ORLANDO, Fla. – Local progressive forces told Orange County commissioners, “Don’t Delete Democracy,” at the commission’s Oct. 2 meeting here. The newly minted campaign comes in the wake of disclosures that the county mayor, a commissioner and county employees had deleted text messages sent and received during a lengthy Sept. 11 meeting on earned sick time.
These actions seem to have been “a violation of the law requiring retention of such messages,” John Kaney, general counsel for the First Amendment Foundation of Florida said. Also, a 2010 legal opinion by Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum stated that “text or instant messages about public business should be retained as public records,” the Orlando Sentinel reported.
At the Sept. 11 meeting, the commission voted 4-3 to keep a paid-sick-time ordinance off the Nov. 6 ballot, claiming that the measure’s ballot title and summary were faulty and would mislead voters and that there was confusion over who legally is responsible for ensuring that the ballot language is accurate.
Some consider the commission’s action to be in direct violation of the county charter and showing blatant disregard for the democratic will of the nearly 75,000 Orange County voters who this summer signed petitions to get the sick-time measure on the ballot.
The text messages, which were recovered and turned over to media and activists after public record requests, show repeated contacts between elected officials and lobbyists for big business in the weeks before and during the Sept. 11 meeting. These revelations have been covered extensively in local media and have helped fuel a public backlash against a commission that many see as being influenced by big business forces and unconcerned about the needs and desires of working people.
“How do I convey the anger, indeed the violation, people feel knowing that as citizens we count less than invisible people who vibrate in your laps?” Paul Heroux, a member of Organize Now!, told commissioners at the Oct. 2 meeting.
“The moneyed lobbyists working for special interests can tell you at any time what to do, how they feel, and receive immediate response,” said Stephanie Porta, executive director of Organize Now! “What about the rest of your voters? Don’t they deserve equal access?”
WESH-TV reported Oct. 2 that Commissioner Scott Boyd, a Republican and one of the four who voted to keep sick time off the ballot, had exchanged six messages with Disney lobbyist Sharon Smoley on Sept. 11, along with receiving messages from lobbyists for the Central Florida Hotel and Motel Association, Darden Restaurants and Mears Transportation. According to the station, two of the messages from Smoley to Boyd suggested that “the ballot language and title were vague and should be studied and reworked.”
The Orlando Sentinel reported Sept. 27 that Smoley had exchanged 32 texts with Vice Mayor Jennifer Thompson on Sept. 11. Thompson, a Republican and outspoken opponent of mandated sick time, was another of the four commissioners who voted to keep sick time off the ballot. All told, the vice mayor, a former officer and board member of two local chambers of commerce, deleted 139 messages that she sent and received during the Sept. 11 meeting, including the ones between Smoley and her.
Previously deleted texts indicate that County Mayor Teresa Jacobs – a Republican who opposes mandated sick time, but voted against keeping it off the November ballot – “received advice and coaching” during the Sept. 11 meeting on how to handle the sick-time issue from Kevin Shaughnessy, a lawyer and political supporter of the mayor.
Shaughnessy, a sick-time opponent whom the Sentinel calls a “top unofficial adviser” to Jacobs, is part of a law firm with other lawyers who are registered as lobbyists for Disney World – the largest employer in Central Florida, and an endorser of Jacobs in the county’s 2010 mayoral race.
The Sentinel reported last month that 90 percent of Disney’s $2.5 million in PAC donations during this election cycle have gone to Republicans or interest groups that tend to support Republicans, including $250,000 given to a political committee connected to the Florida Chamber of Commerce.
In another text sent to Jacobs in August, her chief of staff, Graciela Noriega-Jacoby, told the mayor that she would “reach out” to lobbyists from Disney, Universal Studios, SeaWorld, Mears and Darden as part of the concerted effort by pro-business forces and elected officials to derail mandated sick time. That same month, according to the Sentinel, Jacobs texted Shaughnessy inviting him to join representatives of the theme parks and Mears in a conference call on the sick-time measure.
Jacobs also exchanged messages on Sept. 11 with Stina D’Uva, president of the West Orange Chamber of Commerce and a political supporter, telling D’Uva in one text: “I don’t say it often enough but I am very grateful for your friendship.”
“Clearly, we have a commission that feels like they’re above the law and not accountable to the community,” said Denise Diaz, director of Central Florida Jobs with Justice, which has played a major role in the coalition pushing the sick-time measure. “It leads to this broader question of how our commissioners do business.”
After wrangling over the ballot language is complete, and barring any further lawsuits by pro-business forces, the measure, the first citizen-initiated ordinance to be certified for the ballot in Orange County history, should go before voters in 2013 or 2014. If it passes, those working at any business in the county (population 1.2 million) with15 or more employees would earn one hour of paid sick time for every 37 hours worked, up to a maximum of 56 hours (seven days) per year.
The measure’s impact would be greatest on the county’s low-wage workers, especially in the restaurant, hospitality, retail and theme-park sectors, who mostly don’t have paid sick time, including 40 percent of Disney workers.
Photo: Demonstration outside the Orange County Commission meeting Oct. 2 in Orlando, Fla. Ben Markeson/PW