Ministerial Alliance video shows candidate differences on supermajority amendments

The interviews by Pastor Troy East showcase how candidates feel about preserving the city’s history and, specifically, what is left of the historically Black west side neighborhood

March 14, 2024

By Beth Kassab

The Winter Park Ministerial Alliance, a group of leaders from 10 of the city’s historically Black churches, announced Friday evening that it is endorsing Sheila DeCiccio for mayor.

The group, which posted to Facebook video interviews with three candidates running for office that highlighted some differences in their policy stances, is not making an endorsement in the Seat 2 commission race. (You can watch the video here.)

Pastor Troy East of New Hope Missionary Baptist Church asked questions of each candidate individually, focusing at times on their philosophies that could continue to reshape the city’s west side in and around Hannibal Square.

The area, which has been the target of a number of redevelopment projects and changed dramatically in recent decades, is historically Black dating back to the founding of the city in 1887.

Census data shows the city’s Black population has decreased in the last 30 years. In 1990, 2,988 of the city’s 22,000 residents — or about 13% — were Black, according to the U.S. Census. By 2000, the number dropped to just over 10%. In 2020, Black residents made up about 7%, or 2,140 of Winter Park’s population of nearly 30,000, the Census shows.

And Black voters make up the smallest share of city voters with about 1,233 of the nearly 22,000 active voters, according to the most recent statistics from the Orange County Supervisor of Elections Office.

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Craig Russell (left) and Jason Johnson speak at a forum for Commission Seat 2 candidates at the Winter Park Library.

East asked the candidates for Seat 2 on the Commission what they would do to protect the history on west side.

“I do think the west side gets short shrift,” said Johnson, an attorney and first-time candidate who lives near Glen Haven Cemetery in the northeast section of the city. “The city of Winter Park would not exist but for two of the original residents of the west side … we’d be a neighborhood in the city of Orlando. I don’t think a lot of people know that. I didn’t know that before I met with residents on the west side.”

He went on to say he wants to try to preserve what is left of the community and cited, as one example, the recent groundbreaking at Unity Corner.

“The west side is a very valuable asset to this community and a rich part of our culture and history …,” he said. “Too often outsiders don’t realize it exists and how valuable it is to us … they think of the biggest homes on the lake and the fact that Carrot Top lives here and we’ve got Park Avenue … But the west side is an important part of this community and I’ll do what it takes to make sure it’s supported and preserved.”

East asked a similar question of Craig Russell, a coach and teacher at Winter Park High School and also a first-time candidate. (Stockton Reeves, a third candidate in the Seat 2 race, was not interviewed because East said he invited the candidates who reached out to him.)

“What I’ve already been doing at the high school is just that,” said Russell, who grew up in the city and lives south of AdventHealth Winter Park. “There’s a word out there … ‘charm.’ I don’t think it does the city justice. This city is rich with history and tradition and it needs to be honored and respected.”

Russell, who would be the first Black city commissioner in more than 100 years if elected on Tuesday, mentioned an African proverb that he said meant “we really need to know where we’ve come from to see where we’re going” and cited as an example that he wants all the students at the high school to learn the Alma Mater.

East also asked the candidates if they agreed with the voters’ decision in 2022 to approve a series of charter amendments that requires a supermajority (at least four votes rather than just three 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.

Mayor Phil Anderson, who is not running for reelection and will leave office in April, championed the amendments. Others in the city campaigned against them because they saw them as potential blocks to new development.

Johnson said he voted for the amendments on the 2022 ballot and continues to support them today. He said the supermajority requirement is one of the best tools to help preserve Winter Park.

“My whole reason for running is preserving the charm of Winter Park,” he said. “I’d be hard pressed to think of a circumstance where I would support changing residential to commercial.”

Such land changes have happened on the west side in recent decades, which has reshaped the neighborhood.

Russell took a different position and said he does not think the residents got it right with the charter amendments when they passed 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.”

Asked about the biggest challenge to the city, Russell said it’s the current divisiveness.

“We’re divided,” he said. “It’s like a high school. It’s very cliquey.”

Johnson has said the biggest issue is future development and shaping how Winter Park looks over the coming decades. Asked why he should be the next commissioner Johnson said he considers his experience with law and understanding the “sneaky” ways some developers do things would be an asset to the city.

“I don’t look like you,” said Johnson, who is white. “I don’t look like one of my opponents … I can tell you I will fight for the west side. My job will be to protect the city’s charm, including the charm that exists on the West side.”

East said what matters to him is whether candidates care about the issues that touch residents.

“I think on the west side, one of the things is do you care?” he said in the video. “It’s not a matter of what what you look like … or your background … or are you white or black? It’s do you really care about the west side? Do you really care about what happens to me and my family? And if the answer is you care, then you’re a good candidate for the job.”

Sheila DeCiccio
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Sheila DeCiccio talks with residents at a meet-and-greet event. (Courtesy of DeCiccio’s campaign.)

Russell told East his experience at the school as well as with the nonprofit he started with his wife, Army of Angels, is what qualifies him for the job. He said he is passionate about serving families in crisis as well as his relationship with students.

“I feel I can continue to serve by speaking for them and not to them,” he said.

East also interviewed DeCiccio, the current vice mayor who is running for mayor. Her opponent, Michael Cameron, declined to appear.

If elected on Tuesday, DeCiccio would be the first woman to serve as mayor in Winter Park.

“We have witnessed firsthand your diligent care for residents, focus on
neighborhood charm and sincere concern for infrastructure, which align with our values,” read the alliance’s endorsement letter of DeCiccio.

She highlighted her experience tackling some of the city’s biggest infrastructure needs such as pushing a sense of urgency to fix flooding in west side neighborhoods and elsewhere. She said she supports the supermajority amendments and said residents “overwhelming” spoke in favor of them at the ballot box.

DeCiccio said she wants to address “divisiveness” that is “creeping in” to the city.

“I really want to work to bring everybody together,” she said.


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