption of her Orlando home since she said she lives in Ocoee. A defensive Munns replied: “My personal business is my personal business when it comes to my homestead and my personal home so I’m sorry if that doesn’t answer your question. I apologize. But, like I said, my residence is here in Ocoee.”
Another question asked Munns why she had a “sudden interest” in Ocoee city politics after she campaigned for a congressional seat last year. Munns hinted that this was another attempt to ask about her residency in a different way, but that she would answer it. Despite the Ocoee Massacre a century ago, the city has come a long way, she said, “but it has not come far enough.” She said that the city’s strength is its diversity. “How can we not grow together with strength if we do not come together as one?” She said she wants more unity in the city so they can address infrastructure, economic development and other issues.
“Ocoee is struggling right now, and it needs some sense of direction,” said Munns. “Not saying it’s not headed in the right direction, but we need to focus so we can get there at a quicker and greater speed than what we have now.”
Sunshine and integrity
One question that was directed at Bellamy asked how he interpreted the state’s Sunshine Law, which protects public access to government records and prevents officials from privately discussing business that would come before the commission. After a 20-second silence, he provided a short, rambling, somewhat incoherent response. He described the Sunshine Law as the “law of the old. It’s not anything that applies to me.” He said that he’s read the law numerous times and ended with: “I don’t really have a concern with the Sunshine Law. That’s my answer.”
Bellamy was also asked his definition of integrity. “That’s an easy one. Me. I’m the definition of that,” he said. “Integrity is something that I stand on daily. Integrity is who I have to be.” Although his first name is Shuantae, he said the ballot has his name as “Hope Bellamy.” Hope, he said, stands for Helping Other People Elevate.
In his opening remarks, Bellamy held up a photo of himself in prison but talked about his accomplishments since then. In 1997, he was convicted for possession of cocaine with intent to sell near a school. In 2018, he was again arrested for petty theft, resulting in one night in jail and a fine. He was also arrested for driving on a suspended license. In a forthcoming interview with VoxPopuli, the 45-year-old Bellamy said he supports expanding after-school programs and services for seniors, creating affordable and transitional housing, fostering a better relationship between the community and the police department and improving public safety.
Thursday evening, Feb. 16, the Woman's Club of Ocoee will host the forum for Ocoee mayoral candidates at City Hall, 1 N. Bluford Ave., at 6:30 p.m. The even will also be televised live on Ocoee TV Spectrum Channel 493 and live-streamed at www.ocoee.org/616/Streaming-Broadcast. Send questions for the candidates to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or call them in to 407-554-7118.
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.