ORLANDO For the afternoon of April 8, there were more questions and answers about Orange County governance than about paintings and sculptures at the Orlando Museum of Art.
BusinessForce hosted the first debate between Winter Garden Commissioner Bobby Olszewski and Oakland businesswoman Betsy VanderLey, frontrunners in the race to replace outgoing District 1 Orange County Commissioner S. Scott Boyd.
Tension flared when Olszewski repeatedly attacked VanderLey's record on votes related to schools as a member of the county Planning & Zoning Commission – after each had given a closing statement.
“We have to find ways to site our schools appropriately in West Orange County, in the highest growth area in the county,” VanderLey said in closing. “They're calling for a relief school to come online when a school is at 150% capacity. When you're in an area like Horizon West, next year it's at 200%. We've got to find ways to give the school board tools to get those schools on the ground faster, to respond to high growth that we have.”
“You've consistently voted against schools,” Olszewski interjected.
VanderLey said the only time she had voted against any school was a kindergarten-through-eighth-grade school in east Orange County because it was prohibited in the rural settlement developers sought. But Olszewski insisted she had voted against a relief high school in Wedgefield and instead voted for hundreds of new homes to support developers. VanderLey said the projects were entirely unrelated.
Olszewski also portrayed VanderLey as a third term of Boyd, citing her management of his campaigns. VanderLey said she and Boyd have been good friends but have disagreements.
“It's not Scott Boyd's third term,” VanderLey said. “I've been married 25 years, and I don't always agree with my husband; he's my favorite person on the planet. Scott and I have a long friendship … but that doesn't mean we agree all the time. … There are things I want to do that have never been on his radar.”
One idea VanderLey highlighted was connecting Horizon West trails to West Colonial Drive and the West Orange Trail, which she said would be phenomenal for ecotourism.
Olszewski also criticized Boyd as having a governing style that lacks transparency and anointing VanderLey as successor.
“It's important to see that we can stop a culture of cronyism, because the one thing I can assure you is I have never had a conflict in any vote I've ever made … and will never,” Olszewski said. “My family doesn't own land in the district that needs to be developed, nor does my employer make a dime from any vote that I will ever make on the Orange County Commission.”
VanderLey said the notion of an anointment was frustrating.
“If only this were a coronation – my feet wouldn't be so tired, and I'd be able to go home and see my family once in a while,” she joked. “The reality is the voters are going to vote … on the merits, based on the experience each of us has. … I think that's insulting to the voters, frankly, to say that one person is that powerful to decide who their successor is. This is a democracy.”
Olszewski said he was not disrespecting voters, thousands of whom he had talked with.
“I'm the only candidate in this race that is on the ballot, even though I filed nine months after my opponent,” he said, referring to his September 1, 2015 filing and VanderLey's Jan. 30, 2015 filing. “I've been knocking on doors, and they are not happy with what's going on in Orange County.”
VanderLey said she has recognized what issues matter to voters, such as parks, traffic and schools. She focused on the balance of development with green spaces when asked for examples of good and bad Board of County Commissioners decisions.
“The way that projects used to be approved back in the '70s and '80s was you could come through and plow everything down, build your houses and then replant small trees,” VanderLey said. “It really created a problem in terms of … how people wanted to live. Parks didn't get the attention they needed to.”
She said nowadays development must be more responsible, alluding to Oakland Park and trails as shining examples of preservation. Olszewski said Winter Garden also has been proud of Oakland Park.
Olszewski repeatedly cited his record on the Winter Garden City Commission, which he said reflected his ability to promote smart growth through the most enhanced property values in the county. He compared this to what he called out-of-control urban sprawl in unincorporated Orange County.
“I'll put my business record against anyone who's ever served on the Orange County Commission,” Olszewski said. He listed multiple business degrees, teaching as an adjunct business professor, his business consulting firm and directing dental technology developer Florida Technologies, when asked what demonstrates he understands issues important to the business community and advocates for it. “I manage the whole lab operations – marketing, sales, HR. I'm the top local administrator reporting to a corporate office. … We're the top profit lab in all of the company this past year … with 70 employees and a $10 million budget.”
VanderLey said she had been talking to officials about bringing high-wage high-tech jobs to District 1 and locating business headquarters there to support community workers, a process matching her work experience. She also supported the Charter Review Commission's tourist development tax revisions, because it would give the next great tourism idea the funding needed to succeed through a formal application process, she said. Olszewski said he would let voters decide if it reached a ballot initiative, adding support for tourism is important to preserve.
Also on the subject of taxes, Olszewski said he would continue voting against tax increases as a county commissioner to continue his record from Winter Garden City Commission. When asked about stability in commercial taxes for businesses as job creators, VanderLey said a $3 billion budget for Orange County government should be plenty to do its business without putting more costs on businesses or taxpayers. She stressed recognizing the trickle-down effects on employees and consumers, too.
VanderLey said accepting campaign donations from companies whose development proposals she had judged while on the Planning & Zoning Commission was no conflict of interest because she did not accept such donations until after her resignation for campaign qualification.
Olszewski again accused her and Boyd of being in cahoots, saying Boyd had hired family members, named her District 1 Citizen of the Year before Arnold Palmer and had her ride his coattails.
“When you see someone who's backed by development and backed by the incumbent, you can see that having schools and safe communities are not important,” Olszewski said.
Contact Zak Kerr at [email protected].