City manager, attorney to provide charter protocols to commission for review.
Comm. Lisa Bennett repeats her false accusation that Comm. Ron Mueller's emails "threatened to fire staff" at the Jan. 26, 2024, special meeting/workshop. VoxPopuli reviewed the emails. None threaten staff with termination.
UPDATED Jan. 30, 2024 to reflect city manager comments.
In a special meeting/workshop Friday that sounded like a forfeiture hearing, even as the city attorney continually reminded officials that it was not, in fact, a forfeiture hearing, the Winter Garden commission voted unanimously to end its five-month pursuit of a forfeiture hearing against Commissioner Ron Mueller for alleged violations of the city charter.
The District 2 commissioner, currently running for re-election, is alleged to have violated Article II, sections 14.1 and 14.2 of the city charter. Those sections state that commission members are not to "control, demand, direct, or request the appointment or removal" of city employees, nor are they permitted to "give orders" to employees but rather must “deal with” staff "solely through the city manager.”
[In response to a question from District 3 Commissioner Mark Maciel, City Attorney Kurt Ardaman stated unequivocally that there are no Sunshine Law violations, as has been erroneously reported in other media.]
After much discussion and some word-smithing assistance from Ardaman, Maciel, and District 4 Commissioner Colin Sharman, District 1 Commissioner Lisa Bennett made a motion, stating that the commission had received “copies of emails that rose to the level of forfeiture” but that no hearing would be held. The motion also directed the city manager and attorney to return to the commission with charter protocols to prevent a situation “like this” from occurring again.
“I think you’ve disposed of it,” said Ardaman, referring to the forfeiture hearing.
Following the meeting, Maciel told VoxPopuli via text, “I’m happy it’s behind us and satisfied with the outcome. I’m hoping, as professionals, we never again have cause to revisit an issue such as this.”
Sharman was equally satisfied, telling VoxPopuli in a phone interview, that he thought the “outcome was a fair” and it was “the right thing to do.”
“I would have liked to have had a longer discussion on moving forward for future commissions because that’s always been my thing. This isn’t just about one person. It’s about setting the rules so they’re clear,” Sharman continued. “Weighing what I saw in the emails, it was a lot of gray, so I think the outcome was fair.”
Sharman added that he had been hoping to hear some acceptance of responsibility and an apology from Mueller. “I wish he would have just said, Hey, I was in the wrong. I need to do something different going forward. I just hope he realizes that.”
City Manager Jon Williams talks about staff perception of commissioners' communications.
Bait and switch?
Those who have been following this story may recall that disposing of the forfeiture hearing was not the stated goal of Friday’s gathering. Indeed, when commissioners voted unanimously at the Jan. 11 city commission meeting to table the forfeiture hearing in favor of a workshop on Jan. 18, the premise was to better understand the language of the charter.
In suggesting that idea, Ardaman had specifically emphasized that the workshop should not “target” Mueller but concentrate on building “consensus” on what certain phrases in the charter, such as dealing with, mean when it comes to staff interaction.
“Our charter is pretty broad,” Ardaman said at the time.
“It should surprise no one when politicians change the game,” government law expert Clifford Shepard, founding partner of the Maitland firm Shepard, Smith, Kohlmyer and Hand, noted in a phone interview.
The Jan. 18 workshop was ultimately cancelled. The reason provided was that Mayor John Rees was ill. When the workshop was rescheduled for Jan. 26, it was noticed as a “special meeting/workshop.”
The difference between a special meeting and a workshop, Shepard explained, is more a practical distinction than a legal one. He said that “typically” cities observe a “self-imposed” practice that decisions are made in meetings, but not in workshops — although Bennett initiated the forfeiture hearing investigation with a motion at the city’s September Ethics Workshop. However, requesting a special meeting is an indication that some city business is anticipated, Shepard said.
It requires either the mayor or two commissioners to request a special meeting, according to Ardaman. City Manager Jon Williams said the “special meeting” was his suggestion.
"The meeting that was ultimately cancelled on the 18th was also scheduled as a special meeting workshop," he wrote in a Monday email to VoxPopuli. "Given the fact that the Commission has taken action previously (Ethics Workshop), I suspected that they may want to take action and recommended to the Mayor that we advertise as a special meeting and workshop."
"Not a forfeiture hearing"
On Jan. 26, handouts about the city charter at the commission chambers’ door indicate that the charter was at least intended to be a topic of discussion. But as soon as commissioners had the floor, the meeting's original premise was abandoned.
Bennett, who had questioned the workshop as a viable “alternative to the consequences for violating the charter,” even as she voted for it Jan. 11, brandished a binder she said contained Mueller’s emails and reiterated her false statement that he had “threatened to fire people.”
[VoxPopuli reviewed the same collection of emails commissioners received and found none that threatened staff with termination.]
Bennett made her first motion: that Mueller be found guilty of violating the charter — without the benefit of a hearing with legal representation — and given a “one-time warning” in lieu of forfeiture. That motion was a nonstarter, but it set the tone for the remainder of the 45-minute meeting.
Comm. Ron Mueller comments that one of the rules for the meeting was that it wasn't to be about Ron Mueller.
The mayor, who had openly contemplated holding a hearing without legal counsel for Mueller and the city, offered his own commentary.
Rees had said during the Jan. 11 meeting that it wasn't threats to fire staff but the "tremendous amount" of email he found troubling. “I guess what I’m looking at is, I was told by a previous city manager that he had asked Ron not to do this any more,” Rees reiterated Friday. “I was told that our current city manager had done that. Then there was an email that said, Please do not continue to send emails to staff and copy the city manager, and he continued on after that.”
At this point, Ardaman jumped in, reminding the mayor and commissioners, “The charter does not allow for a hearing without a 14-day notice, and this is not a hearing to consider forfeiture of office.”
More than once Ardaman said that this was not a forfeiture hearing.
For forfeiture to occur, at least three commissioners need to vote to vacate, regardless of the violations. Maciel had stated he would not participate in a hearing unless Mueller had legal counsel. Sharman said he would reserve his decision until after the workshop.
The only comment Mueller made during the proceedings was to express disappointment that the morning meeting had not gone as commissioners had committed to run it.
“One of the first rules that we established for this workshop was that this workshop was not about Ron Mueller. It was about the charter. How we interpret it. How we move forward with the charter. Regrettably, Commissioner Bennett didn’t follow those rules. She decided to pull out things and make motions,” he said while Bennett, in the chair next to him, smirked. “That’s not what we were here to do today. We had that agreement. We spoke on that publicly.”
Mueller said he had hoped the meeting would have addressed the steps that could be taken before someone is terminated as corporate human resources departments do. He was also looking for a definition of “the vague nature of dealing with” in terms of staff.
“In the broadest sense of the term, each and every one of us over our careers are guilty of dealing with city staff. What are the boundaries of that?”
Bennett did not respond to a VoxPopuli email asking if she deviated from the agreed-on meeting format because she was just determined to hold Mueller accountable for what she perceived as violations. She had made no secret of her frustration with Mueller’s inability to secure legal representation, which had served to prolong the process. Her original complaint was made Aug. 10.
Even as Maciel argued on Jan. 11, that there was no longer time for a hearing before the March 19 election, Bennett pushed for a hearing “the sooner, the better, so we can have it resolved." She maintained Mueller had had “more than adequate time” to secure legal representation “whether or not one chooses to pick up the case.”
Bennett gave no indication during the special meeting/workshop why she was suddenly wiling to trade the forfeiture hearing she had been pursuing since August for a "one-time warning," provided the commission found Mueller guilty of violating the charter. She did not respond to emailed questions.
Ultimately both the warning and guilty verdict were dropped from the motion. Asked by Sharman to re-state the motion, Ardaman quietly omitted them. As the motion moved forward into its final form, all that was remained were emails that “rose to the level of possible forfeiture,” a commitment not to hold a hearing, and direction to the city manager and attorney to bring clarity to sections of the charter with vague language.
Commissioners work out the final motion to avoid a forfeiture hearing. It passes unanimously.
“So, we’re okay?” Rees asked.
“I think it’s a little close,” Ardaman admitted. “But given that it’s not a forfeiture, and it’s confirmation that it will not be used in any subsequent proceeding for a forfeiture, I think you’re probably okay to go forward with that.”
Reached by phone Sunday, Mueller said, "I'm happy that the commission saw through this political stunt and has put this to rest. It's been obvious since the beginning that Commisioner Bennett had an axe to grind because her best friend didn't get elected in 2021, and she's pulled out all the stops in trying to defame my character when I've been a good and loyal public servant, just to get her friend elected."
In what little meeting time was devoted to charter examination, Maciel made a case for new commissioner orientations and extra trainings while Sharman asked about available remedies — apart from forfeiture — for handling future commissioner missteps. Jokingly, he wondered if he could compel Mueller to write I will not go around the city manager 1,000 times on a chalkboard. That got a laugh, and Ardaman replied that the commission had no authority to impose any penalties, but added the charter also didn’t prohibit commissioners from other actions, such as issuing warnings or censure.
Commissioners appeared interested in drafting clarifying amendments to empower the commission to handle elected officials' misbehavior that would then go before the voters. Residents can watch for those in the future.