Orange County elected officials, staff and the public gathered to make recommendations at a Charter Review Commission public hearing Monday, Oct. 16, at Windermere High School.
Orange County has been governed by the charter since its creation in 1987.
The county’s charter is like its constitution and grants citizens and citizen-elected officials control over local and regional issues.
Every four years, a new charter review is conducted by a Charter Review Commission appointed by the Orange County Commission. The CRC contains 15 appointees, three selected by Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings and two each by the six commissioners. The commission is led by Chair Homer Hartage and Vice Chair Lee Chira.
Although the CRC is not allowed to change the charter, the commission decides what questions, if any, to put to vote. It publishes a report at least 60 days before election time, and then voters decide if the suggested changes will be made.
The panel has been divided into four committees with study topics: government structure, petition initiatives, sustainable growth and charter clean-up, and creation of a public bank.
District 1 Commissioner Nicole Wilson was the invited guest speaker for the public hearing.
“I know that this community cares so much and that you all care so much, so this to me feels like the convergence of the greatest minds yet,” she said. “The reason why I love this process is it feels like the most democratic thing we’ve got going.”
Wilson brought to the CRC’s attention several points, including the changes and amendments to the comprehensive plan in District 1, the establishment of a rural boundary, the expansive growth and development in the area, separation of powers, the complications of Florida Sunshine Laws, and obligation of communication disclosure.
“Part of my frustration moving through my last couple of years in office has been the inability to discuss policy with a person (who) drives the policy and the inability to really be able to talk about things that are very geographically specific to my residents because of Sunshine (Laws),” she said. “If we know policy is driven out of the mayor’s office … to be able to have a legislative branch discuss things with the executive branch would be very helpful in the global sense.”
Wilson said there have been a lot of disappointing outcomes to cases she has tried to work through with constituents.
“I feel like the outcome, had I been able to approach the strong mayor, may have been different,” she said. “I don’t know. It’s a hypothetical, and I did not realize that as a person on the outside before I ran for office. I understand the strong mayor form of government. … But it is one of the critical pieces of the executive is if they are the ceremonial head and they’re driving the policy, that they can’t be everywhere at once. Having the ability to approach and talk about potential legislative initiatives or the things that have been troubling my residents on a micro level, which the mayor isn’t able to get to, is important.
“When there is a compelling voice from the community that if it’s falling on deaf ears again and again and again, we’re losing trust, and that’s the part that concerns me,” Wilson said. “We need to be more representative and more responsive.”
Regarding Sunshine Laws, Board Member Erica Jackson together with Wilson has met with neighbors for various issues.
“We worked very hard and diligently to prove our case, what our concerns are, and it’s extremely frustrating to go to these meetings and it’s you, one or two people from planning and that’s it,” she said. “Then, when we go in front of the board, we feel as if we have very little time to rehash all that we’ve been working on and ... you’re not able to speak to the mayor because of the limitations of Sunshine (Laws).”
Myriad residents, including Jeff Graft, voiced their support of establishing a rural boundary at the meeting.
“It’s going to benefit the environment, it’s going to benefit wildlife and plants, and things that are currently in these areas that don’t get the protections that are afforded,” he said. “It’s going to also help raise property values in those areas, as well. It’s going to make those areas more marketable, more valuable, and it’s hard to put a cost on how the values of that bring to the table.”
Theresa Schretzmann-Myers, who represents Nehrling Gardens and the Gotha Rural Settlement Association, also spoke about preserving rural settlements in Orange County.
“There has to be some protection in our charter for these rural settlement boundaries, our urban forests that give us the water, that sequester our carbon, that also protect us from stormwater mitigation,” she said. “We moved into these rural settlements for that protection, so without protection of these urban forests and these green spaces and these wetlands and allowing development in the wetlands, we have no way of protecting our water source.”
District 4 School Board Member Pam Gould voiced her thoughts on the proposed reconstruction of government.
“As you look to restructure the government, remember the balance in an urban county where we do have the largest airport, the world-class attractions and the variety of our amazing rural settlements that absolutely need to be protected,” she said. “If we slow things down or change things too much, we are at risk of it being taken away from our local control. … I sure would rather fight at the local level with my neighbors and have those discussions and have the ability to build those collaborations and those partnerships then have to drive four hours to Tallahassee and have three minutes to explain to someone what it means to us.”
Erin Huntley cautioned the CRC against recommending amendments that expand government in Orange County.
“Last month, the Orange County Commission voted to give themselves a 25% raise, and now we have charter review proposals that want to expand the commission and increase the amount of time on the commission,” she said. “So, they’re going to make more money, then they’re going to add more people to make more money and then we’re going to add another term of people making more money, and then we’re going to have a (public) bank to put it all in. … This is big government on steroids, and we don’t like it out here in West Orange County.”
Paul DeHart shared his frustrations on the process of a development project as it moves through the county.
“We have a temple that they’re trying to put in our community,” he said. “No problems with the temple, the church generally, but it shouldn’t be in our small community. Our community is 100% against it. We’ve been to public meetings, we had a zoning meeting, staff has recommended denial twice, zoning denied it. We go to our commissioner meeting ... and a decision is not made.”
The next 2024 CRC meeting will be held at 6 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 9, in District 3 at Colonial High School.