Orlando’s Regina Hill likely to be suspended from office in coming days

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Embattled Orlando Commissioner Regina Hill is likely to be suspended by Governor Ron DeSantis in coming days, setting off a scramble to fill her council seat.

By Friday evening, DeSantis had taken no action. But ample precedent — and the governor’s own words on the eve of Hill’s Thursday arrest for elder abuse and fraud — leave little doubt.

A suspension of Hill would set the stage for a special election. Under the city’s charter, vacancies are filled by election, so DeSantis isn’t expected to seek to name a temporary replacement.

Mayor Buddy Dyer must set a date for a special election in the next 10 days, and that election must be within 45 days of when he makes such a call. He said Thursday he was already in talks with the Supervisor of Election about choosing a Tuesday for the vote.

Whoever wins the run-off election would be in a precarious situation: They’d be serving out the end of Hill’s current term, which runs until 2026. But if the charges against Hill are dropped – or if she’s exonerated in court – she could return to the post at that time, pushing aside her replacement, a city spokesperson said.

“If a suspension is made, it would be temporary pending the criminal case,” said Cassandra Bell, a spokeswoman for Dyer. “If she is found not guilty, she would be reinstated. If she’s found guilty, she’d be removed permanently.”

The city council has a regularly scheduled meeting Monday at 2 p.m. where commissioners are expected to weigh in on a host of issues from extending a moratorium on new nightclubs downtown to annexing a swath of southeast Orange County set for massive development into the city limits.

Without a suspension beforehand, Hill would be free to serve in her role as commissioner, at that meeting and elsewhere.

Hill has represented District 5 since winning election in 2013, which includes downtown Orlando and neighborhoods like Parramore and West Lakes west of I-4. In her most recent victory, in 2021, she won 73% of the ballots.

Hill became engulfed over the past two weeks in allegations that she’d taken control of an elderly constituent’s finances and exploited the woman for personal gain. In all, investigators allege she spent more than $100,000 of the woman’s money on renovating a home, rental cars, expensive perfumes, clothing and a hotel stay in Miami.

First, the commissioner was hit with an injunction last week in the case. Then she was indicted on seven felony counts Thursday. If convicted of all of the felonies, she faces up to 180 years in prison.

Hill has denied the charges, and said she loved the 96-year-old alleged victim like a member of her own family.

The year-plus-long investigation stemmed from a complaint filed by a former aide to Hill, who initially claimed to city that the commissioner fostered a hostile work environment but also made allegations about Hill’s relationship with the elderly woman.

Hill was cleared by a law firm hired by the city. Cockerham is now suing the city, alleging her termination was retaliatory. She also took her complaints to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

At a bill signing event at the State Attorney’s Office located in her district – the same day a grand jury was weighing evidence, and ultimately returned an indictment against her – DeSantis said he was aware of the allegations against Hill and would likely suspend her if she was criminally charged.

DeSantis, like governors before him, typically suspends elected officials following felony arrests. In 2022 he suspended a pair of Sumter County Commissioners after their arrest for perjury in a Sunshine Law investigation. In that case he waited nearly a month.

But last year he suspended Miami Commissioner Alex Diaz de la Portilla just a day after he was arrested on bribery and money laundering charges.