Commission Requests Apology in Response to Controversial Forum Question

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The Winter Park City Commission called a special meeting last week to address a question, deemed by some as accusatory, that had been posed at the February 5 mayoral forum hosted by the Winter Park Chamber of Commerce. The question, which pertained to the controversial Henderson Hotel project, was 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?”

The meeting, held on Thursday, lasted just over two hours. Commissioners Todd Weaver, Marty Sullivan, and Sheila DeCiccio attended in person and Vice Mayor Carolyn Cooper joined by phone later on in the meeting. Mayor Steve Leary did not attend. Attorney Derek Bruce represented the Chamber at the meeting after advising President Betsy Gardner Eckbert not to speak.

Many public commenters expressed that they found the wording of the question “unfortunate” but that it was not worth the time spent and that the issue should be moved on from for the sake of Winter Park’s wellbeing. “I understand the meaning [of the question] now and I can understand that you feel that you were attacked, but… you’re certainly not going to fine them, you’re not going to defy the contract,” said Nancy Shutts, Winter Park resident and member of the Chamber. “The relationship with the Chamber is so critical to Winter Park, to Winter Park business in so many different ways. Please, let’s move on.” 

Other speakers during the public comment portion of the meeting took a stronger position against the Chamber. “It’s hard to think of a way that the Chamber could have done more damage to its reputation in the community,” said Beth Hall, Winter Park resident.

The commissioners held that the question was defamatory, especially with respect to use of the phrase “blatantly colluding.” Although the question was submitted by a member of the public, it was reviewed and approved by the Chamber, and it was argued that the Chamber was therefore responsible for its content and implications. Members of the Commission requested an apology from the Chamber as well as a workshop with the Chamber’s Board of Directors to resolve the issue.

“I think there is a responsibility on all parts and I would like to see us fix this, but when we talk about a path forward, the path forward, I believe, has to start with the City Commission sitting down with the Chamber Board of Directors and actually talking this through,” Commissioner Cooper said. 

Bruce briefly took the floor on behalf of the Chamber, expressing that it was reasonable for people to disagree about the appropriateness of the question at hand, but that there was a better use for the time and resources given to the issue. Commissioner DeCiccio asked if it was Bruce’s position that the Chamber did not owe the Commission an apology for allowing the question to be posed as it was. Bruce responded that he was not authorized to issue an apology on behalf of the Chamber at the time.

“I believe that the Chamber shares your desire and interest to forge a meaningful relationship going forward and would look forward to an opportunity to sit down to have a conversation about how to move forward together,” Bruce said.

Vice Mayor Cooper, without realizing her microphone was unmuted at the time, called out the “inexperienced commission” for “doing something so stupid.” She later explained that she was referring to the amount of time Bruce was given to speak, more than the three minutes normally allotted for a public comment.

Since the meeting, the Chamber has removed the original video from Facebook and reposted it with the addition of a disclaimer at the opening: The moderation portion of this forum includes questions from the public, and the views expressed by the public do not reflect the views of the Winter Park Chamber of Commerce.

The Chamber has not issued an apology at this time and a workshop has not yet been scheduled.

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