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Winter Garden lacks opponents, cancels municipal election

Updated: Jan 29, 2023

Unopposed, both Mayor John Rees and District 1 Commissioner Lisa Bennett, are automatically re-seated. Ballot measure to grant the city manager the freedom to choose where to live is withdrawn.

This story has been updated to reflect the city commission's unanimous Jan. 12 vote to withdraw a proposed ballot measure to repeal the requirement for the city manager to relocate to Winter Garden within 90 days of accepting the city manager position.

Winter Garden’s qualifying period for mayor and District 1 city commissioner closed at noon Tuesday with only Mayor John Rees, seeking a sixth term, and Commissioner Lisa Bennett, seeking her third, filing candidacy paperwork to run, according to City Clerk Angela Grimmage. Neither had an opponent, so both are automatically re-elected, and no election will be held.

Terms are four years, and there are no term limits. Rees draws an annual salary of $12,000 as mayor while Bennett earns $7,200. They also receive life and health insurance benefits with dental and vision care.

Candidates for office are required to be residents of the city and the district they represent for at least a year. They must pay a filing fee of $135 for mayor and $87 for commissioner.

Without an election, it was unclear what the next step would be for the charter amendment to repeal the mandate that the city manager relocate to Winter Garden within 90 days of accepting the position if he/she isn't a resident. City manager, Jon Williams, who was promoted from assistant city manager in March 2022, lives with his family in unincorporated New Smyrna Beach, 67 miles from Winter Garden. In April, the city commission extended an allowable grace period and voted to put a measure repealing the residency requirement on the March 14 ballot.

The amendment had been slated for a second reading at Thursday's city commission meeting, but as soon as the ordinance came up on the agenda, Rees advised shelving it, saying that without an election, "we would be wasting our time, energy and money" to open the polls for a single ballot question. "I don't know what the turnout would be but it would be very, very small," he said.

District 2 Commissioner Ron Mueller made a motion to withdraw the ordinance, which was unanimously approved. The commissioners informally agreed to continue extending the grace period as they see fit.

"It's a cheap way out if he does something wrong," joked Colin Sharman, commissioner for District 4, as Williams laughed.

Bennett, 59, a realtor for Windsor Realty Group, beat a crowded field in 2017, and then handily won re-election in 2020 against longtime Winter Garden resident and VoxPopuli board member Joseph Richardson. She sought another term because there were matters that she still wanted to address, but she told VoxPopuli in an interview last week that this will “most probably” be her last term on the commission.

“I’m very passionate about my city. I was born and raised here. I feel that there are still things I can accomplish in another term, so I thought I would give it another go for four years,” she said.

She added that one of her key priorities is to look for ways to “tweak the current code to save our charm,” she said.

“I think it’s important that we don’t become like every other popular city, that we are true to what makes us special. Part of that is maybe not bulldozing all the older homes if possible,” she said. “I’d like to see some incentives for saving them and rehabbing them if possible. I'd like to see that we’re protecting our legacy oaks and big oak trees. In my district it’s more of a problem than the other districts because you have more individual investors looking to purchase here and not big developments because there’s not land really available.”

Reached at his home, Rees refused to respond to questions from VoxPopuli, saying that he didn’t like the “way you do things in Winter Garden,” and shut the door.

This is not the first time Rees has refused to answer VoxPopuli questions. In December, he dodged questions about the city’s lack of marketing support for Chabad of South Orlando’s Chanukah Celebration while simultaneously promoting Light Up Winter Garden, sponsored by the West Orange Ministerial Association.

Called by some “the humble mayor,” Rees, 74, represented District 1 as city commissioner from 1986 to 2004 before winning the mayor’s gavel in 2008 from Jack Quesinberry who had held it for 16 years. The last time Rees, the now-retired president and COO of Silver Spring Citrus who holds a BA from the University of Florida and a masters from Rollins College, had a challenger was 2014.

Rees made some brief comments about being re-seated after the uncontested election, thanking the community, city staff, God and his wife.

"It's a lot on you. It's a lot of responsibility for all of us up here," Rees said at the close of the Jan. 12 city commission meeting, the first of the new year. " I just want to thank our staff, thank our city manager, thank this commission, because that's what makes this job what it is. And the people and employees of Winter Garden, so thank you very much."


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