An Orlando commissioner is bristling at what she calls Mayor Buddy Dyer’s heavy-handed treatment of the City Council, accusing the mayor of treating the board like a rubberstamp for his initiatives.
In a rare example of dissent from the council, Commissioner Patty Sheehan, long a Dyer ally, says the mayor’s administration holds back information about potentially controversial matters until the last minute so commissioners don’t have time to ask questions.
“We are treated like a rubberstamp,” Sheehan said of the council, where unanimous votes have long been the norm. “If there’s something big they don’t want us to know about, we don’t get it until after the staff briefing. A lot of the big stuff we don’t get until the last minute.”
Other commissioners did not accuse the mayor of intentionally trying to keep the City Council in the dark. But four out of six commissioners agreed that they often aren’t given enough time to review complicated matters before voting on them. It’s a departure for a board that’s drawn criticism for always moving in lockstep and failing to scrutinize bad deals.
Dyer rejected the criticism, telling the Orlando Sentinel that commissioners are kept informed with regular staff briefings and workshops.
“Do things slip through the cracks occasionally? I’m sure that they do, because we’re a full-speed operation,” Dyer said. “We do more than one thing at a time. We do a lot of things at once. [But] I think we have the best informed commissioners and most involved commissioners of any city or county in the region.”
The criticism boiled up at a City Council meeting two weeks ago (see video above), when Sheehan read a prepared statement that criticized the lack of public input for two projects: the planned demolition of historic Tinker Field, which sparked a public backlash, and a sculpture initiative called See Art Orlando.
Sheehan said she risked retaliation by complaining, as the Dyer administration had previously withheld funding for street lighting and street repairs in retaliation for “no” votes.
“I don’t want my constituents to suffer because I take a stand on something,” she said.
Dyer strongly denied such hardball tactics, and other commissioners said they had never faced any retaliation.
The plan to tear down the aging Tinker Field and build a new ballpark on adjacent property had been presented at a council workshop as already decided. Sheehan said commissioners were “blindsided.”
Said Commissioner Jim Gray: “About 10 minutes into it, I thought, ‘Wait a minute, this thing sounds like a done-deal.” After the presentation, Gray asked Dyer staffers if the council would even be given the opportunity to vote on it: “Nobody could really give me a definitive yes or no.”
Following a public outcry, Dyer has since put the plan to demolish Tinker Field on hold.
Orlando has a “strong mayor” form of government, so Dyer acts as chief executive. He guides policy, presents budgets that are rarely changed by the council, hires and fires 80 of the city’s top administrators, and controls the agenda of what commissioners discuss at their meetings.
Even so, several commissioners said they’d like to more time to review items before they’re asked to vote on them.
The City Council meets twice a month, on Mondays. Meeting agendas are controlled by the mayor, and commissioners receive online access to them the same time as the general public: late in the afternoon the previous Tuesday. City officials brief most commissioners about upcoming items, most often on Thursday.
Dyer said commissioners had less time to review meeting agendas under his predecessor, Mayor Glenda Hood.
“I don’t want any commissioner getting to a meeting and feeling like he doesn’t already know the subject matter being presented,” he said.
Still, for most meetings, one or more items are changed or added to the agenda late. (One example: a conotroversial plan to extend bar drinking hours and prohibit those under-21 from downtown was added Friday afternoon; the council split on it.) And agendas can be long and complex; commissioners approved 54 separate items on Monday — most with no discussion — from land purchases to annexations to a revenue-sharing agreement for a new Major League Soccer stadium.
“If you’re asking people to make decisions on things, they ought to be given the information they need to make those decisions and enough time to ask questions,” Gray said. “The soccer stadium use agreement is 99 pages long. I think I owe it to my constituents to read 99 pages.”
Commissioner Sam Ings agreed, saying information is often shared with the council “at the last minute.” He had no idea the city plans to relocate Parramore’s Fire Station 2 until a $1.2 million contract to purchase the land showed up on this week’s agenda.
“That’s one of those things that we should have heard about,” Ings said.
Commissioner Robert Stuart said it’s up to commissioners to stay on top of issues important to them.
“There are some issues I would like to get more information about early on,” he said. “When I have concerns, I go right to staff and say, ‘What’s going on?’”
Daisy Lynum, Orlando’s longest-serving commissioner, said previous board members were more likely to ask tough questions.
“Now, it is an environment where if it’s not your district, you don’t ask questions about it — even if it’s something big,” Lynum said.
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