‘Blatant Collusion’ Question Frays City-Chamber Relationship
by Anne Mooney / February 12, 2021
The Commission met Feb. 11 to discuss the deteriorating relationship between the City of Winter Park and the Winter Park Chamber of Commerce. The special meeting was necessary because a public meeting is the only way Commissioners can speak with one another to air opinions and exchange views.
At issue was a question posed at the Chamber-sponsored Feb. 5 debate between mayoral candidates that accused Commissioners of “blatant collusion” on a vote on the Henderson Hotel project, a vote that never took place.
The debate question in its entirety reads as follows.
“It was dismaying to see the members of the city commission blatantly colluding to spike the Henderson project, which was approved by P&Z [Planning & Zoning] and was supported by the residents of Winter Park three to one over those opposing the project. As mayor, how would you ensure the commission enacts the wishes of the majority of WP residents, not just the agenda of an entitled few?”
Anderson campaign & Chamber issue joint statement
After a tense exchange between Chamber President Betsy Gardner Eckbert and mayoral candidate former Commissioner Phil Anderson about the propriety of the question, the Anderson campaign and the Chamber issued a joint statement that the two parties had “come to terms with the matter and look forward to placing it behind us in an effort to bring our community together.”
While that might have taken care of the issue for the Chamber and the Anderson campaign, the question was still circulating digitally through the community and the integrity of the sitting Commissioners continued to be impugned.
Commissioners want an apology
Commissioners Todd Weaver, Marty Sullivan and Sheila DeCiccio met in person Thursday afternoon to discuss the matter. Commissioner Carolyn Cooper participated remotely by phone later in the meeting. Mayor Leary was absent.
Commissioners expressed their desire to mend the rift between the Chamber and the Commission and to find an easier, more productive way to work together, while acknowledging that the missions of the Commission and the Chamber differ in several important respects.
Commission & Chamber Board should meet – soon
Commissioners agreed that a meeting between the Commission and the Chamber Board of Directors to address the issue should be scheduled as soon as possible. Commissioners also made clear an apology for the “blatant collusion” question was in order and would go a long way to calm troubled waters.
Allegations of collusion are defamatory
“That question was reviewed and allowed by the Chamber,” said Commissioner Sheila DeCiccio. “Such spurious and toxic allegations are, at their worst, defamation per se; and at the least, they are highly unprofessional and inappropriate. They have no place in a political debate.”
“Therefore,” DeCiccio continued, “the Chamber is complicit in staging the question, and the Commissioners deserve an apology for the baseless, false implication of collusion. Indeed, the people of Winter Park deserve an apology for having their Commissioners impugned.”
What obligation did Chamber have to vet debate questions?
Representing the Chamber was attorney Derek Bruce, who stated that he had advised Ms. Gardner-Eckbert not to speak and that he would speak on behalf of the Chamber.
‘Secret’ or ‘Brazen’?
Derek Bruce kicked off his remarks by noting that collusion is defined as a ‘secret agreement for fraudulent or unlawful purposes,’ but that the word blatant refers to something that is ‘brazenly obvious.’ He continued round the barn to explain that if a thing is blatant [obvious], it can’t really be collusion [secret]. Mr. Bruce conceded that reasonable people could disagree whether that question was appropriate, but he went on to dismiss it as “just two words in a question,” and not worth all the time and resources being spent on it.
No apology from the Chamber
When DeCiccio’s asked, “Is it your position that the Chamber has no responsibility to offer the Commission an apology for the question?” Bruce stated he had “not been authorized to issue an apology at this time.” When DeCiccio followed up with, “Is it your position that the Chamber has no responsibility to vet the questions in the debate?” Bruce avoided answering the question.
‘Hot Mic’ Moment
At this point, Vice-mayor Carolyn Cooper joined the meeting remotely by phone to object to the way the meeting was going, to the amount of time that had been allotted to Mr. Bruce, and to Mr. Bruce’s refusal to acknowledge that there was anything wrong with the “blatant collusion” question. Cooper, who broke into the conversation with the word ‘stupid’ later clarified that her interjection was intentional.
“Of course there was a problem with it,” said Cooper. “The question as presented accused this Commission of an illegal act. . . . The League of Women Voters has been doing [debates] for years, and they are very diligent about making sure no inappropriate questions are asked. I believe the Chamber has the same responsibility.“
City Attorney supports defamation claim, confirms question is not ‘protected speech’
At Cooper’s request, City Attorney Kurt Ardeman stated that he felt Commissioner DeCiccio’s recitation of the law was correct. “The law is pretty clear,” said Ardeman, “that when a writer publishes a defamatory falsehood with the knowledge that it was false, or with reckless disregard as to whether it was true or false, it is a defamatory statement. Now, you each are elected officials, and the bar is high; however as individuals you are protected against defamatory speech.”
Ardeman advised Commissioners to pursue meeting with the Chamber Board of Directors to reach some resolution and, if possible, to avoid any more back-and-forth between lawyers.
Commissioner Weaver asked Mr. Bruce if the Chamber would take down the debate video that was, at that time, playing on a continuous loop at the Mayflower. Mr. Bruce explained the video had been uploaded to Facebook and he didn’t know if it could be edited or taken down.
As of this writing the debate video is featured prominently on the Chamber website with the disclaimer, “The moderated portion of this forum includes questions from the public, and the views expressed by the public do not reflect the views of the Chamber of Commerce.” The disclaimer makes no promise of impartiality nor does it include an apology.