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West Orange Times & Observer Monday, Jan. 24, 2022 3 months ago

Have you seen the petitioners in downtown Winter Garden?

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The at-times aggressive groups are trying to gather signatures to get gambling initiatives on the 2022 Florida ballot.
by: Annabelle Sikes Staff Writer

The push to get gambling expansion initiatives onto Florida’s 2022 ballot has reached Winter Garden.

And some are uncomfortable with it.

Two organizations, Florida Voters in Charge and Florida Education Champions, are determined to get gambling expansion initiatives onto Florida’s 2022 ballot. 

“The petitioners that you see around our city are aggressive in gathering signatures, because they are paid to do so,” City of Winter Garden’s Economic Development Director Tanja Gerhartz said. “These petitioners are hired by out-of-state corporations to collect signatures to put an item on the state referendum.”

Gerhartz said the petitioners, who began showing up in October, have encroached on the city and are intruding on private property, arguing with local businesses and aggressively campaigning residents for signatures. 

The Real Estate Collection Owner and Broker Kari Fleck said some of the petitioners put a table outside the front office on Plant Street unannounced and proceeded to address patrons walking by. 

“I’m really not objecting to people petitioning for change, but by setting up the table on our property, it has the potential to lead people to the assumption that we are associated with the petitioners, which we are not,” Fleck said. 

Fleck said the petitioners appear to be aggressive with their agenda. 

“We have a lot of our residents and visitors in the downtown area, and it doesn’t give a good impression when these people are assertively interrupting the normal downtown flow,” Fleck said. 

Chris Chan, Winter Garden resident and business owner, said he has seen the petitioners mostly on weekends. 

“When I do see them, I don’t know what they are petitioning for,” he said. “I avoid them pretty well when I see them actively pursuing others.”

Dana Brown, who helps to oversee the Winter Garden Farmers Market, said the primary complaint she has received from vendors recently has been about the petitioners. 

“They go up to customers at booths who are either looking around or trying to pay and they interrupt them with no regard of anything else going on except getting a signature,” Brown said. 

She said the petitioners target a variety of local markets — not just Winter Garden. 

Brown said the petitioners are generally aggressive and have tried setting up their own booths inside the market. 

“They try to set up tables, but I control them from setting up inside the market, because everyone there has had to pay and put in the work to be there so it wouldn’t be fair if I allowed them and not someone else,” she said.

Brown said she asked one of the petitioners for a copy of the petition, if she was to be signing it, and the petitioner refused and got upset. She then asked to talk to the petitioner’ supervisor on the phone and had to push to receive copies. 

“A lot of these people have really nasty social skills, and it seems the freedom of speech is really being taken way too far,” Brown said. “People come here to shop and hang out with their friends and families — not to be solicited for a cause.”

Gerhartz said despite outside interests paying the petitioners for their service, the petitioning still falls under the constitutional rights of free speech and assembly.

“Unfortunately, our hands are tied because this is a state issue,” Gerhartz said.

“Our city does a wonderful job of keeping the community feel here but there’s only so much they can do when it comes to this issue,” Fleck said. “The petitioners just don’t belong here.”

Repeated attempts seeking comment from Florida District 11 Sen. Randolph Bracy did not return repeated attempts seeking comment by press time Tuesday.

THE ISSUE

In May 2021, The Florida Legislature approved legal sports betting in a gambling deal, known as a gaming compact, with the state's Seminole tribe. 

But what does this really mean? 

The deal legalizes online sports betting in Florida with the tribe gaining exclusive control, with certain profit-sharing opportunities and negotiations. If the deal stands, it will be the biggest gambling expansion in state history.

However, the deal hasn’t been made a law just yet, and many organizations are working to ensure the deal doesn’t go through. 

DraftKings Inc. and FanDuel Inc., two wager supergiants, are pumping millions of dollars into getting a referendum on Florida ballots this year. The referendum aims to legalize sports betting outside of Seminole lands. 

To get on the ballot, the organizations have both hired hundreds of signature-gatherers, backed by lobbyist-consultants, and launched a media campaign.

As a result, tribe is pushing back with its own “blocking” campaign. 

The blocking campaign works to hire away paid petitioners to make it harder for the organizations to gather voters’ signatures. At the same time, the tribe has put together its own petitioners to gather signatures for a non-binding petition to protect its control over sports betting, slots and some card games.

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Annabelle Sikes is a staff writer at the West Orange Times & Observer, Southwest Orange Observer and OrangeObserver.com. She graduated in May 2021 from the University of Central Florida with a bachelor's degree in journalism and a minor in sociology.  Her past...

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