Should council act to level the playing field for city-wide municipal elections?
Election season is coming around again to Mount Dora, and this one promises to be a doozy.
In the March 15 presidential primary, Donald Trump took 41% of the 4,625 Republican ballots cast in Mount Dora, with Ted Cruz picking up 17% and Marco Rubio 22%. (After losing the Florida primary, Rubio subsequently dropped out of the race.) Hilary Clinton took 51% of the 2,606 Democratic ballots cast in Mount Dora, and Bernie Sanders picked up 29%.
With both parties’ nominations still up for grabs in what promises to be one of the wildest national political contests ever, fall elections will be sure to generate plenty of local heat.
Down ballot from the presidential contest, Mount Dora is holding elections for second and third district council seats (currently held by Cal Rolfson and Ed Rowlett) and the at-large council seat now currently occupied by Marie Rich.
Where district representatives campaign only to their district constituents, at-large council candidates, like the mayor seat, must campaign city-wide.
How campaigns are conducted in the city’s more private precincts may make all of the difference as to who wins the at-large seat–this year and in future elections.
There are two gated communities in Mount Dora which restrict campaigning more than elsewhere in the city: Loch Leven and Lakes of Mount Dora. Loch Leven is part of Precinct 91, an area where most of the future residential development is planned. Mount Dora’s Precinct 104, which was created in August 2014, serves voters exclusively in the Lakes of Mount Dora.
Looking at precinct totals for at-large and mayoral elections in 2015 and 2014, a distinctive pattern is seen.
The discrepancy can’t be explained along party lines, since municipal elections aren’t party-based. Besides, Precinct 104 is diverse by political affiliation (in recent presidential primary, Donald Trump got 174 votes and Clinton 117.)
So what could be different in Precinct 104 that accounts for such a disproportionate vote in those three municipal elections?
As throughout the city, all candidates can campaign in Precinct 104 via mail using lists of registered voters.
And, like everywhere else, candidates have the right to stand outside Precinct 104 waving their signs on election day—that’s state law.
But with the 2016 presidential election expected draw a record turnout, early voting is expected to be heavy—eliminating any advantages to campaigning on election day.
According to Lakes of Mount Dora and Loch Leven homeowners’ association (HOA) policy, homeowners are not allowed to post campaign yard signs, and door-to-door campaigning is prohibited—it’s considered a form of solicitation. Residents of those communities who run for office, while not permitted either to campaign door-to-door, do have the obvious advantage of being known and interacting with their neighbors to get their campaign messages delivered within their developments. (Nick Girone, a resident of the Lakes of Mount Dora, tied Marie Rich for at-large seat in 2014—her name was subsequently pulled out of a hat for the win—and he defeated incumbent Cathy Hoescht for mayor in 2015.)
Besides being located in the largest and most well-appointed retirement community in Mount Dora, what makes Precinct 104 so different from other Mount Dora voting precincts is that since it is in a gated community, the only other chance candidates have to campaign there is if they are specifically invited in to speak to residents in an organized event.
Cathy Hoescht, who lost the mayoral election in 2015 to Nick Girone, related her experience this way:
“I mailed literature to all voters of Mount Dora twice during the campaign so people in the Lakes of Mount Dora received it if they were a registered voter; I was never able to get into Lakes of Mount Dora prior to the election and was not invited to any events held in which forums were held; I understand there was one in the Lakes and Loch Levin had one at the Hampton Inn but I was never able to verify; I was not invited to them if held although I heard that the attendees were told all were invited;
I did go out there the day of the election and place signs up, but I felt very uncomfortable in staying;
… I believe any gated community should be opened at least one month before the elections so that all candidates can meet the residents or that there must be a forum held in which all candidates are actually invited!
Michael Tedder, the at-large incumbent who lost to Mark Slaby, also complained about not being invited for the above-mentioned candidate forums and inability to campaign within either gated community. He said that his opponent got access to LOMD by being escorted around by Nick Girone.
Marie Rich faced similar limitations campaigning in the Lakes of Mount Dora and Loch Leven in her 2014 at-large contest against Nick Girone. Girone pointed out though that the LOMD Women’s and Men’s Clubs both asked Ms. Rich to make presentations during that campaign while he was not. (Ms. Rich did not respond to a request for details.)
Candidate introductions were conducted by Loch Leven at their HOA meeting at the Hampton Inn outside the Country Club of Mount Dora. In that forum, Mr. Girone and Mr. Slaby were invited to speak, but incumbents Cathy Hoescht and Michael Tedder were not. And then, according to some residents who were present, they were told by meeting organizers that the Hoescht and Tedder had declined to attend.
“The event in Lakes of Mount Dora was not a candidate forum. As Girone explains it, “As a resident, I requested a couple hours for the social hall which the previous CAM approved. I held a Meet and Greet and Fundraiser for myself, with an invitation to the whole community of LOMD. Since it my event, I invited Mr. Slaby and Ms Tillett to be introduced. Mr. Crail as a resident was in attendance. This was not sponsored in any way the association.”
The lopsided returns for Precinct 104 in the 2015 election shown above had significant impact on the overall results of two of the three contests. In the 2015 mayoral race Cathy Hoescht lost Lakes of Mount Dora by 470 votes but the overall race by only 194 votes. In the 2014 at-large race, Marie Rich campaigned against LOMD resident NIck Girone, and she was unable to meet with Lakes of Mount Dora voters until the day of the election. And though she only got 18% of the 555 votes cast in Precinct 104, she was still able to tie Girone in the overall vote.
The extraordinary discrepancy of votes in Precinct 104 for all three at-large elections raises some obvious questions about the ability of all the at-large candidates to campaign fairly there. This is also an issue in District 4 races, since District 4 candidates who live outside the Lakes of Mount Dora or Loch Leven would face the same difficulties running against an incumbent like Marc Crail, who is a resident of LOMD.
Council has been asked to consider to look at these campaign issues in advance of this year’s election.
After speaking with several residents of the Lakes of Mount Dora, their recollection of the 2014 and 2015 election cycles didn’t reveal any special favoritism toward candidates who lived within the development. According to HOA guidelines, Nick Girone is as restricted from door-to-door campaigning as opponents living outside the development. Except for the fundraising event, more bumper stickers for Girone on cars and chatter on the development’s intranet, his campaign was no more visible to residents than his opponents.
According to several accounts, the lopsided vote against Marie Rich in 2014 and Cathy Hoescht and Michael Tedder in 2015 were due to simmering resentments in the community about insensitivity of council to their needs. One told me in an email,
In the past, it doesn’t seem that this community has gotten a fair shake from this town. There have been several issues involving the town or brought before the council and although I think the council voted against some issues based on their dislike of the developer in LOMD (Pringle and/or Medallion Homes), some of their votes hurt our community more than it did the developer.
He also mentioned a perceived bias in “old” Mount Dora against gated communities which cater to seniors, adding, “I tell you all this, not because it is related to elections, but because it goes to the bias for candidates we know and against those we believe are part of the anti-LOMD establishment.”
Marc Crail, fourth district representative who resides in the Lakes of Mount Dora, also pointed to significant drift between the LOMD community and the 2015 council that was in existence well back of the election. He wrote in an email,
In my estimation, the most important factor in the lopsided vote counts in Precinct 104 in the 2015 election was that both Mr. Tedder and Ms. Hoescht voted to oppose a council motion (previously approved by Planning & Zoning and recommended by city staff) that would have saved each LOMD home owner a minimum of $500 if Medallion Home’s request to revise the PUD had been approved in a timely manner. Both Mayor Hoescht and Councilman At-Large Tedder made statements that appeared to many residents to be offensive and dismissive of the best interests of the neighborhood. This was a pocketbook issue to many of us and Hoescht’s and Tedder’s rationale for opposing this measure seemed punitive to say the least.
If Cathy Hoescht and Michael Tedder been given better opportunity to explain their positions to the LOMD community prior to the election, might that have had an effect on the vote? Maybe not. Even though it was a fundraiser and not a candidate forum, Nick Girone and Mark Slaby had face-to-face access to LOMD voters that Hoescht and Tedder could not make up for. Certainly more could be done to provide better accommodation for all.
If the lopsided results in Precinct 104 have more do to with LOMD’s relations with the city proper than the way campaigns differ within its gates, that presents a much deeper challenge. The city will need do do a much better job of figuring out how to get residents of the city’s gated communities (and future new development) to feel their needs as Mount Dora residents are reflected equally in the city’s plan. Maybe with a new council in place and significant changes in city management, the presence of “old” bias has been removed. How such radically different needs and visions can be mutually calibrated still has to be worked out, if it ever can.
One thing is for sure: mayoral and at-large candidates who are not from Lakes of Mount Dora will have to work very hard to gain that community’s support—and makes one wonder how much connection they may lose with other neighborhoods in order to do so.
Back on January 17, Editor Mel Demarco wrote an excellent editorial on the challenge of blending the “two” Mount Doras. It would be good to get other voices to square in on this, too.
All that said, is there anything that council can or should do to make elections of at-large and mayoral seats more fair in these gated communities?
As Lake County Supervisor of Elections Stegall has said, the only outside legal requirement about precinct voting is that the general area around it is available for all candidates on the day of election. Given that early voting is now widely practiced, this measure doesn’t seem to go nearly far enough. (And in a Presidential election year, early voting will even be heavier.)
Mail campaigns for the mayoral and at-large seats are expensive since those candidates need to campaign city-wide. Could council consider some of its own campaign finance reform, providing support for mail campaigns for those two races, on order to assure a timely and adequate presentation of a candidate’s qualifications and opinions? And with new growth expected to bring in new elected representation from economically robust development, should there be a cap on outside campaign contributions?
Candidate forums are a good idea, but only if they are conducted on a level playing field. Especially in at-large campaigns, should neighborhood forums be encouraged at all? Hard indeed to assure a fair process throughout. Larger community forums conducted in the community center and the chamber of commerce may be the best way to assure fairness – if fairness is a desired consideration.
Should all communities be available to candidates for a broader door-knocking campaign? Right now, both gated developments—Loch Leven and Lakes of Mount Dora—prohibit these.
Laws regarding freedom of speech in political campaigns come into play here. There’s nothing in the Constitution that keeps a gated community from imposing limits on rights to free speech. That’s because activities within its borders are determined to be private in nature—not public. (Mount Dora doesn’t own the streets in Loch Leven or Lakes of Mount Dora as it does in the Country Club of Mount Dora, which is considered city property.) When homeowners buy in gated communities, they have to agree to various “restrictive covenants” before purchasing, and these can restrict signage and other forms of solicitation. With 55 million Americans now living in gated communities—about 16% of all new homes—and that number growing exponentially, it may well be that campaigns for at-large seats in East Mount Dora will have a totally different complexion and set of requirements than campaigns for the same seat campaigned for in West Mount Dora.
Going forward, restrictions on campaigning in gated communities is something the city needs to be mindful of as new development explodes on the city’s east side. (Mount Dora is expected to double in size and population within 10 years, with most of that growth east of 441). The problem isn’t going to be limited to just one precinct or community, and the risk could be that a more sizable community than even the LOMD (which is far from building all the way out) may have the majority of council–district seat, the mayor, and both at-large seats—residing behind its gates—and so controlling the budget and policies for all.
Any changes to campaign restrictions at Loch Leven or Lakes of Mount Dora would now have to be voluntary and directed by their respective HOAs, but the city could negotiate for wider campaign access in a new development when writing the planned use development (PUD) document it creates with the developer.
Past councils have not been in support of adding gated developments, seeking connectivity between neighborhoods, and shunning housing rules that segregate populations by age. But, there is nothing keeping present or future councils from forming a different opinion. And with so many changes now occurring in city senior management, a lot is uncertain about Mount Dora game plan as it now enters the most massive development phase in its history.
Council was emailed some of these concerns on March 21, asking the body to consider what could be done to make elections more fair throughout the city.
Several members responded. “Election fairness and integrity is at stake,” said second district rep Cal Rolfson, adding he would take it up with Interim City Manger Leinbach and request that this be evaluated soon on an upcoming council agenda. “It may be for naught, but it bears attention and resolution.”
Mark Slaby said, “Having legal access — if that is the appropriate way to phrase it — is important for the council to address if that access is not there in any precinct, regardless of voting results.” He, too, said he looked forward to discussing it at a future council meeting.
For Mount Dora’s non-gated neighborhoods, there are rules for fair campaigning which bear reminding. According to the city’s property code, residents have to wait until candidates have qualified for the election before putting up campaign signs in their yard. Residents are also limited to displaying one campaign sign for each candidate on their property, and can’t they can’t be put up in the right of way.
Who knows what craziness we’re in store for in the general election, which now looks to be shaping up between candidates so equally disfavored by their opposition. Maybe everyone will come out to vote, and maybe no one will. Who knows what decibel level of campaign ads we’ll have to tolerate. There may be shenanagans trying to make voting more difficult, as we saw in the Arizona primary last week. With the stakes so high, who knows how far it will go.
Social media culture seems to be polarizing opinion to an even starker, more odious degree. When people post their opinions in a sequence, that sequence as it picks up volume becomes what is known as an information cascade—a solid wall of collective opinion in which individual knowledge gets drowned out. The mob is louder in the feed than on the street. Whether your channel of choice is Fox News or Daily Koz, there is no middle ground between these oppositions. What is needed is face-to-face conversation, and this is where campaigns are truly most effective.
With a noisy, alarming and potentially fractious election season almost at our front porch, Council, at the very least, should be willing to step in and act as both coach and referee and strive to do what they can to allow the most open, fair and participatory process for all.
But ultimately, down at the far end of any discussion about voting in Mount Dora, there sits the stubborn, fat, immobile elephant in the room: That so many Mount Dora citizens don’t bother to vote. If Precinct 104 voting continues to sway heavily in favor of candidates it approves of for its own unique reasons, then the only democratic balance comes from the sum of all the city’s voters in all of its neighborhoods.
David Cohea, Writer (firstname.lastname@example.org)