Fruitland Park launching investigation into employee’s complaint against commissioner

Fruitland Park Library Director Jo-Ann Glendinning

The city of Fruitland Park is preparing to launch an independent investigation into a complaint filed by an employee against District 1 Commissioner Rick Ranize.

The complaint, filed Thursday by Library Director Jo-Ann Glendinning, followed a conversation she had with Ranize that morning while collecting the mail at the corner of Dixie Avenue and Berckman Street. She said Ranize started the conversation with a threat to take away money that’s earmarked for new library furniture.

“Don’t be mad at me, but I’m going to take your money,” Glendinning said Ranize said to her in a memo she sent to City Manager Gary La Venia.

Glendinning said she was “certain this comment had to do with my furniture money for the new library” that’s included in the city’s 2019 budget. She said the two discussed the library and the costs and she explained to Ranize that one of the grants she had written was to cover the cost of new shelving and furniture.

Commissioner Rick Ranize

During the exchange, Glendinning said Ranize made several comments “which turned our talk uncomfortable.” Those included accusations that La Venia “on many occasions” has been in violation of the state’s Sunshine Law; that La Venia was afraid of former Community Development Director Charlie Rector and is afraid of Public Works Director Dale Bogle; that Ranize’s next three months on the commission “will not be pleasant for anyone;” and that he was having breakfast with the new commissioner from The Villages who will replace him in November to “fill him in.”

Glendinning said Ranize also told her she “would more than likely” receive the money for library furniture, “but I was not to be mad at him when I didn’t.”

In the memo, Glendinning, pointed out to La Venia that the acquisition of library grants come from multiple sources, “each with unique spending authorities and other impositions.” The 10-year city employee also reiterated that she was “taken aback” by the exchange with Ranize.

City Manager Gary La Venia

“I’m not only fearful that the city may be placed in a tenuous legal position, but also concerned for the potential negative impact in our nascent City Center,” she wrote.

La Venia said he couldn’t comment on the complaint but confirmed that an independent investigation into the matter will be conducted. Mayor Chris Cheshire also said he couldn’t comment on the specifics of the complaint but did say that he and the city have a “zero tolerance policy toward harassment of women.”

Ranize said he couldn’t comment until speaking with his lawyer. He said he hadn’t heard about or seen the complaint until Cheshire brought it up at the beginning of Thursday night’s regular commission meeting.

Glendinning’s complaint follows several tumultuous meetings where commissioners have verbally sparred over the millage rate for the coming fiscal year and how to pay for a portion of the school resource officer that’s being hired at Fruitland Park Elementary School. Ranize was an outspoken proponent of the city finding a way to help pay for the school resource officer position, which is being partially funded by $40,000 from the Lake County School Board.

Mayor Chris Cheshire

During exchanges between commissioners, Ranize has brought up the money earmarked for library furniture and said funding a school resource officer should be viewed as a higher priority. He also forcefully suggested that the city raise its millage rate to pay for the officer if needed.

Those issues and more came to a head during a budget workshop meeting three days before Ranize’s conversation with Glendinning. During that two-hour meeting, he said he’d had a change of heart, even though he believes the millage rate should be raised. He then listed a litany of issues he’s unhappy with, such as not having a five- or 10-year plan for the fire department and funding the agency solely by fire assessment fees. He also asked where the city would be without The Villages and then mentioned the lack of commercial businesses and issues with code enforcement.

At that point, Cheshire slammed down the gavel and said: “You act like you weren’t here for these things.”

“I’m tired of it,” Ranize snapped back.

“Did you vote for these things or not?” Cheshire asked Ranize.

“Yes, because I can count to three,” he said, referring to the number of votes need to pass items on a five-member commission.

“You could still vote no,” Cheshire fired back before abruptly ending the meeting.

At this past Thursday night’s commission meeting, the general consensus between Cheshire, Vice Mayor John Gunter and commissioners Ray Lewis and Chris Bell was to keep the millage rate at 3.9863, the same amount it’s been the past two years. Ranize didn’t offer an opinion but said, “I can count to three. No comment.”

Both Ranize and Lewis will leave the commission in November when two new commissioners from The Villages portion of the city take office. Both were elected in November 2014 at the same time voters overwhelmingly approved an amendment to divide the city into five districts. And since neither one lives in the districts they represent, they aren’t eligible to run for the seats again.

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