Five reasons you should care about the Orange County Commission textgate scandal
The state investigation may be concluding, but it’s far from over
Published: August 28, 2013
It was just over a year ago, on Aug. 17, 2012, that Orange County Supervisor of Elections Bill Cowles finally certified 50,364 of the 73,481 petitions submitted by local advocates Citizens for a Greater Orange County requesting that a referendum be put before voters to decide whether employers with more than 15 workers should have to provide paid sick leave for their employees. By normal standards – or rather, under a little-utilized provision of the county’s charter – that would have been enough, and the referendum would have landed on the Nov. 6 ballot. But this time, the normal standards didn’t apply.
From the outset, business interests like Walt Disney World, Darden Restaurants and the Florida Chamber of Commerce vowed to make the proposal disappear. It was a threat to corporate fiscal projections and, ultimately, Florida’s entire tourism and hospitality economy, they claimed. Lobbying muscles were flexed, and nearly every manner of circumventing the will of the people who circulated and collected those petitions, not to mention the county charter itself, was executed – sometimes with questionable legality. The county took its marching orders from business interests directly, tossed the hot potato of sick time up to the state level and crushed a citizens’ initiative. Even though county law required that the matter go before voters, the county commission refused to put it on the ballot. Never before had it been so clear who calls the shots in Orange County.
“We knew they were going to fight,” says Organize Now director Stephanie Porta, who spearheaded the Citizens for a Greater Orange County campaign. “Part of me thinks we should have been more prepared for the fact that this would have been a possibility, that they would have broken some laws.”
We’ll learn soon enough whether laws were indeed broken – or at least, whether the state attorney’s office has the gumption to subject area politicians to fines or perp walks. On Aug. 28 Orange-Osceola County State Attorney Jeff Ashton will release the results of an eight-month-long investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement into what has become known as “textgate.”
The controversy earned its name because some county commissioners destroyed text messages that could be construed as public records under Florida law, and because commissioners and Mayor Teresa Jacobs were caught communicating electronically with lobbyists and politicos during a Sept. 11 hearing on the issue. That Ashton intends to release the report on the morning of Wednesday, Aug. 28, before holding a joint press conference with FDLE that afternoon has led to speculation that its findings could be significant. Or, perhaps, it could all amount to nothing.
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