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Winter Garden Mayor slams Mueller for false, misleading statements in election campaign

Rees denies financial relationship with Ramos family.

Mayor John Rees (second from right), said he has no financial ties to the Ramos family, owners of the construction firm Empire Finish Systems. Iliana R. Jones, company co-owner, endorsed by Rees, is running for the District 2 seat.

A quietly irate John Rees, mayor of Winter Garden, Thursday excoriated District 2 Commissioner Ron Mueller for making what he said were “not true” statements as he campaigns for re-election. 

Mueller is being challenged for his seat by Iliana R. Jones, co-owner of the construction company Empire Finish Systems, whom he bested in 2021, and fresh new political voice Danny “DJ” Culberson. Election Day is March 19. Early voting continues through 6 p.m. Sunday, March 17; check our Election Guide for locations.  

Rees, 74, made his statements at the end of the city commission meeting. He said he’d “never quite seen the campaign literature that I have witnessed the last few weeks.” He singled out Florida Back the Blue’s anti-Mueller ads for being “nasty” and said he hoped none of the candidates were behind them. Florida Back the Blue is also operating in the Ocoee District 4 special election, where it’s established a pop-up website with negative information on candidate George Oliver III, as it did when Oliver ran for mayor in 2023. 

[Editor's Note: Florida Back the Blue's anti-Mueller campaign is largely based on the binder of emails, which Commissioner Lisa Bennett has falsely claimed contains emails showing that Mueller directly threatened to fire city staff, along with information sent by former Commissioner Bob Buchanan to current commissioners. Both are Jones supporters.]

But Rees wanted to address the items that he said residents have approached him about during this election season.

“I have had more people email me, text me, call me and come to my house on things that they’ve received and things that they have read than I have ever in any campaign,” he said, holding a sheaf of papers in his hand.  

Rees started with something personal that appeared in the Orange Observer. He read: 

In my re-election, the endorsements from John Rees and Lisa Bennett are predictable given their extensive business relationship with the Ramos family, from which they stand to gain financially if their preferred candidates win. It’s disheartening to see board members willing to trade their endorsements for personal gain. 

Commissioner Ron Mueller and Iliana R. Jones, campaigning for the District 2 seat.

"Ron —” Rees said, “if you have any proof on that, documentation on that, then bring it forward. If you don’t, then I think you need to admit that this is not a true statement. Period. This is what our Observer friend said that you said. I didn’t even know what the Ramos family did till I was in Jon’s [Williams, city manager] office a couple weeks ago and we looked it up. 

“I’ve not gotten anything from them and nobody’s had neither. Not one penny. So if you have anything on that, I suggest you bring that forward because I don’t appreciate it.”

Mueller was silent. 

The mayor then lambasted Mueller for claiming to be the sole commissioner to “speak out against” OCPS’s proposed school bus depot in Historic East Winter Garden, and the only commissioner to “take action on a problematic intersection” and to not be a large land owner or connected with the building industry or real estate. [Commissioner Colin Sharman works for the air-conditioning firm Trane.]

Rees said he was “confused” by Mueller’s claim that he had "secured $25 million for the new Tucker Ranch, leveraging $13 million in corporate donations.” Rees said the city used “around $14 million” in ARPA money (American Rescue Plan Act), that Healthy West Orange donated $6 million in 2020 and Advent [Health], which he said the city had been talking with for “several years,” came up with $2 million.”

“If I’m saying anything wrong or anything incorrect or mis-giving (sic) facts, I would appreciate if you would stop me, correct me and I will apologize and move forward,” Rees said to the other commissioners and city staff in the commission chambers. 

The mayor spoke for 10 minutes, enumerating misstatements of fact and credit claimed for projects that were begun before Mueller was on the commission, undertaken by city staff or approved by the commission as a whole — such as Winter Garden Fire Department transporting patients to hospitals via ambulance; decisions about the millage rate; securing additional lands and corporate funding for parks; erasing liens and penalties for residents. 

There is no love lost between Rees and Mueller. Rees actively worked against Mueller during the city commission meetings in which the possibility of a forfeiture hearing was discussed — even contemplating holding a hearing without Mueller’s having the benefit of legal counsel. 

Rees has also enthusiastically endorsed Mueller’s opponent. In this nonpartisan race, graphics touting his affiliation with the Republican Party that state, “Republican Mayor John Rees … supporting Iliana R. Jones-the conservative- for City Commission Dist2” have been texted to Republican voters. 

But Rees told those at Thursday's commission meeting that he “lay awake a long time last night thinking about this,” and chose to speak to recognize the city staff’s contributions.  

“To read this, I just don’t know how that makes them feel because they make our job so much easier because of the wonderful job they do," he said, referring to the campaign materials people have been sharing with him. " One person cannot do anything. It takes three votes on the city commission. I think we need to make it public and say thank you staff, thank you to our city commission for what you do. It takes all of us working together.” 

VoxPopuli reached out to Mueller for comment but has not yet heard back. We will update the story when we do. 


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