Leesburg eyes political self-preservation to guard against takeover by The Villages

Article Courtesy of The Villages-News
By Larry D. Croom
Published March 10, 2020

  

In a move that can be attributed to massive growth from The Villages and other large communities, Leesburg commissioners are considering a plan to change the way they are elected.
 

Commissioners will consider an ordinance Monday night that could drastically alter the face of the government body but clearly is designed to prevent any one community, group or developer from “taking over” the commission.

The ordinance, which calls for a referendum question to be placed on the Nov. 3 General Election ballot, would start the process of the city switching to commissioners elected from five distinct districts instead of the current makeup of three from districts and two at-large representatives. It would require a change to the city’s charter and would prohibit any one group from obtaining a three-person majority on the commission by getting both at-large candidates elected from their areas or communities.

The first reading of the ordinance was held two weeks ago – on the same night the commission approved five ordinances paving the way for The Villages to expand the massive retirement community into the city. That expansion eventually will include thousands of homes located in various parcels near the Florida Turnpike and the Villages of Southern Oaks in Sumter County.

 

“I’m not naming names, but I’m telling you that this is something we seriously have to look at in this city,” Dennison said, “because it happened in Fruitland Park. It happened in Sumter County where one individual group of people has taken over the commission. This is to prevent anybody from taking over the commission and that’s all I have to say about this.”

 

While she didn’t come out and say it, Dennison clearly was referring to The Villages, which gained approval to move in Fruitland Park in 2013 and has built the large majority of its homes in Sumter County, where growth is continuing today at a rapid pace and could reach all the way to Bushnell as the community nearly doubles in size.

This map shows property that was annexed into the city in February for future Villages development.


 
Fruitland Park currently has two Villages residents – John Mobilian and Patrick DeGrave – on its commission and Mayor Chris Cheshire, who owns a medical practice in the community. But none of those commissioners are viewed as candidates connected to The Villages Developer.

A much different scenario, however, exists in Sumter County where three commissioners – Al Butler, Steve Printz and Don Burgess – clearly are considered Developer candidates, as is Doug Gilpin, who works for major Villages supplier T&D Concrete. All of the commissioners, including Gary Breeden from the southern end of the county, are under fire because they approved a 25 percent tax increase last year despite the objections of many Villagers and others from throughout the county.

Butler, Printz and Burgess are up for re-election this year and all three are facing challengers who don’t appear to be connected to the Developer. A Political Action Committee, Fair Government for Sumter, formed and has taken aim at the three incumbents. And the Reverse One Sumter initiative was launched in an effort to eliminate countywide voting for commissioners and once again have them chosen by voters from their individual districts.

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