Plantation mayor’s race heats up as challenger Nick Sortal gains ground

(Photo from Nick Sortal's Facebook)

Nick Sortal spent most of his adult life as a journalist, some of that writing in an even-handed way about politics. Now he’s running for the top job in the city where he lives, Plantation, against incumbent mayor Lynn Stoner. 

The race has recently been muddied by allegations on both sides. 

As part of his campaign, Sortal published documents that he says shows the incumbent mayor lied about her car allowance at a public meeting and “cooked the books” for her elections.

“I don’t like being the negative guy, but damn it, you know, it’s true,”  Sortal said. “I want those documents available to the public as they make their choice.” 

On Monday, Red Broward, a conservative website, published allegations from an affidavit that claimed Sortal made a comment referring to his genitals and a racist remark to a city employee. 

Contacted by the South Florida Media Network, Sortal declined to comment, but deemed the memorandum “inaccurate.” Stoner wouldn’t talk about the claims made about her, citing an open State Attorney’s investigation. However, she acknowledged paying back Plantation for car allowance.  

 “A check was written back to the city,” she said. 

Plantation is just west of downtown Fort Lauderdale and home to one of the area’s most important shopping centers, the Broward Mall. It is mostly suburban and reasonably upper-middle class. It is Broward County’s ninth-largest city.

Sortal is the challenger in the race. He was born and grew up in Herrin, Illinois, which is not far from St. Louis. He wanted to study journalism, but his father wanted him to pursue mathematics, so he obtained degrees in both areas at Southern Illinois University in 1980.

He worked for four newspapers in the midwest before moving to Fort Lauderdale in 1985 to work for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, where he was an editor and a writer of sports features. He also wrote about local politics, which led him to regularly attend city meetings.

In 1993, Sortal married his wife Robyn, with whom he has two stepdaughters and one son. Their names are Diane, Michelle and Aaron, and they were born in 1985, 1988 and 1996, respectively. Robyn also worked at the Sun-Sentinel, and she is Sortal’s campaign deputy treasurer.

Beyond journalism and politics, Sortal became a high school basketball coach in 1992. He began coaching at Cardinal Gibbons High and continued to St. Thomas Aquinas and American Heritage, a school where he was also a teacher. He wrote a book called “Basketball Tip-Ins: 100 Drills and Tips for Young Players.”

Sortal is also a triathlon racer. He competes in eight to ten races per year. He has completed eight 70.3 Ironmans, a triathlon race that measures half the distance of an Ironman.

While he was enjoying his career as a journalist, he realized that the newspaper industry was changing. In 2015, he took a voluntary buyout and freelanced for the Miami Herald until 2017. At the same time, he began having aspirations to do something else.

“Layoffs were coming, and so my wife and I talked about what we would like to do when newspapers ended, and [I said] my dream would be to be in city service,” Sortal said. “I watched the way all these other cities worked, and I kind of thought to myself ‘I could do that.’”

In 2018, Sortal ran for council member for the first time. He won the election against Timothy J. Fadgen with 50.63% of the votes (16,419).

He was reelected in 2020, when he competed against Robert Koreman, obtaining 60.59% of the votes (25,604).

The city meetings that Sortal had attended as a journalist helped him find his way into local politics. In the same way, he has helped other politicians find their own political ground.

Jennifer Andreu is a city council member for the city of Plantation and Sortal has been a helping hand since her beginnings on the dais.

“He’s always been supportive of me,” she said. “He introduced me to a lot of people. I can always ask questions and seek advice, he is approachable and a great colleague.”

Andreu believes Sortal would do an excellent job as city mayor, as he dedicates a lot of time to his work and devotes himself to engaging with the community.

“He’s a problem solver,” she said. “He seeks for answers if he doesn’t have them and connects residents to departments to solve the problems.”

Nancy Ribbler, a speech language pathologist who is a teacher at Mirror Lake Elementary in Plantation, is a friend of Sortal. She describes him as an outstanding human being who positively impacts those around him.

“I had a student whose father was serving in Afghanistan at the time Nick was a journalist at the Sun Sentinel,” she said. “I had students write letters to that kid’s father and he made a story about that.”

If elected mayor, Sortal plans on continuing the Save Our Acres initiative, a movement against urbanization of the city at the cost of constructing on green land.

“I don’t want to [build on green spaces]” he said. 

Many of his contributors are from American Heritage High School, where he taught, but most of the money used in his campaign comes from his own pocket. For the 2018 and 2020 election campaigns, Sortal raised $40,000 dollars and $50,000, respectively. On both occasions, he shelled out $20,000 of his own money. 

(Photo from plantation.org)

This time around Sortal has been playing political hardball with his opponent. On May 22 he published a lengthy investigation of Stoner on his own website, Nicksortal.com. It was entitled “Lynn Stoner’s reign as mayor has been fraught with dishonesty.”

Using public documents, it showed that Stoner had increased her car allowance and then lied about it, violated the city charter, was disliked by city employees, lost a $1.1 million state appropriation and failed to complete evaluations of department heads.

“Lynn Stoner helped me greatly during my 2018 campaign. I am grateful for the tips and advice she gave me,” he wrote. “But I am the better candidate because the other items, listed above, are well below the standards we should hold for the role of mayor of Plantation.” 

On Monday, Red Broward, the conservative website, tweeted:

“Plantation Councilman Nick Sortal Admits Making Inappropriate Sexual And Racist Remarks To City Employee.” The Tweet linked to a lengthy article on their website detailing a city memorandum that describes a complaint by a high-level City of Plantation employee that Sortal had made inappropriate and racist remarks, which Sortal later acknowledged.

The memorandum describing the incident alleged that Plantation officials consulted labor attorney Denise Heekin, who stated that because Sortal is an elected official running for office, the city cannot sanction him. Red Broward did not name the complainant, but posted a picture of a bouquet of flowers with Sortal’s name that was allegedly delivered to the city employee, who reported the incident to the city’s human resources department. 

One winner of the debate could be a third candidate, Michael Brown.  

Running for mayor was not originally in Sortal’s plans, but he believes it is a good opportunity to do it.

“About four years ago it was an option if the stars lined up, and the stars have lined up,” he said. “I feel like I am super prepared, and I would love to do it.”

Diego is from Caracas, Venezuela and is pursuing his Bachelors' degree for Digital Communications and Media (Digital Journalism) at FIU.

Paloma Pimentel is a Junior at FIU majoring in Journalism. She is passionate about writing and hopes to become an investigative environmental journalist one day. She loves to travel and has been to 18 countries so far.