ORLANDO – A civil trial begins on Monday involving libel and slander, although depending on how the case is presented to jurors, a lot of it could also focus on a political controversy in Winter Garden dating back to 2005.
Today, Winter Garden touts Trailer City on its Web site as a rich part of Winter Garden’s history and a place that first started attracting vacationers in the 1930s. The lawsuit that jurors will decide on Monday in the Orange County Courthouse – Case No. 2007-CA-016024-O, Richard Mask, plaintiff, versus Doug Guetzloe, defendant, could touch on a very different aspect of Trailer City’s recent history, one that involves Guetzloe’s work on behalf of saving the park from being closed down, and whether this libel lawsuit represents an attempt to punish him for those activities.
“It’s payback, the whole thing is an attempted payback,” said Fred O’Neal, the attorney representing Guetzloe. “They’re punishing Doug for getting involved in Winter Garden politics.”
The political battle started in 2004 when Winter Garden city commissioners voted to close the property along Lake Apopka called Trailer City, which today still has more than 140 mobile homes and 200 residents living on its nearly 14 acres.
“This is a trial that’s really a battle over Trailer City,” Guetzloe said.
As part of the political fight to prevent the park from being closed, Guetzloe, who is the host of The Guetzloe Report radio show, had gotten involved in a political fight to recall one of the Winter Garden commissioners who favored closing it.
Officials in Winter Garden had announced plans seven years ago to close the city-owned mobile-home park, citing safety concerns. At the time, Guetzloe said, he’d been contacted by some of the elderly residents who expected to be thrown out of their Trailer City homes, and took on a David-and-Goliath fight to prevent the closing.
“I put a tremendous amount of effort into this for four months,” Guetzloe said — adding that his efforts were a great success.
“We basically removed the entire government in Winter Garden,” he said.
To save the park, residents of Trailer City targeted City Commissioner Bill Thompson, who had voted to close the park by 2012, citing fire-code violations.
Guetzloe was an unpaid consultant to the Recall Thompson Committee, which ultimately proved successful in a March 2005 municipal election. Thompson was recalled in a landslide, with 451 residents voting yes and 208 voting no, while another vote for closing the park, Commissioner John Harriman, lost by 10 votes to challenger Carol Nichols, who had supported the recall effort.
District 2 Commissioner Theo Graham, who has opposed the closing of Trailer City, was easily re-elected, splitting the commission 2-2 on the issue. Mayor Jack Quesinberry had also voted to close Trailer City.
It fell to Gov. Jeb Bush to break the impasse by appointing Thompson’s replacement. In May 2005, Bush chose Rod Reynolds, a local business owner with a communications and marketing firm, Daily Graphics. He was selected over four other candidates, including Mask, who had been viewed by some as the likely front-runner because he had the support of U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez and Orange County Sheriff Kevin Beary. At the time, Mask was serving on the city’s Planning and Zoning Board.
Reynolds had picked up the endorsement of the Trailer City Homeowners Association.
“It was a boom time in Florida when land was a precious commodity,” Reynolds recalled. “And Trailer City, which is owned and operated by the city of Winter Garden, sits on some prime property on Lake Apopka. There was a group of businessmen and investors and powerful people in the city who determined they’d like to close it and demolish the trailers and develop the property.”
When the recall petition succeeded, Reynolds said, he decided to pursue the vacant seat.
“Mr. Mask and myself two or three others were in consideration for that seat for an appointment from the governor,” Reynolds said. “The governor srelected me to fill the seat for the rest of Mr. Thompson’s term. Mr. Mask was on the side wanting to have Trailer City closed. He was pretty active in voicing his opinion on that.”
Reynolds said supporters of Trailer City never believed the property was being closed for safety reasons.
“I think that was more of a cover story, more of an excuse,” he said. “They just made
the argument that the trailers were too close together, and if there was a fire, the firemen couldn’t get in between the trailers. But because of the time Trailer City was established, the code wasn’t the same at the time, so they would have had to grandfather them in.”
The fact that developers were eyeing the property had more to do with the closing, Reynolds said.
“You didn’t have to be a rocket scientist to know that,” he said. “Florida was in the midst of a huge building boom and land was skyrocketing, almost doubling in price in a matter of a few months time.”
Guetzloe said during this brief time span, between March and May of 2005, the underdog residents of Trailer City were able to remake City Hall.
“We did all that, and we took control of city government,” he said. “This case on Monday is the last shot in this battle.”
“We considered this a tremendous victory,” said Richard Napotnik, chairman of the Recall Thomspon campaign. “It was a tremendous uphill battle. Talk about an exciting time. One of the big, big factors that helped us immensely in Trailer City was Doug Guetzloe and Fred O’Neal. Those guys really came out and defended us.”
Napotnik said he felt Mask’s chances of getting the appointment to the commission were hurt following a scandal involving his application to the governor for the job.
“Mask has said ‘I didn’t read the paper, the form from Tallahassee,’ and the question on it was ‘Did you graduate from high school,’ and Mask put on there that he did graduate from high school, but we later found out he never did,” Napotnik said. “That was falsification of papers sent to the governor, so Mask was disqualified.”
The slander lawsuit dates back to 2006. Mask, a Winter Garden businessman, is suing Guetzloe for defamation, claiming that Guetzloe implied on his radio program that Mask went into Trailer City looking to pick up young boys. Guetzloe has denied that allegation. On Monday, a judge and jury decide where to take this case.
Mask’s attorney, Howard S. Marks of Winter Park, said this is a simple and straightforward case of one man making outrageous comments on his radio program.
“The First Amendment is a wonderful amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and you can say almost anything. But you can’t say someone is ‘trolling for children’,” Marks said. “You can’t say my client is trying to pick up young boys. You can’t say they should call the sheriff’s office on him. That is a line that is very clear under any law in any state. Mr. Guetzloe will say anything and do anything to cause as much harm to a person’s reputation that he can, and it’s about time someone stood up to him. Mr. Mask stood up to him.”
Guetzloe denied that he ever accused Mask of being a pedophile. His comments, he said, were in reference to a letter he had received from Commissioner Nichols saying Mask had been seen in Trailer City checking to see if the park was violating city rules by allowing children to live there, since it was supposed to be an over 55 mobile home park.
Nichols’ letter questioned whether Mask was trying to find out if the park was in violation of city code, and stated in part: “This past week, Richard Mask was seen in the park, in his car, speaking with two of the young boys who live in the park. These boys have lived here for over 5 ½ years. Let me point out that this park is not, and never has been, legally designated an “Adult” park. The city claimed to have secured that designation in 2001, but has since recanted and now says they never sent in the paperwork …. we are planning to speak with these children to find out what Mask wanted during his visit here. Mask has been seen driving through the park on several occasions. Shortly after Mr. Mask’s visit an Orange County Code Enforcement officer suddenly appeared in the park. He went to the exact area where Mask had been seen earlier, and wrote citations to two of the neighboring houses.”
Guetzloe said the letter prompted him to raise the issue on his program.
In a transcript from the radio broadcast, Guetzloe said, “Richard Mask was seen in the park, Trailer City in the park apparently approaching two young boys who live in the park, and that, in and of itself, is needless to say a concern. I certainly wouldn’t approach a car with Richard Mask in it. But apparently he is also cruising Trailer City. So now we find out that Mr. Mask is cruising Trailer City apparently trying to talk to young boys out of his car …. I don’t know what his problem is, but he needs to stay away from young boys.”
“I said it’s inappropriate for strangers to talk to children,” Guetzloe said. “He believes at this point that I was implying he was a pedophile.”
That wasn’t the case, he said.
“That’s absolutely not true,” Guetzloe said. The facts show I never said that.”
Guetzloe thinks the case has less to do with slander than with politics.
“This is really going to be the last battle of Trailer City,” he said.
O’Neal agreed, saying “I think that Doug was pretty careful on the words he chose on the broadcast not to make an outright claim that he was a pedophile. They’re stretching to say Doug made a direct statement on Mask’s sexual proclivities.”
Marks, though, said Guetzloe’s comments on the air crossed the line, and a jury is certain to see that.
“We will find that the comments Mr. Guetzloe made were made for the sole purpose of trying to embarrass and humiliate him in public,” Marks said. “We’re going to let a jury listen to the tape and hear the comments Mr. Guetzloe made over the airways in Central Florida. I don’t think it needs an argument. Who else trolls for young boys? What in the world does that mean? You know what that means. Every member of the jury knows what that means. That’s what pedophiles do. It doesn’t need any further explanation.”
O’Neal countered that “What Doug said was he didn’t know why Mask was approaching these boys, but he thought it was inappropriate for Mask to be approaching them in the first place. It’s pretty clear when you read the whole transscript that he doesn’t know why he’s doing it, but he shouldn’t be doing it.”
“This whole thing,” Guetzloe added, “is really about development.”
The case will be heard by Orange County Circuit Court Judge Jose R. Rodriguez.
Today, Winter Garden touts Trailer City as a proud part of the community’s heritage.
“In a move to bring tourists to Winter Garden, Trailer City was advertised in 1938 as ‘one of the most modern and completely equipped locations ever offered trailer travelers’ and claimed it had ‘everything for the trailer tourist convenience and pleasure, ‘ ” the site notes. “Opened in 1936, Trailer City is located on the southern shores of Lake Apopka nestled next to many of Winter Garden’s recreation facilities including Farnsworth Pool, Tanner Hall, Little Hall and shuffle-board courts. As ‘tin-can tourists’ upgraded to leave-behind trailers, Trailer City evolved into a mobile home park with the first year-around resident asking for permission to add permanent room in 1942.”
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