City Commission Election Canceled?!

Last-Minute Cooper Challenger Disqualified. Decision to be Appealed

Time ran out yesterday for would-be candidates planning to run against Commissioners Cooper or McMacken. Cooper and McMacken – holders of Commission seats 3 and 4 respectively – are up for re-election in March of 2013. Prior to Tuesday, neither Commissioner had any opposition. The deadline for opposing candidates to file was Tuesday, January 8 – no later than noon.

Just before noon on Tuesday, Ross Johnston, a Winter Park entrepreneur/consultant, sat with City Clerk Cindy Bonham and began the process of filing the necessary papers to challenge Commissioner Cooper for Commission seat 3. According to the City Clerk and other sources at City Hall, Mr. Johnston filed some papers just prior to the noon deadline, but many necessary papers, including required petitions from city residents were filed after noon.

City Says Required Petitions & Other Documents Submitted Late

WPV has obtained digital copies of Johnston’s filing. A review of the petitions does not show time stamps on the petitions, some of which were signed by prominent Winter Parkers including WP Commissioner Steven Leary, Daniel Bellows and Allan Keen. However, despite the lack of apparent time-stamping on some documents, the city maintains that some petitions and other documents were submitted 15, 30, 40 minutes late or later.

In an interview with the Voice, Johnston admits that his plans were paced by a “Last-minute agreement” among supporters that enabled him to move forward with his filing.

According to the City Clerk, the city was first alerted to Johnston’s interest in filing when they received a call about an hour before the noon deadline. In an interview with the Voice, City Manager Randy Knight confirmed that the 11 AM caller was local developer Dan Bellows, inquiring about candidate filing specifics. 15 minutes later, a representative for Johnston picked up the city’s “Election Candidate Package.” Ms. Bonham told the Voice that Johnston himself appeared at City Hall just before noon and sat in her office filling out paperwork.

Johnston: My Application Submitted Timely — Calls City Attorney Decision “Possibly Political”

During the Voice’s initial interview with Johnston Tuesday afternoon, he expressed concern that his submission may be disqualified by city election rules, but vowed to “Exercise every option” to move his candidacy forward. At the same time, city officials were consulting with the City Attorney’s office asking for an opinion on the validity of Johnston’s filing. This morning, less than 24 hours after Johnston’s filing, the City Attorney’s office issued a written opinion concluding that “No facts have been submitted to show extraordinary circumstances in Mr. Johnston’s case. It does not appear that Mr. Johnston was in the office with completed papers at noon. In fact, it is clear that Mr. Johnston was still submitting petitions close to 1:00 p.m. Because the complete package was close to an hour late, and there are not any special circumstances, it appears that the Clerk should notify Mr. Johnston that his application package was incomplete at the end of the qualifying period.”

The opinion also cites City Code that appears to prohibit filings after the noon deadline, ”Section 42-7(a) provides that in order to qualify, the potential candidate must do four things by noon on January 8th: 1) file an application; 2) have the application endorsed by not less than 25 registered voters; 3) swear to an oath set forth in the code, which substantially tracks the one required by Fla. Stat. 99.021; and 4) file a financial disclosure statement, also required by Fla. Stat. 99.061(5). Section 42-7(b) provides that it is each candidate’s duty to comply with the code, but that the Clerk is to notify each candidate of any “defect or deficiency” in the application. The candidate can make “corrections or additions” any time before the end of the qualification term “but not thereafter”. In summary, the end of the qualification term is January 8th at noon. No additions to the qualifying packets noted by the Clerk are to be made after noon on January 8th.”

The City Attorney’s office did not reply to WPVs request for comment as of press time.

Johnston Hires Attorney Becky Vose. Appeal Moves to Circuit Court.

Earlier today, Mr. Johnston informed the Voice that he has retained attorney Becky Vose to represent him. Ms. Vose is an experienced city attorney with a wide-ranging practice who has represented numerous Central Florida cities, as well as real estate developers, including Dan Bellows and the Sydgan Corporation.

Ms. Vose told the Voice that she is currently preparing a Writ of Mandamus and will file it with the Circuit Court within the next 24 hours. Ms. Vose is seeking to compel the City of Winter Park to qualify Johnston for the City Commission race and place him on the March, 2013 ballot. Vose stated she believes that the City Attorney’s office has “misquoted one ordinance” as applying to this case – which Vose believes does not apply — and is ignoring case law that allows candidate qualification if filing paperwork is in process (though not complete) prior to a statutory deadline.

Appeal Scrambles Cooper Campaign Plans. McMacken Home Free.

Tom McMacken will face no opposition in this year’s Commission race – effectively ending his “campaign” for Commission Seat 4. Commissioner Cooper’s path is not so simple. She is placed in a difficult position – not knowing whether she will have a challenger in the race. In a statement to the Voice, Commissioner Cooper affirms that “Last night, the City Manager called to confirm that no candidate has qualified to oppose me. I am proud to continue to represent the citizens of Winter Park . . .”

Ms. Cooper’s statement also noted that her “campaign kick off gathering” which had been scheduled for January 10, will now be replaced with a “celebration” scheduled at the same time and place.

According City Manager Randy Knight, an election that is uncontested as of the candidate filing deadline will be canceled, per city/election rules. Unopposed candidates are then able to be sworn in within a few weeks. However, an appeal puts that process on hold. City officials we spoke with are uncertain about whether the timing of the election will be affected if Johnston’s appeal succeeds at some point in the next few weeks.

Winter Park Voice will continue to update this story as it develops.

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  • author's avatar

    By: Tom Childers

    Tom was the previous editor of the Winter Park Voice and a citizen of Winter Park. He was a tireless advocate for Winter Park.

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