Winter Park City Commission/Chamber of Commerce feud deepens
Screenshot from GoToMeeting livefeed of Winter Park City Commission meeting.

Winter Park City Commission
Two words are ruffling feathers: 'Blatantly colluded.'

The Winter Park City Commission appeared Thursday to be moments from adjourning a special meeting with hope that hard feelings with the Chamber of Commerce could be smoothed out during a workshop they hoped to arrange. And then a Chamber representative spoke.

That hope appeared replaced by another layer of indignation for four Winter Park City Commissioners, after lobbyist Derek Bruce took Commission Chair Todd Weaver‘s invitation to speak before they adjourned. And then Bruce tried to redefine their concern.

Thirty-five minutes later, Weaver and fellow Commissioners Marty Sullivan, Carolyn Cooper, and Sheila DeCiccio appeared even angrier.

The whole matter arose from a question raised last Friday at a mayoral debate the Chamber hosted. The Commissioners contended the question’s wording implied they had violated the Sunshine Laws before considering a proposed hotel rezoning last month. So on Tuesday they called a special meeting  for Thursday to air their grievances and seek redress.

Until Bruce approached, the Commission appeared somewhat satisfied. They had each defended themselves, blown off some steam, and agreed to seek a sit-down with the Chamber, to discuss what happened, and work toward repairing any tears in the relationship.

But two little words stood in their way.

They were the same two words that had brought the whole feud into the public after they were spoken aloud last Friday in a mayoral debate, which the Chamber had organized at the Welcome Center in Winter Park.

“Blatantly colluded.”

Those two words exacerbated divisions between the four Commissioners and the Chamber.

The division goes further. Current Mayor Steve Leary, who did not attend the meeting, and mayoral candidate Sarah Sprinkel appear to align with the Chamber, while the other mayoral candidate Phil Anderson aligns with the Commissioners. Sprinkel and Anderson face off in the March 9 city election.

During Thursday’s meeting, a sizable number of residents expressed outrage, for either side. Some charged the commissioners are thin-skinned, against freedom of speech, and in fact may have potentially colluded outside of open meetings. They charged that a January deliberation on a controversial hotel project seemed to suggest they had had previous discussions. Others contended the Chamber was way out of line, allowing stark, unsubstantiated allegations, because, they suggested, the Chamber really wanted the hotel but the commissioners essentially drove it away.

It’s “cancel culture” right here in Winter Park, some residents insisted, defending the Chamber’s question. It’s slander, others raged, defending the commissioners.

They’re not thin-skinned, each Commissioner insisted Thursday. Instead they argued they were not going to stand for having the Chamber lend credibility to an assertion that the board violated the law. They don’t collude, members said, not on the Henderson Hotel proposal, and not any other time.

“It’s defamation, per se,” DeCiccio said.

“Not only was it accusing us of a crime, but it [the word colluded] had an adjective ahead of it. And that word is ‘blatant.’ And blatant means overt or obvious, right?” Weaver followed. “So nobody produced any evidence whatsoever.”

And yet after 90 minutes, the four Commissioners appeared ready to move on.

And then Bruce offered his own interpretation of the two little words.

“I did hear the definition earlier. ‘Collusion’ is defined as a secret agreement. … And then there is the modifier that I heard talked about earlier. ‘Blatant.’ And the definition of that is brazenly obvious. When you put those two words together, they are almost diametrically opposed. In some ways, they counter each other, cancel each other out,” Bruce offered.

The Commissioners weren’t in the mood to accept a depends-on-your-definition argument.

That led the Commissioners to demand the Chamber take down a video recording of the debate that apparently has been playing at the Mayflower Retirement Center. Bruce declined, saying the Chamber does not control the Mayflower.

That led them to demand the Chamber edit the video, or include a disclaimer that the reference to ‘blatantly colluded’ is not supported. Bruce pointed out that the video was uploaded onto Facebook, and so out on the internet, and that he couldn’t commit to such a thing.

That led them to demand the Chamber issue a public apology and disavow the two words. Again, Bruce declined, saying he was not authorized to do so.

So the city’s effort to set up the joint meeting with the Chamber will go forward, but with new urgency, and some additional anger, at least on the commissioners’ side.

“Moving forward with a meeting with the Chamber is extremely important. … However, I also know that all of this upheaval has caused many people … to have great confusion and question regarding the credibility of the Commission. And to me that cannot wait,” Cooper said.

Scott Powers

Scott Powers is an Orlando-based political journalist with 30+ years’ experience, mostly at newspapers such as the Orlando Sentinel and the Columbus Dispatch. He covers local, state and federal politics and space news across much of Central Florida. His career earned numerous journalism awards for stories ranging from the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster to presidential elections to misplaced nuclear waste. He and his wife Connie have three grown children. Besides them, he’s into mystery and suspense books and movies, rock, blues, basketball, baseball, writing unpublished novels, and being amused. Email him at scott@floridapolitics.com.


One comment

  • WPCitizen007

    February 11, 2021 at 7:45 pm

    Fellow Winter Park residents, the City Commission may be pulling the wool over your eyes. Florida Statute 286.011, also known as the Sunshine Law requires that the Commission conduct business publicly. The commissioners are protesting so strongly because they believe the “blatant collusion” accusation infers that they have been conducting business outside of the public’s eye, which is likely criminal in action. There is NO EVIDENCE that this has happened and thus, they have every right to contend they did not violate 286.0111.

    But, here’s where there may be a sleight of hand. The Commission is drawing attention to 286.0111 while completely ignoring the ACTUAL statute that the Commission may have been violating for YEARS: 286.0115, which deals with ex parte communications. Ex parte communications with commissioners used to be considered prejudicial. The Florida Legislature then passed 286.0115 which removes presumption of prejudice provided a city adopts a curing ordinance. Winter Park has a curing ordinance: Sec Article VII of the Municipal Code.

    HERE is where the City and the Commission both screwed up. The Municipal Code actually requires MORE disclosure than the Florida Statute does. For EVERY ex parte communication that the Commissioners receive they are REQUIRED by Sec 2-199 TO disclose: 1) the SUBSTANCE of the communication, 2) the SUBJECT of the communication, 3) the IDENTITY of the person making the communication.

    If you watch the Commission meetings there often comes a point where they go around and announce all the ex parte communications they’ve received but they NEVER actually provide what Winter Park law specifically requires: substance, subject, identity. Why is this a big deal? Well because if an applicant is denied, they can claim violation of their due process because a commissioner may have reached a conclusion using ex parte communication without giving the public an opportunity to speak against that ex parte communication.

    AND THAT’S WHAT MAY HAVE HAPPENED AT THE HENDERSON HOTEL MEETING. Commissioner Weaver made a motion to deny the Henderson CITING EX PARTE COMMUNICATIONS that were never disclosed previously before the public had a chance to speak. He was apparently prepared to vote based on a communication that may not have been made public. Commissioner Cooper recognized that this was a huge no no and asked that the motion be stopped so commissioners could announce their ex parte communications.

    Guess what? The Commission STILL didn’t provide the substance of the ex parte communications. There were mentions of who was spoken to, but not what was said.

    This needs to STOP. The City Commission cannot make their decisions using ex parte communications that citizens are not aware of unless they disclose: substance, subject, identity. FOLLOW WINTER PARK’S LAW.

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