Remember when Buddy Dyer returned to office last year after his indictment collapsed and he promised to run a new and improved administration totally committed to open government? He'd been accused of secret dealings before — like the incentive deal he cut with developer Cameron Kuhn for the Premiere Trade Plaza now under construction on Orange Avenue — but that was all in the past, water under the bridge. "Through lessons learned and the strength gained from this experience, I am committed to a fresh start, with a vision for our city that begins with openness and access," he wrote in an April 26, 2005, op-ed in the Orlando Sentinel.
The new era was apparently short-lived. Just 14 months later, the city once again considers you — the public — something of a nuisance, an annoying obstacle on the path of its land-buying aspirations. So the Dyer administration has gone back to its roots: working under the radar. And you, dear taxpayer, are being cut out of the loop.
According to Chapter 13, Section 7, of the city charter, the city has to hold a public hearing if it wants to spend more than $1 million to buy property. If the property is worth between $500,000 and $1 million, the purchase still has to go to the City Council, but they can handle it on the consent agenda, the minutiae-laden package commissioners routinely approve with little discussion at the start of their meeting. Land purchases worth $500,000 or less can be authorized by the mayor. Purchases worth $250,000 or less can be authorized by the city's chief financial officer. And purchases worth $75,000 or less can be authorized by the real-estate manager, all without the Council's consent.
The spending limits operate as a check on the administration's power. If the mayor wants to spend more than $1 million of public funds, he has to get a majority of the Council to agree to it. Even if a smaller purchase is on the consent agenda, any commissioner can yank it and hold a discussion later in the meeting. Either way, there's at least a chance that a misbegotten or corrupt land buy will get exposed and stopped.
But that process is really inconvenient, real estate manager Laurie Botts-Wright told the Orlando City Council June 5. At least five days before a public hearing, the city has to advertise said hearing in the newspaper. As Botts-Wright lamented to the commissioners, those advertisements can get pretty lengthy because they include detailed land descriptions. Then there is the hearing itself, during which members of the public watch the Council meetings — both live in Council chambers and on TV — and can speak up if they think the deal in question stinks. If it's particularly controversial, the media may take interest, too.
Of course open governments, like the one Dyer promised in April 2005, welcome this sort of sunlight. And it's not like the existing law regularly inconveniences Botts-Wright and her colleagues; in the last two years, the City Council has only held three hearings on land worth more than $1 million that it wanted to buy.
Nonetheless, the Dyer administration thinks the law needs to change. Under the new proposal, which passed with a unanimous vote on first reading June 5, the Council would only need to hold a hearing if the land they wanted to buy is worth more than $3 million. Otherwise, it "may" go on the consent agenda, unless the city finds an exemption in state, federal or local law, says city spokeswoman Heather Allebaugh.
There's some confusion on that point. At the June 5 meeting, commissioner Phil Diamond asked pointedly whether a deal worth less than $3 million would go the consent agenda, where at least commissioners would have an opportunity to vet it. He said that he'd asked staff about that before the meeting, but hadn't gotten a straight answer. Botts-Wright seemed to dance around the issue, saying only that it "may" go to the Council. Then she hinted that some changes in the city's policy — perhaps increasing the amount of money the mayor can authorize on his own — might be forthcoming.
"I don't know and that's why I asked the question," Diamond says. "Hopefully I'll get that information."
Allebaugh says that only the threshold amount is changing, nothing else, which would indicate that staff isn't planning to ask the Council to authorize either a plan that would allow the mayor, the city's chief financial officer or its real estate manager to make larger purchases on their own. At the same time, it's unclear what Botts-Wright was referring to or why she dodged Diamond's question when he asked her directly if a $3 million purchase would go on the consent agenda.
Indeed, secrecy has been the real-estate department's modus operandi. As this newspaper reported in December, since 2000, the city has contracted with a real estate company to buy up land on the city's behalf. That way, city officials say, potential sellers don't know they're dealing with the city, a cloak of secrecy that is supposed to help keep prices in check. Commissioner Patty Sheehan based her enthusiastic support for amending the charter on that same logic at the June 5 meeting.
The city downplays the significance of the change. The $1 million threshold has been in place since at least 1974, according to documents. Since then, land has more than tripled in value, so the city's argument is that it is simply keeping up with inflation. No specific event triggered the proposal, Allebaugh says: "I don't believe there was anything specific that spurred this change. My understanding is this was done to keep up with inflation and the rising real estate costs."
Plus, she adds, newspaper ads for public hearings are increasingly expensive, so the fewer the better.
Is there another impetus, perhaps a chunk of property the city wants to buy quietly? After all, these multimillion-dollar purchases happen so infrequently, it can't just be the workload or cost associated with public notices. Of the three purchases worth more than $1 million that have forced public hearings in the last two years, two of them were worth more than $3 million — so the change would only have affected one.
Revising seems unnecessary, unless the city has a reason in mind. But if there is a specific agenda at play, the city's not telling.
The charter change goes back to the City Council for a second and final vote June 19.[email protected]