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Fla. Mayor Orders Police To Remove Man Who Wouldn’t Stand For Pledge Of Allegiance

By Stephen Hudak, Orlando Sentinel

ORLANDO, Fla. — Winter Garden Mayor John Rees ordered a man to leave the city commission meeting Thursday night because he refused to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance.

“I just said, ‘Either stand or go in the hallway.’ He wouldn’t,” said Rees, 65, who was elected to a third, three-year term in March. “It wasn’t premeditated. I just reacted. It hit me. I said it. I gave him an option. … Life will go on.”

Rees said he considered the man’s refusal to stand for the invocation — a ceremonial prayer that opens the city’s public meetings — and the Pledge of Allegiance to be disrespectful. “I did not make him stand for the prayer,” Rees said. “But the Pledge? Even school kids stand. So I told him, ‘You have two choices: You can stand or go outside.’ ”

Police Chief George A. Brennan then approached the man and asked, “What are you going to do?”

The man then got up and left. He was not arrested.

Rees said he did not know the man.

Consisting of 31 words, the 122-year-old pledge has been the subject of debate and legal battles for years, including a notable one in Florida that led a federal appeals court to rule that it was unconstitutional to force students to recite — or even stand “at attention” — for the pledge.

The Florida case involved an 11th-grader at a school in Palm Beach County whose parents sued in 2005 after the teen was punished and ridiculed by his teacher for refusing to stand while his classmates recited the pledge.

Leslie Postal contributed to this report.

Photo: Mike Mozart via Flickr

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Small Florida Police Force Shaken By KKK Charges

By Stephen Hudak, Orlando Sentinel

ORLANDO, Fla. — Fruitland Park police Chief Terry Isaacs said his department has been shaken by troubling but unproven allegations that a deputy chief and a former police corporal were associated with the Ku Klux Klan.

The allegations, contained in a confidential FBI report provided to Isaacs by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, led to the sudden resignation of Deputy Chief David Borst and Isaacs’ decision Friday to dismiss Officer George Hunnewell.

Isaacs would not confirm that the report linked the two officers to the KKK, instead describing the group as a “subversive organization.” He said he couldn’t be more exact in his description because he thought he was not authorized to release details of the report. Issacs said the document was given to him as chief to consider how the allegations might affect the officers’ credibility and the perception of the department in the community.

Chief Deputy State Attorney Ric Ridgway, from whom Isaacs sought advice, identified the KKK as the hate group.

“It’s not a crime to be a member of the KKK, even if you are the deputy chief. It’s not a crime to be stupid,” Ridgway said, in a previous interview. “It’s not a crime to hate people. It may be despicable, it may be immoral, but it’s not a crime.”

Borst, 49, of Wildwood, who also was Fruitland Park’s fire chief, denied involvement in the group but resigned both posts Friday after requesting time to speak with his family, Isaacs said.

“It’s a tough situation. He was my assistant,” said Isaacs, adding he had not witnessed behavior by Borst that would substantiate the charge. “I’m not saying I believe him. I’m not saying I don’t believe him. But I’ve read the report, and it’s convincing.”

Isaacs said Hunnewell, who was demoted from corporal in 2013, received five “letters of counseling” in the past year, an indication he was not performing to department standards.

Isaacs said he considered Hunnewell’s job performance before dismissing him.

“I just had no faith in him,” he said.

Neither Borst nor Hunnewell could be reached for comment.

Isaacs, who made counselors available for his officers, said Fruitland Park has 13 full-time and five part-time cops, and many were trained by Borst.

“They’re a good group of people,” he said of his officers, describing them as upset by the allegations. “The last thing I was expecting to hear in the year 2014 was for a professional law-enforcement officer to be a member of a subversive organization.”

In 2009, Fruitland Park police Officer James Elkins resigned after pictures surfaced of him in uniform with a pointy Klan hood and robe.

Photo: DonkeyHotey via Flickr

93-Year-Old Mayor Didn’t Go Down Without A Fight

By Stephen Hudak, Orlando Sentinel

APOPKA, Fla. — Apopka voters decided that it was finally time for a change.

After a historic run by 93-year-old Mayor John Land, they chose a new direction in the name of Joe Kilsheimer, 56, who campaigned on the need for younger, more energetic leadership in a city that had fallen short of its potential.

Land has served as chief executive of Apopka, which means “potato eating place” in a Seminole language, for all but three years since 1949. But he faced a tough opponent who ran an aggressive campaign, relentlessly canvassing voters door to door and pounding home the message that Apopka needed a new direction.

In admitting defeat, Land told supporters, “I love Apopka still, but I’ll probably have a broken heart.”

The mayor said he was “too old to cry” but hurt too much to laugh.

He then flashed back to his days as a soldier under Gen. George Patton during World War II.

“I think about old Gen. Patton — I served in his Army,” Land said. “He had a saying: ‘I wouldn’t give two hoots in hell for someone who lost and laughed about it.’ That’s how I feel.”

Kilsheimer, a former city commissioner, captured 54 percent of the vote to Land’s 46 percent in the most expensive election in Apopka’s history. The mayor spent nearly $100,000, to Kilsheimer’s $40,000.

Kilsheimer’s decisive victory almost certainly ends the political career of Florida’s longest-serving mayor, who also is believed to be the nation’s oldest.

On election night last Tuesday, Land, surrounded by his wife, Betty, and his children, thanked his supporters.

“All the young people here … who worked on the campaign here, it’s been an honor to serve,” he said. “I appreciate that.”

Some in the crowd burst into tears while someone shouted, “Come back in four years!”

At the end of the mayor’s remarks, disc jockey Ralo Flores began playing “The Good Life,” a melancholy song recorded by Tony Bennett that ends with the verse, “Please remember I still want you, and in case you wonder why — well, just wake up: Kiss the good life goodbye.”

A campaign worker asked the DJ to play something more upbeat, and Flores spun Pharrell Williams’ “Happy.”

The mayor’s race in Apopka, a town of about 44,000 in central Florida, captured national attention — most notably because of Land’s age.

At home, it generated a record-setting turnout, with a steady stream of voters at the city’s community center.

After casting his ballot, Tim Ford, 42, said he voted for Land because he’s familiar with the mayor’s accomplishments and not so familiar with Kilsheimer, a former Orlando Sentinel reporter who left the newspaper about 15 years ago.

“If it ain’t broke, don’t bother,” said Ford, a lifelong Apopka resident. “You can see what Mayor Land has done. His opponent, we don’t know. The city is too big to gamble on the unknown.”

Al Suarez, a 15-year resident of Apopka, voted for Kilsheimer.

“I think it’s time for some change, some new blood,” said Suarez, 48.

News of the protracted battle for Apopka mayor spread across the U.S., with stories by ABC News, NBC News and Reuters. But it reached even farther last week when the story hit De Telegraaf, a Dutch news site. Its story was about Apopka’s race for burgemeester, or mayor.

Its translated headline was: “Oldest Mayor in U.S. Wants More Time.”

It wasn’t to be this time around.

But will there be a next time?

“Never say never,” Land said.

Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel/MCT