Minors told police campaign treasurer offered them $50 for 50 of opponent’s signs

Minors told police campaign treasurer offered them $50 for 50 of opponent’s signs

Minors told police campaign treasurer offered them $50 for 50 of opponent's signs

The campaign treasurer for Craig Russell denied he had any involvement in the incident in an interview with detectives detailed in newly released records

May 11, 2024

By Beth Kassab

Newly released police records provide more details of the allegations that teenagers were offered money to steal campaign signs, leading to three misdemeanor charges against Christopher Hoats, campaign treasurer for Commissioner Craig Russell.

Four minors interviewed separately by Winter Park Police provided consistent accounts of what happened, police said. Two of the boys identified Hoats from a photo line-up and said he was the person who approached them on March 21 as they were skateboarding outside Floyd’s Barbershop in Maitland. The boys said Hoats offered to pay them $50 to steal 50 of Jason Johnson’s campaign signs, according to the document.

The incident occurred as Johnson and Russell were two days into a heated runoff contest for Seat 2 on the City Commission.

Three misdemeanor charges against Hoats — two counts of contributing to the dependency or delinquency of a minor and one count of petit theft — were made public for the first time last week after Hoats was issued a summons to appear in the case.

Hoats did not respond to messages seeking comment from the Voice. Russell, who did not respond to messages seeking comment, released a statement to the Orlando Sentinel last week that said he is “deeply concerned” about the allegations and noted that his campaign has not been accused of any wrongdoing. 

One of the boys, who was interviewed by police at his school on March 29, told the detectives that the man said he “was going to pay me to steal signs in Winter Park,” according to a capias request, which details probable cause in the case for the State Attorney.

“The man told us to steal these signs that had Jason Johnson on the signs,” the boy said. ” It was for a city election if I’m not mistaken. He told us the other candidate was stealing his signs so he ran out from the barbershop and asked if we were willing to steal signs for some cash.”

Two boys identified Hoats from a photo lineup, according to the document.

They also told police the man gave them his Instagram account and showed the account to police.

On April 2, police also obtained video footage from the barbershop and observed Hoats at the business on March 21 and also verified with employees that he had a haircut scheduled for that day.

The report goes on to say that detectives went to Winter Park High School, where Hoats helps coach football, in an attempt to talk with Hoats, but learned he is not a teacher and was not at the school.

Police then arranged to meet Hoats at the police department on the afternoon of April 2.

According to the report, Hoats told police he coaches high school football and did not recall any juveniles who were skateboarding. Later he said he recalled speaking with kids outside the barbershop and “immediately stated that he spoke to the juveniles about a local city election.”

He asked the kids who they were voting for and who their parents are voting for, the report stated.

“He stated they were younger; and that it was a ‘harmless conversation,” according to the report, and asked police if the kids were “stealing campaign yard signs.” Police noted that they had not mentioned “campaign signs” to Hoats, only “signs.”

Police asked Hoats why he would want to follow someone he did not know on Instagram after he noted one of the boys sent him his Instagram profile.

“Yeah to tell them who to vote for, who not to vote for, this is who we’re going up against, this is our competition,” Hoats responded, according to the report.

Hoats told police he did not encourage the kids to steal signs and was not a “kingpin” and “that no one asked him to have the signs stolen, he only informed the juveniles not to vote for Jason Johnson and to vote for Craig Russell.”

“Here’s the good guys, here’s the bad guys,” Hoats said, according to the report, and denied offering the kids $1 for every sign they stole.

The report goes on to describe how police arrived at Winter Park High School on April 8, eight days before the runoff election, in an attempt to talk with the candidate, Russell. The school resource officer took police to the gym and football coach’s office, but they learned Russell was not there.

Police later arranged to speak with Russell at his house and he told them that he contacted Hoats to tell him police had been at the school looking to speak with him.

Russell told police that “when he began the campaign he had little knowledge about the political makeup of the city and how involved people were, or the extent people would go to to make things up,” according to the report.

Russell also told police that he gave his campaign volunteers rules and told them not to touch the signs of his opponent.

“Mr. Russell further stated he did not have time to conspire to get kids to take signs,” the report stated.

Russell told police that Hoats served as his campaign treasurer but had asked Hoats to step away during the runoff portion of the campaign because Hoats had become too busy.

“Craig Russell repeatedly stated there was no way Christopher Hoats would have sent the juveniles to take the signs, and believed his opponent’s supporters were involved with this incident,” the report stated. “… He found it suspicious this occured after he won the general election.”

Russell won the April 16 election by 34 votes and was sworn in on April 24.

Winter Park Police concluded there was enough evidence to turn the case over to the state attorney, though the date that occured is unclear from the records.

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Russell responds to allegations against treasurer

Russell responds to allegations against treasurer

Russell responds to allegations against treasurer

The new city commissioner told a newspaper he is ‘committed to upholding ethical and legal obligations’

May 10, 2024

By Beth Kassab

Craig Russell said Friday that he is “deeply concerned” about allegations against his campaign treasurer, Christopher Hoats, who he called a “good friend and fellow educator.”

Three misdemeanor charges against Hoats became public this week when he was issued a summons to appear on two counts of contributing to the dependency or delinquency of a minor and one count of petit theft related to soliciting minors to “steal campaign signs in exchange for money,” according to court documents reported first by the Voice on Thursday. 

In emailed comments to the Orlando Sentinel, Russell said Hoats “served for a period of time as our campaign treasurer,” though there does not appear to be a public filing with Winter Park’s clerk to show he was ever removed from that role.

Craig Russell

“We do want to make it very clear that we have always been committed to upholding ethical and legal obligations in all our actions. Neither we nor the campaign have been accused of any contrary conduct, nor are we aware of any such conduct,” he said in the statement to the newspaper he signed along with his wife Kate Demory, who served as deputy treasurer.

Russell, who was sworn in last month after winning the April 16 runoff by 34 votes, did not respond to multiple messages from the Voice and canceled a scheduled interview with this reporter on Friday regarding an unrelated topic.

The court documents and a heavily redacted police report provide few details about the evidence or circumstances in the case, which stems from an incident on March 21, two days after the first election in Winter Park and as the runoff between Russell and Jason Johnson was underway.

Hoats, 33, who has worked as a non-faculty coach at Winter Park High School, where Russell is also a teacher and a coach, did not respond to a phone call and email requesting comment. His arraignment is scheduled for June 7.

A Winter Park Police report from the date of the incident describes how a witness called police after she saw a group of kids taking Johnson’s campaign signs from yards as she was driving in Winter Park.

Nancy Elizabeth Cocchiarella, who is named in the court documents, was a volunteer for Johnson’s campaign who called police after she noticed signs, including her own, removed.

She stated she “saw the signs under the arms of [redacted],” and “she let her window down and told [redacted] and [redacted] to just put the signs back, and the juveniles kept riding on their skateboards.”

The report stated that the signs promoted Johnson’s campaign.

Officers eventually caught up with two of the juveniles, who called two other juveniles and asked them to come back to the area of Magnolia Avenue and Sunnyside Drive, according to the report.

At that point the narrative becomes heavily redacted except to describe that all four juveniles were, at one point, at a barbershop in Maitland.

None of the publicly available documents explain how or if the young people know Hoats or any details related to the offer to steal signs described in the court documents.

Hoats signed all of Russell’s campaign finance reports filed with the city clerk through March 15. The final two reports were signed by Demory, Russell’s wife who served as his deputy treasurer.

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Craig Russell ekes out victory in close race for Seat 2 on the City Commission

Craig Russell ekes out victory in close race for Seat 2 on the City Commission

Craig Russell ekes out victory in close race for Seat 2 on the City Commission

The results put Jason Johnson at just 34 votes behind Russell

April 16, 2024

By Beth Kassab

Craig Russell won Seat 2 on the City Commission on Tuesday by 34 votes, a victory that fell just over the threshold that would have triggered an automatic ballot recount.

Russell, who will become the first Black commissioner in Winter Park in more than 130 years, tallied 2,869 votes or 50.3% while Jason Johnson received 2,835 votes or 49.7%. The totals were separated by .6% and it takes under a half percent to cause a recount.

Craig Russell, a football and wrestling coach at Winter Park High School, is running for City Commission.

The numbers are unofficial until the canvassing board meets on Friday, but a spokeswoman for the Orange County Supervisor of Elections office said the results are unlikely to change because only eight ballots are in question.

Russell, a 43-year-old teacher and coach at Winter Park High School, did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment.

His historic win comes on the heels of another landmark election last month when Sheila DeCiccio became the city’s first woman to ever be elected mayor. Russell will serve out the remaining two years of her commission term.

Johnson said he wanted to wait for the official results after the canvassing board meets on Friday to see if any overseas or other ballots come in, but thanked his supporters on Tuesday night.

“I am proud of the race I have run and am very proud of how we closed a sizeable gap in the past four weeks,” he said. “Mostly, I am very grateful for the support, encouragement and friendship of both my longtime family and friends and the many wonderful people I have been blessed to meet through this campaign.”

Russell ran on a message of “a new generation of leadership” and will be the youngest elected official on the current City Commission by 10 years.

He was the only candidate endorsed by the Winter Park Chamber of Commerce and significantly outraised and outspent Johnson with the help of high-profile landholders, developers and a political action committee affiliated with the chamber. He said during the campaign that he was open to revisiting the original Orange Avenue Overlay plans as well as the super majority charter amendments that voters passed by a wide margin in 2022.

Jason Johnson

Jason Johnson, candidate for Winter Park Commission Seat 2.

Russell raised more than $100,000 and Winter PAC raised nearly $30,000 on his behalf compared to Johnson’s $71,000.

Debate over development philosophy dominated the differences between Russell and Johnson, who said he was comfortable with the current OAO that calls for smaller buildings and less density and who supported the amendments that require four votes on the commission for certain zoning changes.

Russell and Johnson, both first-time candidates and both registered Democrats, also sparred over their voting records.

Public records show that Russell, who mostly grew up in Winter Park and graduated from the high school he teaches at now, did not vote in a municipal election until he was on the ballot this year.

Johnson, an attorney who emphasized the need to protect the charm and character of Winter Park, voted in nearly every election he was eligible to vote in.

Turnout in the run-off dropped from about 30% on March 19 to 26%. A total of 5,704 people cast ballots, down from 6,565 in the initial three-way race held the same day as Florida’s presidential preference primary.

While Russell’s victory marks the first time a Black commissioner will be seated on the dais in more than a century, numbers from the March 19 vote show Black voters made up just a fraction of the electorate as the city’s historically Black west side has undergone significant redevelopment  and gentrification in the past two decades.

Statistics from the supervisor’s office show only 215 people who identify as Black voted in Winter Park on March 19.

Winter Park voters are largely white. The March election also saw only 229 voters who identified as Hispanic and 344 who identified as “other.”

The current commission includes Kris Cruzada, who is Filipino American, and DeCiccio, whose father is Indian and mother is white.

Demographic statistics from Tuesday’s voter turnout won’t be available until after the results are finalized.

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Chasm in development support widens as money flows into Seat 2 run-off

Chasm in development support widens as money flows into Seat 2 run-off

Chasm in development support widens as money flows into Seat 2 run-off

The debate over how Winter Park will look in the future continues to dominate the race that will be decided on Tuesday

April 12, 2024

By Beth Kassab

The attacks continued in the final days of the run-off for Seat 2 on the City Commission with Craig Russell and Jason Johnson each trying to convince voters they would would be the best defender of Winter Park’s unique character.

The election is Tuesday.

Russell accused Johnson on Thursday of failing to defend the city’s code through his role as chairman of the Board of Adjustments, which considers requests for variances from property owners who are seeking to build a larger pergola than typically allowed or who want a smaller setback from the edge for their land.

Craig Russell, a football and wrestling coach at Winter Park High School, is running for City Commission Seat 2.

“Make no mistake, Craig Russell is the only candidate we can trust to protect Winter Park’s character,” the note to voters stated. “While on the Board of Adjustment the other candidate in this race, Jason Johnson, voted for zoning exceptions over 90% of the time. This record does not back up his talk about preserving our charm!”

Johnson said his votes on the Board of Adjustments “align exactly with my public comments on variances.”

“I recognize that the variance code exists for a good reason,” he said. “I know that not every eventuality is contemplated by the land development code, so variances are sometimes appropriate … But too many commercial developers abuse the process and view the variance and conditional use ordinances as their ‘grab bag.’ Those interests know I will not allow that, so they are throwing a lot of money behind my opponent in the hopes of having a friendly vote on the City Commission.”

Russell’s campaign is largely funded by people who own large commercial properties or have other development interests. The most recent campaign finance report shows Russell collected $5,000 from companies associated with the Holler family or their attorney. Holler companies already contributed $8,000 in the round of fundraising leading up to the March 19 election, which led to the run-off between Russell and Johnson.

Jason Johnson

Jason Johnson, an attorney and candidate for Winter Park Commission Seat 2.

Russell has raised more than $17,000 for the run-off, according to the most recent report available, bringing his total for the entire election cycle to more than $80,000.

One of the Holler’s companies also contributed another $3,000 in the most recent report from Winter PAC, the Winter Park Chamber of Commerce’s political action committee that has raised $25,000 in support of Russell.

Dan Bellows, known for redevelopment projects on the historically Black west side and for the mixed-use development Ravaudage at Lee Road and U.S. 17-92, contributed $1,000 and his two children contributed another $200.

A recent mailer sent by Russell to voters’ homes said he opposes “irresponsible, high-density overdevelopment.” It also said he would “defend property rights from government overreach.”

Russell, who also announced an endorsement from the Orlando Regional Realtors Association, did not respond to messages from the Voice seeking comment.

“Craig Russell knows that Winter Park is growing, and we need to be focusing on fiscal responsibility for the future and promoting residents-first smart growth,” said the Realtors’ endorsement.

Johnson raised nearly $14,000 for the run-off, bringing his total to slightly higher than $50,000.

His recent contributors included former mayors Phil Anderson and David Strong, who each gave $1,000, and have preached a more scaled back approach to new development. Developer Alan Ginsburg, also gave $1,000, and Belle Isle Mayor Nicholas Fouraker, who operates and commercial and residential real estate brokerage, wrote the maximum check as well.

Johnson also touted endorsements in recent days, including a blurb from Rick Frazee, operator of the former Mt. Vernon Inn.

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” the message read. “The Carlisle, Combank, the Langford Hotel ‘pyramid’ addition were ‘history lessons’ that cost the city millions of dollars to avert. Jason Johnson will maintain Winter Park’s quality of life and proper scale.”

More than 6,500 voters or about 30% turned out in the March 19 election and Russell led the pack by 540 votes. Turnout often decreases for run-offs, though Winter Parkers bucked that trend the last time the city saw a run-off for a commission seat in 2019, when more than 700 additional votes were cast.

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Phil Anderson leaves mayor’s job with legacy of shaping city’s future

Phil Anderson leaves mayor’s job with legacy of shaping city’s future

Phil Anderson leaves mayor's job with legacy of shaping city's future

The mayor, who will hand off the title this week to Sheila DeCiccio, took a few minutes recently to reflect on his time in office

April 5, 2024

By Beth Kassab

Phil Anderson came into office in the spring of 2021 as the tumult of a global pandemic took the lives of thousands of Orange County residents and upended commerce from New York’s Wall Street to Winter Park’s Park Avenue.

For months at the start of his term, the City Commission was still meeting via video. Shops and restaurants struggled to bring back customers. And uncertainty hung over the markets that affect the city’s key streams of tax revenue such as real estate and new development.

Now three years later, as Anderson prepares to turn over the gavel on Wednesday to new Mayor Sheila DeCiccio, the city just hosted the 65th Winter Park Sidewalk Arts Festival packed with hundreds of thousands of people and at least four new commercial development projects are in the works.

“When you look at where we were coming out of COVID, it’s remarkable,” Anderson said. “We finished three years later with a lot of initiatives started or in progress.”

Anderson said millions of dollars in federal American Rescue Plan Act funds played a major role in smoothing the city’s recovery.

But then, about halfway into Anderson’s term, the city confronted another historical challenge when Hurricane Ian dumped more than a dozen inches of rain on the region and caused record flooding in Winter Park and beyond.

As a result, the city is now taking the first steps toward drainage projects that DeCiccio has highlighted as a major priority.

Anderson’s term also saw the purchase of the 18-hole Winter Park Pines Golf Course, which this year turned a small profit, according to financial documents; the opening of a more than $40 million Library & Events Center and the start of construction on Seven Oaks Park.

He also led some policy initiatives such as a long-term effort toward renewable energy at the city-owned electric utility, voter approval of charter amendments that require a supermajority on the commission for certain zoning changes and a plan to expand the Community Redevelopment Agency.

“I ran to really make life better and to keep the charm of our neighborhoods and the downtown in tact,” said Anderson, a civil engineer whose career eventually lead him into finance and development. “And I think we did that.”

Mayor Phil Anderson presents Mary Daniels with the Mayor’s Founders Award at the 2024 State of the City Address.

The most recent financial reports show the reserve fund at more than $20.5 million.

While the day-to-day operations are led by City Manager Randy Knight, the mayor plays a large role in setting both the agenda and the tone of the public meetings.

At his final meeting in March, Anderson reflected on his time on the dais and the sometimes contentious comments from residents who would show up to speak for or against policies or projects.

“I want to thank everyone who has stepped up to the mic to speak,” he said. “We may not always agree, but this is what America’s about.”

Listening to those comments, he said, was one of the most rewarding parts of the job.

For example, residents of west Winter Park played a significant role in changes to a proposed rental development known as Winter Park Commons. The project, which will replace a now vacant church in the historically black neighborhood, will have more single-family homes and fewer townhomes as a result of people showing up and speaking out at the meetings.

“It’s amazing,” he said. “It does make a difference. Sometimes it doesn’t seem like it makes a difference, but over the long run it does.”

Anderson made a habit during meetings of summarizing in real time what he was hearing from fellow commissioners or speakers as a way of building consensus and and steering the debate. And he rarely lost sight of the fact that not everyone in the commission chambers understood the history or nuances of every policy measure, often pausing to provide context or demystify the discussion for everyday residents who stopped in — in person or via live stream — to watch their local government in action.

Jeff Briggs, longtime planning and zoning director, shared a story at Anderson’s final meeting that also captured his penchant for connecting with residents.

Anderson, like many mayors, is often asked to appear at community events. And one morning in Central Park he was giving the opening remarks before the start of a 5K. After he spoke, the DJ was supposed to play the National Anthem before the race started.

But a technical failure resulted in silence.

“There’s this dead pause and then the mayor says, ‘Well, I can sing it!” Briggs recalled.

The former high school choir member of son of Southern Baptist missionaries — his dad was a minister of music — led an acapella rendition of the anthem.

“I happened to have a clear voice that morning, which doesn’t always happen, and I thought, you know, if I start low enough I think I can do this,” Anderson recalled. “There were probably 200 people who started singing it with me.”

For now, there are no new singing gigs in his future. When Anderson’s term officially ends on Wednesday he said he plans to spend more time with his wife, children and grandchildren as well as his parents, both now in their 90s.

“I’m hoping I can find the right path to continue to serve the city,” he said.

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Where Craig Russell and Jason Johnson stand on issues

Where Craig Russell and Jason Johnson stand on issues

Where Craig Russell and Jason Johnson stand on issues

The Seat 2 candidates will face off in the April 16 run-off election

March 28, 2024

By Beth Kassab

With less than three weeks until the April 16 run-off and mail-in voting already underway, Jason Johnson and Craig Russell are in a heated contest for a City Commission seat with Russell positioning himself as a political outsider who will break barriers of access for the average resident and Johnson running as the candidate who will most closely guard against unchecked development.

Both men are first-time candidates and registered Democrats and both would join Commissioner Kris Cruzada, 50, on the younger spectrum on the City Commission — Russell is 43 and Jason Johnson is 52.

But there are differences in their positions in the technically non-partisan race. Here’s where they stand:

Voter records

Russell’s candidacy might appear as something of a contradiction: If elected, he would be the first Black commissioner in more than a 100 years who, he says, will bring a fresh perspective to the job compared to what he’s called an “elitist” mentality in City Hall. But Russell, a Winter Park High teacher and coach, is also the candidate with the most money, the endorsement of the local Chamber of Commerce and support from former Mayor Ken Bradley and former Commissioner Sarah Sprinkel, whose names have appeared in his social media posts.

Russell, who won the most votes in the March 19 election with 42%, said he wants to “build a government for all residents, not just political insiders.”

He’s embraced the help of the chamber, which has raised money to support him through its political action committee, but also his status as a political newbie.

His voter record, for example, shows he hasn’t voted in a Winter Park municipal election in the last 10 years until his name was on the ballot in March. Russell voted in the 2004, 2012, 2016, 2018 and 2020 November elections and the 2018 August primaries.

Johnson cast more than 35 ballots during that same time, appearing to vote in every municipal election, according to the Orange County Supervisor of Elections Office.

Russell responded to criticism about his voting record by noting that he’s no different from many people who must prioritize demands on his time amid the daily grind — a reason why he said he’s connected with younger voters in the city.

“I’ve been busy raising my family,” he told the Voice. “Am I too busy to vote? Absolutely not. But just like anybody, life gets in the way and the mail-in ballot sits on the counter … I think that’s why my campaign was able to gain first-time and new voters.”

Johnson, a litigator who has the endorsement of outgoing Mayor Phil Anderson, said his voting record speaks to his engagement in the community and the time he’s spent learning about issues that he feels are relevant to residents.

“I guess we just have different viewpoints on the value of voting,” Johnson said of Russell’s record. “I see it as a necessary civic duty to vote in every election and I take the time to educate myself on the people and the issues and that has shown through in my answers to the questions during the debates.”

Future development

Johnson’s campaign presents his own paradox: He once worked for the Lowndes law firm, known for representing some of the biggest developers in Winter Park and across Central Florida, but has firmly staked out his position as the staunchest opponent to drastically altering Winter Park with taller buildings and denser development.

He says that experience has armed him with insight on the “sneaky” tactics some commercial landowners use and how to make sure residents’ interests are protected.

“There are very clear distinctions between my opponent and myself and a lot of them center around development,” he said.

Johnson says he supports the current rules for the Orange Avenue Overlay, which reduced the number of stories allowed and call for dedicated open space under certain conditions.

Russell said he would consider revisiting the original overlay rules.

Johnson supports the supermajority charter amendments voters passed in 2022 that require at least four votes on the City Commission to pass certain land use changes. Those changes include the sale of city property, rezoning parks and public land and rezoning residential land to a non-residential use and rezoning lakefront land from residential to commercial, mixed use or higher density residential.

Russell told Pastor Troy East in an interview with the Winter Park Ministerial Alliance that he doesn’t know if the voters understood the amendments or got it right when they approved them by wide margins.

“There’s two sides to that story,” he said. “You have the voters who voted on it, obviously, and then residents who didn’t necessarily understand it … It’s something I’d like to revisit and speak to the experts and see how historically it’s benefited the city and also talk to the residents, not just the voters. To me, there’s a large majority of the residents that didn’t get a chance to speak on it.”

Johnson is also skeptical of the chamber’s push to rewrite parking requirements for developers, which could reduce the number of parking spaces required for certain projects.

One of Russell’s social media posts included a black and white photo of a large concrete parking lot with the question, “Do you want Winter Park to look like this?”

“When it comes to parking solutions, we need to do more than just add endless parking spaces,” the Instagram post from Vote Coach Russell said. “On the City Commission, we should be thinking about creative solutions for enhancing our transit, our sidewalks and road, and our parking.”

Johnson questions if the desire to reduce parking is more about reducing the burden and cost for developers than it is pushing transit.

“Parking is already challenging enough in the city, let’s not make it more challenging by reducing parking requirements,” he said.

Johnson sent an email to voters in recent days with the subject line, “Do you want this to replace the old Lombardi’s?” with an illustration of a large 7-story building along Orange Avenue.

“This illustration was included in … the now-repealed version of the Orange Avenue Overlay. This would NOT be allowed under our current Code,” read the email. “Craig Russell says we need to take a second look at the repealed Orange Avenue Overlay and consider bringing this back.”

Russell called the email a “scare tactic.”

“To imply that’s something I would vote on, that’s just not true,” he said. “I always look to stay positive and show the residents who I am first-hand.”

He said he is grateful for the financial contributors to his campaign, including prominent landowners like the Holler family and developers like Allan Keen who have helped him raise more than $60,000. The chamber’s PAC has raised more than $20,000.

Russell said the money won’t control his positions if he’s elected.

“There’s no secret meetings I’m having with the chamber,” he said. “That’s not happening. I am nobody’s puppet. I weigh almost 300 pounds and there’s no puppet strings that are going to hold me.”

Johnson, who came in second to Russell on March 19 by 540 votes and raised $45,000, acknowledged that Russell is a popular candidate and well-known from his work at the high school and community.

“I’m not trying to win a popularity contest,” he said. “I am going to point out the issues that I think are relevant to the city of Winter Park and they can decide who they want. I’m going to be a champion for residents. I think the questions remains, if Mr. Russell is elected whose interests is he going to champion?”

Will Reeves voters return to the polls?

Both candidates say they want to win the votes of the nearly 1,600 people who cast a ballot for Stockton Reeves, who did not make the run-off with 24% of the vote.

Johnson said he welcomes support from Reeves voters.

“I have reached out to Stockton Reeves personally and would be honored to have their support,” he said.

Russell also would like those voters to know he wants to represent them.

“He has a following who is very loyal and hopefully they can have as much trust to come back out and vote,” he said. “I want to give them a reason to come back out and vote.”

Leaf blower ban

One of the city’s most controversial issues recently — a ban on gas-powered leaf blowers set to take effect next year — also brings differing points of view among the candidates.

“I’m not for it,” Russell said of the ordinance the commission passed in 2022 that bans gas-powered blowers. “I don’t think it’s something we should be focusing on right now,” and he questioned if large organizations like the public school system was aware of the change and prepared to use electric devices.

Johnson said he’s not opposed to letting voters decide via a referendum next year. But he also said he is concerned that involvement by a state senator sets another bad precedent for locally elected boards to be bigfooted by the state Legislature, which erodes local control.

“I liked my gas leaf blower, but because I’m a law-and-order guy I went out and bought an electric leaf blower, which I was surprised was just as powerful and maybe more powerful,” he said. “I am not opposed to allowing voters to have a say … but I also worry this referendum is a way of giving in to bullying by a state legislator when this is a matter of local governance …. at some point we have to be allowed to govern ourselves.”

Whoever wins on April 16 will likely face the leaf blower question almost immediately. Whether or not to approve a referendum for next year is now scheduled to be decided at the April 24 meeting.

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