Who the heck is Matthew Bunevich?
And why is he running for Oakland Town Commissioner?
Really, this whole running for Oakland Town Commission thing started as a kind of a joke. Actually, more like a challenge. The kind a husband gets from his wife when she is just about over hearing him complain about something for the ninety-thousandth time.
And the thing that Matthew Bunevich, 35, had been complaining about since moving from College Park into the Longleaf at Oakland community in 2020 was having to pay the water bill. At Town Hall. In person. In cash.
“I don’t have checks, so we’d have to go to the bank to get cash. Then you need exact change because they don’t give change,” says Bunevich. “It started as a joke: I’m going to run for Town Commission to fix that. Then my wife challenged me to really do something about it.”
You know what they say: Behind every good man is a woman telling him to put up or shut up.
So here we are. It’s about a month after Bunevich qualified to run in Oakland’s March 8 election for Seat 1 on the town commission. Bunevich — "Matt's fine" — and I are chilling in the breezeway between Axum and Urban Flats on Plant Street in downtown Winter Garden. We’d planned to meet up at Prairie House Coffee. You know, Oakland candidate, Oakland coffee house. Perfect for a profile of the guy who’s making Oakland dust off its election machinery for the first time in 16 years. But the coffee house had already closed by our interview time, so we’re drinking Axum-brewed beverages instead. His two cell phones rest on the table. One, he tells me, is for personal use; the other is for company business because he doesn’t want 7-Eleven, where he’s a liaison between the corporation and franchise owners, to have his home number.
Bunevich is a laid back “you do you, I’ll do me” kind of guy. He’s shown up to our interview in backyard-barbecue chic — cuffed tan jeans and a black cocktail shirt festooned with colored umbrellas. He peppers his conversation with references to his wife, Megan. He dislikes social media. He likes building bikes. He shows me pictures of the one he’s building now so he can take his six-month-old cycling. He’s got some cool ink.
A University of Central Florida graduate, Bunevich grew up in Tampa, in the Town ’n’ Country area near the airport that he describes as “not affluent; not un-affluent.” His mother, Sue Bunevich, was a partner in an accounting firm. His late father, Thomas Bunevich, owned baseball card shops and ran special events for the Tampa Tribune. If Matt Bunevich has a creed, it’s something his dad always told him: Do what’s best for the most. “That stuck with me,” he says.
Bunevich volunteers that “economically I lean to the right, and socially I’m more like a Millennial. Your business is your business.” He says he has attention deficit disorder, for which he takes medication. I ask him if that’s something he wants in the article. He says, “I don’t shy away from that. The one thing I can say about me is I’m me. I’m wearing what I wear. I know who I am. I’m not going to shy away from me.”
SHAKING UP THE STATUS QUO
Oakland hasn’t had an election for Town Commission since 2006 when Ramona Phipps beat Sam Carr for Seat 1. That year 308 votes were cast. Phipps won by 66. Even Bunevich’s opponent, Commissioner Rick Polland, was never actually elected. When Phipps resigned in 2012, citing “too many projects,” according to the minutes of the Dec. 11, 2012 meeting when she stepped down, Polland was appointed by the commission to fill out her term. He then ran unopposed in 2014 and in 2018.
So this is a historic moment for Oakland. A BFD. And win, lose or draw, Bunevich has already made a difference, shaken up the status quo, just by tossing his proverbial hat in the ring.
Bunevich may have gotten into the race as a bit of a lark — his mom says he flipped a coin to decide which seat to run for — but he has a lot of ideas. And concerns.
[Matthew Bunevich will join Commissioner Rick Polland for a discussion of Oakland issues at the Empire Finish Systems VoxPopuli Candidates Forum, Feb. 28, 7-8 p.m. at the Oakland Meeting Hall. For Zoom access information, visit www.wintergardenvox.com/OaklandElection2022.]
Like many in Oakland, he is troubled by the impact too many apartment buildings could have on the town’s future.
“One of the reasons I’m interested in getting involved now is because I know the apartment complex at the end of Oakland Ave. It dwarfs my neighborhood,” Bunevich says. “I want to make sure we’re thinking about the 15-year run-rate. Apartments are businesses. How do we make sure we allow the right businesses, with apartment complexes coming in, to prevent the town from being hurt over the long term?”
(Oakland stopped accepting applications for multi-family projects in December, and the commission is set to hear a second reading to institute a 180-day moratorium on such developments.)
Bunevich is also interested in Oakland’s irrigation problems. He floats an idea for tapping Lake Apopka to help reduce the town’s reliance on drinking water for irrigation, which, according to a spokesperson at St. Johns River Water Management District, is not completely far-fetched.
"My dad told me, Do what's best for the most. That stuck with me." — Matthew Bunevich
Top of mind, though, is bringing together newer residents — Move-Ins, he calls them — and the people who’ve lived in Oakland for years.
“How can we get more people in the community together to do things?” he asks. "The newer Move-Ins seem to be a little younger. Getting them involved with the people who’ve lived here their whole lives, finding a way to bridge that gap is important. Having something that everyone feels invested in in the community is important,” he says.
When neighbors his age talk about going out, they're heading to downtown Clermont or downtown Winter Garden, Bunevich says. He’d like to see Oakland produce events to entice people his age to go out in Oakland.
“I was looking for things to do in Oakland recently, and there was a singer at the Heritage Center at 3 o’clock on a Friday. I don’t know how many people can get away at 3 p.m. on Friday. Maybe 5 p.m. on a Friday.”
Bunevich tosses out an idea for a food truck night. It’s hardly revolutionary. Before Covid and construction on its new city hall, Ocoee hosted food trucks at Bill Breeze Park. Windermere has one on the fourth Friday of the month.
“It’s very popular,” Bunevich says enthusiastically. “We have the ability to be that kind of place on a Thursday or Friday night once a month. We don’t have to compete with the [Winter Garden] Farmers Market on Saturdays. We can find our own niche. Bringing people to the center of the community without bringing costs in is something I’m hoping to do.”
But Bunevich argues that how residents learn about events may be just as important as the event itself. The medium, to quote Marshall McLuan, is the message.
“We have a generation that would do things. But are we reaching the guys my age going, What do we do tonight?”
Bunevich says Millennials prefer apps with push notifications to email that can get buried in a sea of spam. “I read, maybe, 1 of every 15 emails because I get so many junk emails. It’s hard to sift through that information. So can I get an app going where I can get delivery notifications? That’s something everybody should be aware of building. Oakland has to evolve a little bit. You’ve got to keep up with the times.”
A DESIRE TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE
People generally don’t run for town commission unless they feel called to serve and are passionate about making their corner of the world better than they found it. It’s certainly not for the money. For their service, Oakland town commissioners earn $599 a year. That wouldn’t cover a daily latte at Starbucks.
“The town getting better and people’s lives getting better is what I want.” — Matthew Bunevich
When I ask Bunevich’s wife Megan what she thinks about his candidacy, she busts out laughing. “Honestly, I was not surprised,” she says as she walks their rescue dachshund around their neighborhood. “He has always wanted to do something like this, and he just never had a good opportunity to pursue it. He wants to make change. He wants to be effective in that way.”
Sue, Matt’s mom, says she saw her son’s desire to be of service even when he was a child. She tells me about his time at the Boys and Girls Club when he was in elementary school. “They called him The Mayor and they made him a little trophy. He was worried about everybody and how to make it a better place for all the kids to come and play and do their individual things more than one group taking over.”
Sue says it was really in high school when he joined the Junior ROTC, which Bunevich himself credits with teaching him leadership skills, that he really came into his own.
“He did everything that was necessary, whether it was computer work, ordering the uniforms, organizing this or cleaning up after that, or just being there to provide the opportunities to make it a good place other kids wanted to be,” she recalls. “He loves to encourage others to do more than they think they can.”
Megan says even now she’ll find him talking on the phone to franchisees he worked with long after he’s been rotated to a whole new group of store owners. “They’re like Hey, what do you think I should do about this? It’s like why don’t you call your own guy?” she says. “But they don’t do things for them the way Matt does.”
“From a young age, I realized that watching other people succeed is where I get my best joy,” says Bunevich. “The town getting better and people’s lives getting better is what I want.”
ELECTION? WHAT ELECTION?
On Super Bowl Sunday, I take a stroll through Longleaf at Oakland to see what residents there think of their neighbor running for town commissioner.
Most of the residents I end up talking with are unaware that there’s an upcoming election, let alone that one of their own is on the ballot. I spot, a “Keep Rick Polland for Oakland Town Commission” sign on one lawn, however. No one came to the door when I rang the bell.
I did find Patrick Strong at home. Strong, who’s lived in the Winter Garden area for 18 to 20 years and in the Longleaf neighborhood for two, says he doesn’t know Bunevich, but he’s “Impressed that someone’s getting involved.”
A little while later, I encounter a couple that declines to give their names but say while they haven’t heard of Bunevich, “all things being equal, we would love to have one of our neighbors be commissioner.”
Ashley, who’s cleaning her entryway with one of those telescoping feather dusters, knows there’s an election coming up, but has no idea who Bunevich is. “I got my ballot in the mail and a letter from, I believe, the incumbent,” she says. She did not want to give her last name.
Megan says their “immediate circle” knows her husband is running, but admits that while she’s been talking up his campaign, “he does have some work to do” in terms of getting out and meeting voters. “He’s pledged to go out and be more visible,” she says.
Oakland's election will be held March 8. Early voting runs Feb. 28 through March 4, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the Orange County Supervisor of Elections Office, 119 W. Kaley St. The LAST DAY to request a mail-in ballot to be sent to you is Feb. 26.