CITIZEN EXERCISES RIGHT TO SPEAK — The founder of a Facebook group known as Orange City Proud, Brenda Cusack, at left, addresses the City Council regarding recent controversies over the 2024 race for mayor and the use of U.S. flags in the campaign. Cusack appealed for civility in the conduct of the campaign, which now features City Council Member Kelli Marks and Vice Mayor Bill O’Connor as the rivals. Marks came under fire for attaching a political card for her candidacy to an American flag. O’Connor attacked Marks for using the flag for her personal political advancement.

With eyes toward the 2024 race for mayor of the town of approximately 13,000, the Orange City Council meetings of late have been anything but dull.

“What happened to the respect? What happened to the love? What happened to the concern we had for each other, as well as our residents?” Council Member Lisa Stafford asked, raising her emotion-filled voice. “I’m sick and tired of all the negativeness — on everybody’s side. Please forgive me. Let us govern this city so that our residents can love and respect and appreciate us for what we are doing for them. Time out! Please, please! Time out!”

The political overtones color the sessions, as two contenders for mayor already sit on the seven-member elected body. In short, the vying for position and favor with the electorate has become more lively and spirited than the items on the meetings’ agendas. At the same time, the political rivalry is testing the ability of candidates to uphold promises of civility and courtesy.

The most recent meeting was an episode of trying to match ideals with reality, amid allegations and accusations.

During the portion of the meeting given over to hearing ideas, suggestions, concerns and comments from the public, administrators of a Facebook group known as Orange City Proud voiced concerns about the political infighting.

“We constantly seek kindness. We filter every single post that goes on our page,” Brenda Cusack told the City Council and the audience. “There are rules you must agree to to become a member of our group.”

Orange City Proud has some 7,600 members, including members of the City Council.

Cusack added someone had posted a photo of Council Member and mayoral candidate Kellianne Marks appearing on a stage at the city-sponsored Independence Day celebration holding a U.S. flag upside down. For her part, Marks said the flag had slipped from her hand, and someone snapped a photo of the seemingly disrespectful display and posted it online. Cusack came to Marks’ defense, referencing her placement of flags around the town — along with a placard reading “Marks for Mayor” — over the Memorial Day weekend.

PHOTO COURTESY ORANGE CITY CITY CLERK’S OFFICE A COMMUNITY TRADITION — Orange City’s Independence Day celebration draws a big crowd from miles around for its food vendors, live music, games and fireworks. On stage, City Council members welcome the festive crowd to the event, which took place July 1, the Saturday before the official July Fourth holiday. In the photo is Kelli Marks, who says she turned the flag around when the photographer snapped the picture of her appearing to hold it upside down. Marks says her thumbs-down gesture was a sort of “joke,” actually her way of appealing to spectators to support her for mayor rather than O’Connor, who, she says, was speaking at that moment.

“Kelly adorned our city in the past with American flags. She handed out hundreds of American flags,” Cusack said.

Cusack added that Vice Mayor Bill O’Connor — also a mayoral candidate — got a share of political attention on Orange City Proud’s page, as well.

“It was a political advertisement for him posted by his brother, … full of name-calling,” she said.

The post was removed from Orange City Proud, because “rules were broken,” according to Cusack.

“Please stop being unkind to each other,” Cusack said, turning her attention toward O’Connor. “Please focus on what you bring to the table. Let your service speak for itself.”

Leah Brooks, another administrator of Orange City Proud, followed. She also referenced O’Connor’s brother, John.

“The same man was attempting to post a political ad on behalf of his brother, Mr. William O’Connor, in which he said that Orange City Proud had blocked the ad,” Brooks said.

Brooks said the post included “lies and slander,” including a statement that Marks serves as an administrator of the Orange City Proud group.

Fast-forward to the end of the meeting, when Stafford used her final time to speak to demand “Time out!”

“I’m not giving a timeout,” O’Connor said. “Two ladies came here tonight and lied to us. They came in here and flat out lied. She said they’re not a political thing.”

O’Connor went on to say someone had attacked Mayor Gary Blair.

“I’m sorry, Mayor, they called you a communist,” O’Connor said. “It’s on their Facebook page. … Somebody called the mayor a name.”

“Calling the mayor a name is bullying,” he noted.

O’Connor also displayed a photo purportedly taken at the Independence Day celebration showing Marks giving a thumbs-down gesture as he, O’Connor, was speaking on the stage.

“Look what Kellianne is doing to me,” he said.

Marks denied she had known beforehand about what would play out in the meeting.

“I didn’t know they were coming tonight,” she told her colleagues.

“We’re going to run against each other. We’re going to run against each other clean,” she told O’Connor and everyone else present. “Let it go. … The bottom line is, … why are we wasting our time talking about a campaign and a stupid ad which has nothing to do with our residents?”

In the several years in which she has attended City Council meetings, Council Member Fran Darms observed she has never seen such a governing body act as it has of late.

“This is new. This is beyond beyond,” she told her peers.

As if to pour oil on troubled waters, Blair urged members, “Be kind. Do a good job.”

“I am not a communist,” he said, before adjourning the meeting.

Though the meeting ended, the fallout continues.

Marks has again denied she was dishonoring the Stars and Stripes.

“If I was going to disrespect the flag, why would I have given away 3,000 flags in the last few weeks?” she told The Beacon in a follow-up conversation. “I spent my money on the residents.”

Marks also said she was not disrespecting O’Connor while he was speaking.

“When I put my thumbs down, that was my way of making a joke and saying, ‘Vote for me!’” she added.

O’Connor said he has had second thoughts about the fireworks at the July 11 meeting.

“It’s water under the bridge. I’ll go forward to do what I’m supposed to do and keep campaigning out of it. I’m going to try to be a statesman,” he concluded. “I let my emotions get the best of me, and I’m going to do better.”


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