Updated: Feb 17
Aiming to unseat Mayor Rusty Johnson, the first-time candidate says he'll bring transparency and accountability to Ocoee government.
Wiggles is the official door-greeter at Chris Adkins’ house.
A bundle of cinnamon-colored excitement on paws, the two-year-old English Bulldog (officially named Roxanne) jumps on me to get a really good sniff, her front end eagerly going in one direction while her back end enthusiastically wags in another.
Trailing close by is Rocky, a little gray scruff of a dog that reminds me of Toto from The Wizard of Oz. On the kitchen counter is a mud turtle in an aquarium.
“I’ve had this guy, what? Maybe 12 years? He looked like an acorn when I found him in the gutter,” Adkins, 46, tells me. He’s showing me around the house, introducing me to the rest of his home’s furred and feathered inhabitants. There are two cats, a pot-bellied pig and, perched next to the couch, there's Lola, the green-cheeked conure who appeared in Adkins’s video, announcing that he’s running for Ocoee mayor to bring “long needed transparency and accountability to city government.”
Adkins’s candidacy has scrambled the calculus of the 2023 Ocoee mayor’s race. Politics watchers had long anticipated a matchup between George Oliver III, the city’s first Black commissioner, who represents District 4 and two-term Mayor Rusty Johnson. (Oliver and Johnson have a long-standing adversarial relationship. Last year, after a commission meeting, the two had to be separated during a heated argument in the city hall parking lot.)
But apart from his family, no one knew Adkins nursed mayoral aspirations.
Brad Lomneck, manager of Scott Kennedy’s District 1 campaign, said he realized Adkins was in the race at Ocoee’s dog parade during the city holiday Jolly Jamboree. “That’s when he started letting people know,” Lomneck tells me. Lomneck, who’s known Adkins for several years through city commission meetings, says Adkins is running on issues he’s talked about for a long time. Lomneck is voting for the mayor.
One person glad to hear the news was Chris Atalski, president of Ocoee Professional Firefighters Local 3623. “He’s an advocate for the city of Ocoee. He has passion. He loves the city.” He’s known Adkins since becoming the union president in 2020.
“We were going to commission meetings, and he was getting on the podium at every meeting and holding the city accountable,” Atalski said. “He was an advocate for paramedic training; he wants all of us [fire fighters] to be paramedics. He showed up to our collective bargaining agreement negotiations and he’s come to other meetings we’ve had with the city that were public. It was good for all of us to see we had an advocate.”
Atalski added: “He wants Ocoee city employees to feel like they’re wanted. The first responders and the public safety and the waste management companies, any employee, he wants them to come to work and be happy. He believes a happy employee is a good employee.”
IT’S JUST A FEW DAYS AFTER Adkins’s video drops, and I’m hanging at the house with him and younger son Jett to find out why exactly Adkins wants to be mayor. Jett’s a senior at Ocoee High School, and at 9:30 on a Wednesday morning he should really be in third period. But Adkins asked him to stick around during our interview, so now the kid’s on dog patrol, making sure Wiggles doesn’t get too, well, wiggly.
All around us hang red tinselly Valentine’s Day decorations. “My wife loves to decorate,” Adkins says. “If you come in here on Christmas, we have like five trees, and it's like Christmas puked everywhere,” he laughs.
Adkins walks me and the not-to-be-left-behind Wiggles out to the backyard into what can only be described as a DIYer’s fantasy space. Campaign sign-making has taken over much of the real estate. But there’s a vegetable garden, a koi pond, an outdoor gym, an above-ground pool with the kind of slide I haven’t seen since I was a kid in the ‘70s. There’s also space for Adkins to tinker with his ’74 Volkswagen and his ’56 Chevy. A hanging sheet serves as a backdrop for campaign videos, flanked on one side by a plaster head atop a green body and a jacked-up red mini Jeep on the other.
“We’re kind of eclectic,” Adkins says. “We do our own thing.”
IT WOULD BE HARD TO OVERSTATE the importance of home to Adkins. It’s why we’re talking here, with his son and his pets in the background, in the same three-bedroom house off Silver Star Road that he bought in 2000 for $85,000 when he and his wife Cori were expecting their first child, Nash.
Adkins was homeless for much of his early life as he and his mom, a convicted felon who was just 16 when he was born, bounced around. He attended four high schools in as many years without graduating. (He earned his GED diploma from Westside Vocational-Technical Center in 2018.)
“I swung weed-eaters and dug ditches, I did whatever I could to get by,” he tells me. “I don’t need any sympathy for those things. It’s made me who I am.” He holds no grudge against his parents. “They were young,” he says philosophically. He tells me he forgives his mom, who died recently. But he promised himself that things would be different for his family. “I wasn’t going to repeat what I grew up around.”
Adkins is rooted here, now, the living embodiment of the kind of Horatio Alger mythos America thrives on: that with hard work and perseverance one can bootstrap their way up from poverty into middle-class security.
Adkins’s love of home extends to a deep love of Ocoee. The city changed the trajectory of Adkins’s life. After his mother cashed a stolen check for all that he had in his bank account, leaving him homeless once again, Ocoee is where he started over, staying for a while at his grandmother’s house. It’s where he parlayed an encounter at a West Oaks Mall shoe store into a corporate career. It’s where he met Cori and where they raised their family, sending both sons through Ocoee public schools.
In August, when the air conditioning was out for a few days at Ocoee High School, resulting in students getting sick from the summer heat, it was Adkins who spoke with a WFTV reporter to demand better from Orange County.
“Ocoee’s been a bright spot for me,” Adkins tells me.
ADKINS'S CAMPAIGN IS BORN OF A frustration that the current leaders haven’t always been good stewards, and the city that took care of him deserves better.
“I think it's time for some change,” Adkins says. “I tried to do it as a citizen working through the commission, as a citizen working through my commissioner. But you can only go back [to the commission] so many times, and it feels sometimes, like it just falls on deaf ears. So really the only way to make a difference is to do it yourself.
“You know nothing against the mayor, but sometimes I sit in the commission meetings and watch, and I feel almost sad for our community,” Adkins says. “He thinks everything's fine. He thinks everything's great. He thinks we've been doing it this way for 37 years. Why change it?”
Adkins characterized the downtown economy as mediocre to poor with businesses suffering. "We have businesses that are trying to survive down there, that are scratching, scrapping by."
Of course, the mayor’s role is limited since the city manager actually runs the city. The position pays a scant $4,500 a year. The mayor also must campaign citywide but only has a single vote on the commission equal to the other commissioners who only need to campaign in their district. Plus, the mayor can’t make motions to move legislation forward. Which has people asking, Why bother?
“I've had people go, Why don't you run for commission first? Well, I want to be the person in the middle who can come up with ways to get our commissioners to work together. I think the mayor, the one in the center, can do that if they’re a good leader. I believe I possess those attributes to be able to do that,” Adkins says.
Adkins’s signature campaign issue is transparency and accountability.
“As a city, we tend to lack that. And it's not just in one area.”
Adkins claims the city has not been transparent about abandoning the former City Hall, built in 1994, to build the new one two blocks away on the corner of McKey Street and Bluford Avenue — a project he opposed from the start. While he lost that fight, he believed the old City Hall still had some life left in it and could be repurposed as a dining and entertainment center to draw people downtown.
The old City Hall had foundation issues. By 2014 the building had sunk four to six inches into the ground as it settled. In 2014, the Observer reported that city officials knew in 2000 that the building had “major problems,” but quoted Public Works Director Steve Krug as saying the building was still “safe" and “structurally sound” and City Manager Robert Frank as saying that “Most of the sinking has occurred.” A $35,000 construction project “brought it back to where it should be, replaced the columns and repaired damage caused by the sinking of the building,” Frank said.
“So, we built a building with taxpayer funds that had problems within six years of being built,” Adkins says, referring to the old City hall. “As a taxpayer, I'm now being told [that] within 30 years of it being built, it needs to be destroyed. So, I asked, Well, who's accountable for that? I mean, the taxpayers just built a City Hall. Now we have two city halls we’ve paid for.
“I’m tying this back to Well, it’s fallen in [the lake]. False. The building is not condemned. It’s still habitable. It’s still usable. There’s additional work that could be done to shore it up even more. There’s no reason it would be deemed unsafe. There’s no reason it would have to be destroyed. This wasn’t a new problem. And it can be fixed. So the theory that we had to get out of City Hall because it was falling into the lake is just not true. It’s flat out not true.”
VoxPopuli checked with Ocoee’s city manager, who revised his assessment about the building.
“The 2014 work repaired some damage caused by the building sinking since it was built,” Frank wrote in an email to VoxPopuli. “It was recognized at that point that the building would likely continue to settle and would need to be addressed again, perhaps in a 5-10 year time frame. Staff have been monitoring the status of the settlement over the last 4 years and have confirmed the building continues to sink. The building official is of the opinion that anything other than casual, limited occupation cannot be allowed."
The City Commission approved demolition of the old City Hall at the Jan. 17 meeting.
THE OTHER ISSUE ADKINS HAS EMBRACED as part of his crusade for transparency and accountability is an independent operational audit for the city. Adkins spent two years as a corporate auditor at Genesco before starting his property management firm, Your Corporate Connection. He wants to implement a routine operational audit for the city. He is quick to say that he is not suggesting impropriety, only that it’s good practice for city officials and taxpayers to know how money is being spent. The city commission unanimously approved an audit in 2016 with a $50,000 budget, but never funded it.
“Six months later when I came back and asked them when we were going to start the audit. They said, We've decided not to do the audit because we didn't have enough funding. So I said, Well, when was the last time you guys have done any kind of operational audit? Oh, we do a CAFR audit [comprehensive annual financial report] every year.
“That type of audit is like the bare minimum the state requires. That's what the city of Ocoee does right now, the bare minimum. If I want to be productive as a community, I have to have checks and balances, and an audit would be part of that.”
Adkins is not the only one calling for an audit. His mayoral opponent, Commissioner Oliver, has repeatedly asked that the 2016 audit be done. In 2019, he called a press conference to bring attention to the failure to do the audit. At the Jan. 17 city commission meeting, District 1 Commissioner Larry Brinson also raised the issue, saying that he wanted an independent audit that went beyond the financials, which the city supplies to the state in its comprehensive annual reports.
“As a city we should be doing that,” Adkins says about an independent audit. “I would legislatively put in place that this type of audit happens every five or 10 years. That way, even after I'm gone, we see what we have to do. That’s what the mayor should be doing and the commission should be doing — putting things in place for people after they're gone too.”
To be clear, Adkins is talking about leaving office, not shuffling off this mortal coil. As much as he’d like to be mayor, he has no designs on becoming a career politician.
“I want to do my eight years, pass it on to the next person better than I left it. I don't want to be there eight years as a commissioner and eight years as a mayor and back to a commissioner. Who wants to be a politician for 37 years?”
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.