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His opponents call City Commissioner Sam Ings "Silent Sam," because they say he doesn't speak up enough for the community he represents. The veteran law enforcement officer, who has served the district since 2006, they say, makes feel-good appearances but is rarely in touch on the important issues.
"In this district, he hasn't said anything, he hasn't done anything, and that's why we call him Silent Sam," says Lawanna Gelzer, community activist and president of the National Action Network's Central Florida Chapter. Gelzer is one of four people who've qualified to challenge Ings for his seat. "We also call him Spending Sam because he's always overspending his budget."
Gelzer and others all seem to think that District 6 – which is a mix of poor neighborhoods, industrial zones and touristy areas around I-Drive – needs more of a voice in city government.
"Commissioner Ings is basically invisible in the district, outside of I-Drive," says candidate Marcus Robinson, who's running his third campaign against Ings. "When it comes down to functional things in the community, as a city commissioner, he's basically invisible. The only time he's out there is if they're giving out some turkeys or book bags to kids."
And what does the district need? According to all of the candidates, business development, economic opportunity, crime reduction and jobs that pay a living wage.
"There is no opportunity for people here," says Nathan Chambers, a community organizer who says that while some regions of the city have experienced unprecedented growth, many District 6 neighborhoods (like Washington Shores, or Carver Shores) have languished. "If we can clean up Ivey Lane and Washington Shores and help small businesses, and help people get business plans and help them create opportunity, the more people we can get to work. The more people we get to work, the more we reduce crime."
And it's not just work the district needs, says Ka'Juel Washington, a law professor at Florida A&M University – people need a fair wage. "I think it's important that we fight for $15," Washington says. "And one way we can do that is through government contracting. Anybody who has a city contract, or who wants to build a venue with us, everyone they hire needs to pay a minimum wage of $15 an hour. Some people don't agree with that, and that's fine – you shouldn't have to go out of business, if you don't support it. You just can't do business with us."
There's no shortage of ideas among the challengers for improving people's lives, but what about the incumbent?
His campaign called us to ask us if he could do the interview via email. We replied that we were only doing interviews in person or over the phone, and we were told he'd get back to us. The day we went to press, the campaign sent us a statement: "I have built strong relationships and partnerships with businesses to expand their companies in District 6, which has increased opportunities and jobs for many residents," it reads. "Many developers have invested in our district because they see the potential and they are still investing in District 6. As Commissioner of District 6, I have consistently demonstrated to the residents what I have done. The evidence of what I have accomplished for District 6 can be seen from new retail stores and businesses, to new housing developments and new programs for seniors and children throughout our District. I am the only candidate with a proven track record. District 6 residents should keep the progress by re-electing the only candidate experienced to lead and proven to serve."
1. What is the millage rate for the city of Orlando?
Chambers: I believe it is 19.
Gelzer: It's close to 7.
Robinson: Off the top of my head, I don't know. But I know it went up.
Washington: Is it 17.7? I'm not quite sure.
2. What is the average homeless population in Orlando?
Chambers: I'm not sure, but it seems too high right now. Different things create homelessness – it could be divorce, it could be loss of income, it could be anything. Most people are a flip of the coin away from being homeless, so we have to show some respect for humanity and make sure we are providing a permanent place for them, as well as creating temporary living for people who need help getting back on their feet.
Gelzer: I don't know.
Robinson: I know that there are 6,300 people on the waiting list for affordable housing, and I can guarantee you that a lot of those 6,300 people on the Orlando Housing Authority's waiting list are part of that number. They may not all count as homeless, but if you have a waiting list of 6,300, that in itself is too much.
Washington: I know it's high. I'm at the homeless shelter two days a week, and the Coalition for the Homeless is flooded.
3. What is the tallest building in Orlando?
Chambers: I think it's the SunTrust.
Gelzer: I think the SunTrust is the tallest building.
Robinson: Last I thought, it was the courthouse.
Washington: If it's not the Bank of America building, then it's probably the Centroplex building.
4. Is there such a thing as "too much" development downtown?
Chambers: It's not too much development, but as a real estate broker, there's demand and supply. In downtown there's high demand for land we have, and we should not be giving away 100 percent tax incentives to investors. ... We need a big enough tax base to create revenue for our city, so why give away so many incentives?
Gelzer: Absolutely. I have a problem with who is getting to develop in Orlando and who is benefiting from it. A prime example: How can the city sell the Orlando Police Department headquarters for $13 million, then turn around and take out a bond to build a new police headquarters for $60 million? It does not add up to me. I believe in development, but who is really benefiting from it? Not the community, not the city – it's big developers and special interests.
Robinson: When I ran in 2004, I said to the editorial board of the
Orlando Sentinel that the development they have planned for downtown is just going to make downtown too congested. I thought it was too much for downtown. ... And everything else, except for International Drive, is neglected when it comes to development. In District 6, especially, in the black section of District 6, you have a commissioner who hasn't even created a plan for development. I came up with a plan, called the Southwest Economic and Poverty Plan.
Washington: Downtown, maybe not. Because it is a downtown, and I understand what they are trying to do: Attract people downtown to shop, eat, attend the bars and all of that. There may be too much development than City Hall can afford, subsidizing through taxing. City Hall cannot afford that type of development.
5. What is the daily ridership goal for SunRail?
Chambers: I'm not sure of the ridership, but I think it fills a need. The city is growing, and any sort of mass transportation is helpful. I am always for mass transportation.
Gelzer: I know it's decreasing, and it's going to continue to decrease, because it's north to south, but you have not improved the east to west transportation. How can somebody come in from another county on SunRail, then it's going to take them two hours to get to another destination from there?
Robinson: Low? Low. They should really take advantage of the nightlife in downtown Orlando.
Washington: I don't know the ridership goal for SunRail, but I think we have an issue with ridership.
6. A tree is about to fall over outside your house, and it's on the city's part of the property. Who do you call?
Chambers: I would call the city, but which department I'm not sure. Most of the trees planted are in the easement, so they are the city's responsibility.
Gelzer: [One lady that happened to] had to pay for the city's portion of a tree because of the way it fell. It was an incident on the east side. That was wrong, because an elderly lady living on a fixed income did not have the right kind of coverage. But I think it depends on where you live.
Robinson: If I'm the city commissioner, I work for you. You can call me and say, "Commissioner Robinson, I have a tree down." The commissioner's assistant should then take down the information and get in touch with whatever department it is and let them know to contact you within 24 hours. ... Then I'm going to follow up. That's the job of our city commissioner.
Washington: The first thing I do is call the utilities, in case it's about to hit a power line. Then I call the Parks Department.
7. Talk for a moment about the property tax rate. Is the current rate appropriate for the level of services the city provides?
Chambers: The present tax rate, the increase, I'm against it. The reason why I'm against it is because we have to look into the budget to see where we can cut without hurting any department. Police and fire, we cannot cut. But before we increase things 17.7 percent – that is a major increase – we need to see where we can cut. ... for services, well, it's not the greatest.
Gelzer: Absolutely not. And the reason we are in a deficit in the first place is bad business deals by the City Council. We were spending money and hoping for the economy to catch up. Robinson: The property-tax increase was based on mismanagement of the budget. What they could have done, instead of raising the property tax, is – last I checked, we still had a double A rating in municipal bonds – asked for more bonds.
Washington: That's a sticky issue. I know at the time they increased the rate, 29 or 30 cities were considering doing the same thing. So some of the rationale was trying to balance the budget. But the question is, where does the money go once it's collected? Are people getting a return on their investment? They may not be. Do the roads look nice? The greenways? I know in my area [Washington Shores] I'd have to say there is not enough return on investment.
8. What is the status of the long-awaited Creative Village in downtown Orlando?
Chambers: I'm not really sure what's going on with that.
Gelzer: It's going to be an empty lot for a while. Why did you blow up the original arena? That was $93 million we lost. What was wrong with putting the soccer stadium there? The list goes on and on. The reason there's so many delays is that the community is waking up and they don't believe this is going to be good for the community, it's going to be jobs. We aren't buying that crap.
Robinson: First they want to figure out what UCF wants to do. The Creative Village has had many facelifts.
Washington: All you see over there is a banner around an empty lot. I don't know what the status is.
9. Who appoints the city's Citizen Police Review Board? How do you think the process could be improved?
Chambers: I think it's appointed by the mayor. And I think that's fine, as long as they are doing the right thing by citizens.
Gelzer: I believe in an independent review board. We've done the research. No matter who is elected, they always side with the police department. ... We've got a problem in this city. We have spent $4.5 million settling excessive-force cases, we've spent a lot of money. We can't continue to have this going on in our community.
Robinson: The Citizen Review Board is appointed by the mayor. But I think the board should be an independent body.
Washington: My understanding is the commissioners get to appoint people.
10. Where does Orlando rank among the top 50 American metro areas in terms of median wage? How could your economic policies make life more affordable for the average citizen?
Chambers: I think we are 14th. What we need to do is, I'm for $15 an hour for minimum wage increase. It's very difficult for a single mom to have two jobs and have kids and try to get by. We need a better standard of living in this town.
Gelzer: I might want to say we're 50. But I'll stick with between 35 and 45. You have to work with legislators to increase the living wage. We have got to do a livable wage. There's no way in a service-industry job we can expect people to make it these days. We need to sit down and recognize that we have a problem. But we have politicians who do not realize how difficult it is to live on minimum wage.
Robinson: We're last. I was part of that walk for poverty on Labor Day, with Eric Gray. We are dead last in wages, we are number one in tourism. It's a slap in the face, actually. Yet the machine keeps growing.
Washington: I am all for the fight for $15. That gives everybody a living wage. We have to do better than we are doing. ... My economic development plan is all about can we get city contracts to have a clause where if you hire people, you have to hire them at this set wage. We are going to be building all this stuff – Creative Village, police headquarters and other things further down the road – and when you hire somebody, we want you to hire them at a living wage. Orlando ranks pretty low, and that's one of the first things I'd try to do.
BONUS: How many seats is the Orlando City Soccer Club's new stadium supposed to contain?
Chambers: I am not sure.
Gelzer: Between 24,000 and 25,000.
Robinson: 23,000. Something like that. They should have just played at the Citrus Bowl.
Washington: I thought it was about 20,000.
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