Closed-door democracy

The man speaking at the Sept. 25 Orlando City Council meeting had a message as old as the American Revolution. When it comes to spending tax money, he said, maybe it'd be a good idea to let citizens have a say before government actually spent it.

Hearing from constituents seems like an idea every public official would loudly trumpet. But not Mayor Glenda Hood. She considered her own ideas more important than the speaker's, interrupting him not once, not twice, but three times in a five-minute period.

In a manner both schoolmarmish and condescending, the mayor defended the city's position that $7.5 million in taxpayer money should be committed immediately to a $53.3 million West Church Street development because the "private sector" was moving forward "post haste," requiring city officials to "facilitate" the developers. "When the private sector is leading the way," the mayor said, "it's hard to tell them what to do."

Who was the speaker who drove Hood to violate parliamentary procedure? (No one, not even the chairman of a board, has the authority to interrupt a speaker who has the floor, according to Robert's Rules of Order, the bible that dictates proceedings of the city's public meetings.)

None other than Don Ammerman, the city commissioner from District 1.

Ammerman had made it clear he approved of the development: 254 upscale apartments and office space to serve as the headquarters of Hughes Supply, a publicly traded construction wholesaler. Yet he was concerned that every developer in Central Florida would want the same swift deal greased for Hughes, the Bank of America and other businesses involved in the project. After all, it was rushed through in two business days and required emergency meetings of at least two city agencies. Meanwhile, he said, the amount of public money spent on these types of projects is increasing.

"Council has to be aware that there's a precedent being set here," Ammerman warned.

The fact that Hood struggled to stifle those comments almost as soon as they left Ammerman's mouth begs a question: If this is the kind of treatment she dealt to one of her peers, what happens to the poor Joe who doesn't share the dais with the city's elected leaders?

As many can attest, that poor Joe likely will be ignored, minimized, contradicted, negated and generally given the bum's rush, especially if he opposes one of the mayor's pet projects.

In other words, Mr. Citizen, City Hall would prefer that you keep your opinions to yourself and stay out of the way.

It's nothing new. Many observers have witnessed the sad treatment afforded to people who dare become involved since at least the Bill Frederick administration. "The city tends to disdain public input," says Rick Foglesong, a political-science professor at Rollins College and longtime observer of local governments.

Foglesong points to the city's strong-mayor system as the culprit. Unlike the Orange County Commission, whose members traditionally have shared a balance of power, Orlando empowers its mayor to control most aspects of the city's government. Not only does Hood have veto power, but she also controls which issues appear on the council's agenda. She further appoints board members of all 30 citizen advisory committees and city-run nonprofits, often putting her in the awkward position of defending an agency -- such as the Parramore Heritage Renovation Foundation -- that she, along with the rest of the city council, should instead be overseeing.

"At the county, you often get a good show of conflict and controversy," Foglesong says. "But that is part of the process. The city of Orlando has a different political culture. It is less tolerant of dissent. A strong mayor is going to quash conflict. So the institutional structure of government has served to minimize squabbling. Maybe that has carried over to the citizens."

The absence of reform seems more significant now because public input -- or the perceived lack of it -- was a central theme during last spring's mayoral campaign. Indeed, three of Orlando's six city council members, or commissioners, endorsed a fourth, Bruce Gordy, in his campaign against Hood. All four insisted that they were fed up with Hood's treatment of them as second-class administrators whose opinions had little weight. Even they had trouble getting information in a timely manner from the mayor's office, they said.

In victory, Hood promised to change.

She sent a slightly different message, however, with her annual State of the City address on Oct. 10 -- closed to the public, but with a long list of "invitation only" guests that included attorneys, bankers, developers and business people. At least one commissioner, Patty Sheehan, was so incensed about the exclusivity that she shunned the luncheon and Hood's speech at the Orlando Museum of Art, preferring instead to catch the mayor's comments at home that night on the local government-access TV channel.

It was not the first time Sheehan, elected to the council last spring, winced at the administration's heavy-handedness.

Recently, for example, the city decided to build a baseball "complex" for Delaney Park Little Leaguers on a field near Lake Como Elementary School, at Bumby Avenue and Gore Street in Ammerman's district. Construction of the complex was to begin June 19. Trouble was, the city's parks and recreation department didn't bother to alert any of the neighbors who live near the school -- neighbors who fly kites, play football and throw Frisbees in the park.

When the news was discovered, the neighborhood called a meeting -- about 80 people attended -- and a committee was formed with the city's blessing to review the plan. The committee was supposed to present its findings at a second meeting.

But, in a tactic the city often uses, members of the committee didn't present their findings. That job went instead to city staff members, allowing the city to control not only the presentation but also the content of the information presented. "It was an inept way to handle it," says Sheehan, who became involved because her district borders Lake Como Elementary.

That wasn't the only controlling tactic city staff members used. A former city employee named Sarah Butler failed to alert Sheehan to the second meeting, saying the ballfield wasn't in Sheehan's district. Sheehan found out about the date and time of the meeting from Ammerman, even though she says she had asked Butler to keep both commissioners in the loop. "It was like, ‘Do I have to take a pen and write it on a sheet of paper?'" Sheehan says.

Eventually, the city backed off its ambitious plan. The Lake Como field instead will undergo only modest renovations. But neighbors who were engaged in the conflict said it illustrates the quiet arrogance the city has displayed for at least two decades.

"It's the same cadre of folks who've run this town for a long time," says Maribeth Healey, a Lake Como PTA member who was on the ballfield committee. "They will continue to run it without a lot of community involvement."

Nearly everyone agrees that the ultimate example of Orlando's stealth government in action came during the light-rail debate.

After Orange County pulled it funding and killed a 14-mile commuter-train system last fall, Hood subsequently revived it -- however briefly -- on her own. She did so when, at a nighttime meeting of the council held in the Rosemont neighborhood, she asked the council out of the blue to endorse a shorter, $325 million system that would have extended just eight miles of track between downtown and Belz Factory Outlet World at the east end of the tourist corridor.

The council passed the resolution, 4-3. Hood followed up and called an emergency council meeting for 3 p.m. the next day by having a handwritten note posted on a bulletin board. When only three council members showed, Hood called up Commissioner Ernest Page so the council would have a legal quorum. A second vote -- counting Page's, which was cast by phone -- also endorsed Hood's plan. The abbreviated project soon died anyway, when the state pulled its money out of the shortened line.

The Sentinel called Hood "dogged" and "optimistic" in handling the project. But her effort spawned two lawsuits over the legality of Page's vote as well as a short-lived petition to recall the mayor.

Political watchers see that failure to engage public support as a recurring theme.

"You can go back to every one of the tax initiatives, all of which we supported, and find that they were inadequately brought to the citizens," says Doug Head, head of the Orange County Democratic Executive Committee. "All `voters` were told was, 'Vote for it, goddammit.'"

Head continues: "There needs to be a lot more advanced public hearings. The city says, ‘Oh, we hold those meetings,' but they're held in such a dry and hostile environment, the community isn't educated on what the problems are."

Not to mention the problems the city sometimes causes.

David van Gelder is one of a dozen property owners on West Amelia Street, between Parramore Street and Westmoreland Avenue. His is one of the few sections of the downtown Parramore area that actually thrives, with a dozen businesses employing an estimated 400 workers, some of whom walk to work from nearby homes.

The city's "vision" for this section of West Amelia? Tear down van Gelder's buildings, as well as the other warehouses and retail outlets on the streets, and build a subdivision of houses.

This revitalization, the city thought, would connect two streets to the north of West Amelia, Arlington and Concord, with several residential streets to the south, where city-sponsored development is about to begin. The changes would make eight contiguous blocks of residential development that, the city hopes, will bring stability to the crime-infested area, which sits in the shadow of the TD Waterhouse Centre.

Van Gelder has blasted the plan in a number of meetings as ill-conceived. He argues that it will force businesses to relocate outside of Parramore, making it difficult for workers to get to their jobs. It also locks van Gelder and the other businesses out of downtown expansion as high-rise development (and high-rise real estate values) gradually moves west of I-4 and into the Parramore area.

Still, van Gelder didn't even find out about the plan until a friend pointed out that the city was taking steps to change its land-use codes, which would devalue his property.

He immediately started showing up at meetings where the plan, called Orlando Outlook 2000, was being discussed. But when van Gelder began talking back, he quickly discovered that -- just as Hood did to Ammerman -- city staff members were anxious to contradict his comments.

At a May Municipal Planning Board meeting -- the last stop for Outlook 2000 before the blueprint reached the council -- van Gelder spoke against the plan for his allotted five minutes. Before and after him went two city employees, Joyce Sellen and Linda Painter, who were marketing Outlook 2000 to the community.

It was clear that Sellen, Painter and planning board members weren't interested in what van Gelder had to say. After he finished, board members pitched a number of leading questions to Sellen and Painter. For 40 minutes they discussed why van Gelder was wrong.

When they were finished, van Gelder asked if he could speak again to address what he said were Sellen's "erroneous and false statements." But board chairman Marc Van Steenlandt told van Gelder he'd already been allotted enough time. "I don't believe you have anything new to add to the argument," Van Steenlandt said.

Van Gelder turned around to survey the city council auditorium. "I'm the only one here," he said.

Van Steenlandt refused to budge.

Says van Gelder: "They could have spent one more minute with me."

Several of the questions put to Sellen inquired about public participation in drafting the blueprint. But Sellen, who is Outlook 2000's project manager, couldn't say she had secured comment from the West Amelia business people. She hadn't.

Neither could she say that she received comment from homeowners on Arlington and Concord streets, home to the publicly funded revitalization effort that the city is calling its greatest Parramore achievement. Except for van Gelder, nobody in the area knew much at all about the plan.

Indeed, the Arlington/Concord group is contemptuous not only of the West Amelia plan, but of the city as well. Homeowners have had to stand by while crime in their area has flourished -- in spite of administrators' promises that police would rid the area of prostitutes and crack dealers.

"The only peace we've had here is when they had their zero-tolerance policy," says Kelly Powell, president of the Arlington/Concord Neighborhood Association. "Before that it was horrible. And after that, a couple of weeks later, it started again."

Powell is decidedly against the city's developing any more homes in her area until crime is eliminated. In the past five months, the neighborhood has had a rash of burglaries. "They should finish what they started on Arlington and Concord before they expand into other areas," Powell says. "I feel like we'll get left behind again. I'm all for growth. But we're still in the trenches."

Tired of fighting alone, van Gelder eventually enlisted the aid of 20 other West Amelia landowners and tenants. At a heated Oct. 5 meeting -- one business day before Outlook 2000 was to go before the city council for final approval -- the group forced the city to drop its residential outlines.

But before that happened, members of the West Amelia group demanded that city staffers explain why they weren't consulted sooner on something that affected their property in such dramatic fashion. "How did this go this damn deep without asking us one damn question?" asked John Cox, a contractor who has occasionally rehabbed homes for the city.

"You tried to jam this thing through without having one conversation with us," added Curtis Hodges, owner of Hodges Construction. "You're wasting our tax money by even thinking about it."

When Sellen and Tom Kohler, head of the Downtown Development Board and one of the city's highest paid administrators, replied that the plan was just a vision and didn't change zoning or land-use codes, the group would have none of it. They knew once the city took a position, there would be no turning back.

"When the city gets the ball rolling, it doesn't stop," Hodges said. "These politicians don't stop. They have ‘visions' and they don't stop. Then guess what? We're steamrolled."

Halfway through the lunch meeting, Commissioner Daisy Lynum showed up. Lynum, whose district includes West Amelia, tried to make it seem like the dispute between the city and the business group was van Gelder's fault. He'd gotten information that was inaccurate, she said, causing the landowners to panic.

"It's not that I got bad information," replied Ellen Lovelace of GPC Management. "It's that I got no information."

It wasn't clear by meeting's end whether Lynum realized the group was as angry about a lack of public input as it was about the plan itself. But eventually Kohler took the blame. "I apologize for our inability to communicate properly," he told members of the group.

Kohler and Sellen even changed the Outlook 2000 plan, replacing language "encouraging" residential development on West Amelia with language encouraging revitalization "by working with the surrounding property owners to prepare a vision plan."

Van Gelder's 11-month experience fighting the city left him distrustful but more vigilant. He has catalogued more than a year's worth of council meetings, as well as some school-board meetings and those of other city-run boards he keeps ready in case the city makes any more end-runs around his property. "You not only have to look at what the government says," van Gelder says. "You have to look at what it's not saying."

Keeping an eye on city government is something more people should do, says Aubrey Jewett, a political scientist at the University of Central Florida. He recommends studying government agendas and minutes, which can be found on the web at

But he adds that it's not unusual for elected officials to pay no more than lip service to public opinion. Most of the time, council members, legislators and congressmen already have an idea about how they want to handle an issue. So even when the public gives input, politicians don't really accept it.

"It's natural to avoid conflict," says Jewett. "A lot of times politicians are thinking, ‘What's the best way to push this through with the least amount of flak?' Most of the time they have their own point of view. It's rare that public comment will change their vote, unless there is an outpouring for or against an issue.

"Most of the council feel they know the issue better than the public," he says. "And they can always tell themselves that they are representing the will of the people who are not at the meeting."

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