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
Regardless of whether Ashton holds these elected officials accountable, there remains a string of horrible legacies – a comedy of democracy errors – to contend with, even a year later. Among numerous tangled threads, there’s the fact that business interests were lobbying the Supervisor of Elections while stuffing his campaign coffers; the fact that there was a bogus study on sick time commissioned from Rollins College by the Chamber; the fact that the county threatened to sue the Orlando Sentinel over a minor misattribution; the fact that the county frequently avoided (or botched) public-records requests; the fact that the state almost pre-empted local living-wage laws in its haste to squelch home rule. But mostly, there’s the fact that the entire ordeal was designed to make every level of the system work against democracy itself.
To Porta, one of the most telling stages of the sick-time fight was Cowles’ seeming hesitance to certify the petitions at all. When he wasn’t publicly grousing about the length or cost of the ballot – there were 11 proposed statewide constitutional amendments last November – he was taking his time processing petitions. Cowles had initially discouraged Citizens from attempting to place a referendum on the city of Orlando’s ballot; publicly he suggested that the group didn’t stand much of a chance at making the county’s November ballot, either.
Though Cowles insisted that he’d handled the petition process fairly, as he would any other electoral process, he also admitted that business interests had lobbied him to slow things down. (Disney, in fact, had given Cowles’ re-election campaign $1,500 in August 2012.) Tired of the delays, Citizens issued a public records request for Cowles’ emails. That same day, Aug. 17, Cowles certified the petitions, Porta says.
The emails from that records request don’t reveal much conversationally – most lobbyists have learned to avoid email – but they do show a nearly constant communication of petition totals to representatives from Disney, Mears Transportation and Darden Restaurants, among others. So, as Cowles was keeping the petitioners updated on signature verifications, so too was he updating their foes. (Cowles chalks this up to the fact that all processed petition information becomes public record by law – though he does allow that “there was a lot of questioning on what the timetable was.”)
“As much as it was an exciting day when the Supervisor of Elections said that we qualified for the ballot, the fact that it took a public records request to get us to qualify for the ballot was depressing,” Porta says. “Every time Bill Cowles showed up at an event to say ‘This is never going to be on a ballot,’ it was disappointing.”
As the decision bottlenecked through last-minute deadlines in September – a three-judge panel finally ruled in February that the county had violated its charter; the issue will now be on the Aug. 26, 2014, ballot – Cowles says he saw the options for getting the referendum on the ballot narrowing and becoming increasingly expensive. Between the county’s untested charter timeline on petition initiatives and the county commission’s intentional foot-dragging, things were not “in sync,” he says. He says he wants the county to amend the charter to prevent such confusion in the future.
Faking the facts
> Email Billy Manes