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Orange County Florida residents fend off government power grab

Civic engagement having impact in Orange County
Civic engagement having impact in Orange County

As reported by WESH News in Orlando yesterday, Orange County (OC) residents found themselves facing a "rush to judgment" with a late-May special election recommended - at a cost to taxpayers of more than a million dollars - to decide whether proposed big changes should be made to the county charter.

But a powerful one-two punch of civic engagement and activism combined Tuesday morning to put the brakes on the controversial plan when it came up for consideration at the Board of County Commissioners meeting.

The irony was unavoidable as on the same day Floridians were exercising their voting rights in a score of municipal races statewide (plus FL CD 13 and HD 44), a diverse mix of OC residents packed the Commission meeting to preserve and protect those and other rights of citizens countywide.

VIPs including Sheriff Jerry Demings and Tax Collector Scott Randolph joined a broad coalition of concerned community members in voicing opposition to a plan for recasting the character and composition of Orange County's charter government.

The Florida Association of Counties website explains a charter is akin to a constitution, featuring "formal written documents that confer powers, duties, or privileges on the county", adding:

According to several Florida constitutional scholars, the establishment of charter government was grant the county electorate greater control over their regional affairs."

Most of the 65 citizens who took advantage of 3-minute "public comment" opportunities at Tuesday's meeting expressed concern that District 2 Commissioner Fred Brummer's sweeping new plan would in fact give the commission greater control over county affairs, and the electorate, less.

Many pointed to part of Brummer's plan that would make it much harder for "citizens initiative" petition drives to succeed in getting charter amendments and ordinances onto the election ballot.

Others questioned Brummer's proposal to abolish the constitutional office of Tax Collector and "absorb" its functions into other parts of county government. Brummer told the audience a commission-created task force found the move could save money, a conclusion disputed by many, including County Comptroller Martha Haynie.

Tax Collector Randolph said this in his brief public comments at Tuesday's meeting:

"I think we should eliminate that, the idea of any savings, as part of this proposal

Some in attendance said that Brummer's recommendations to handicap petition drives and eliminate the Tax Collector's office represented nothing more than political payback and corporate cow-towing on the part of he and other commissioners.

This originates with the "textgate" scandal that erupted over collusion between Republican commissioners (though labeled "nonpartisan" offices, 5 of 6 commissioners and the mayor are registered Republicans), and representatives of corporations such as Disney and Darden Restaurants.

With profit margins pinned on workers getting low wages and no benefits, these biggest of big Florida businesses were looking for help to subvert a successful petition drive that gathered more than 50,000 signatures and got a mandatory employer-paid sick-leave referendum onto the 2012 election ballot.

Not yet elected Tax Collector, former Democratic State Rep. Scott Randolph was a strong advocate of the referendum - and one of the lawyers who uncovered the illegal communications between corporate interests trying to get it off the ballot, and commissioners such as Brummer who helped them achieve their goal.

However, it's worth noting that a lawsuit later overturned that subterfuge, and a "non-binding" sick-leave referendum (because the state legislature passed a law ensuring "mandatory" was no longer an option) will now be on the August 26 primary ballot.

Another eyebrow-raising aspect of the Brummer proposal is that in calling for creation of two new districts, it recommends that rather than being elected by Orange County voters, the two new commissioners be quickly appointed by Republican Gov. Rick Scott prior to his reelection day of reckoning Nov. 4.

Other less controversial parts of Brummer's plan - 8-year term limits for constitutional offices like Sheriff, Property Appraiser and Elections Supervisor, and making all countywide constitutional office elections non-partisan - still raised serious questions for many.

From the controversy to the questions, it became abundantly clear to most in attendance at Tuesday's meeting, including Mayor Teresa Jacobs, that the idea of rushing into an expensive late-May special election - when there's already the one in August and the general election November 4 - made no sense.

For having that proposal taken off the table entirely, and for having the rest of it tabled until an April 8 open-to-the-public commission "workshop" on it, Orange County residents can thank the 60+ concerned citizens who spoke out at Tuesday's meeting; along with organizations like Orlando-based Organize Now for helping publicize the Brummer proposal and the commission's first open discussion of it.

Apparently civic engagement and activism really can make a big difference, especially in local politics.

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