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Five reasons you should care about the Orange County Commission textgate scandal

The state investigation may be concluding, but it’s far from over

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But then something ridiculous happened. Jacobs and the county “accidentally” presented the newspaper – and other media – with the entirety of the mayor’s personal cell-phone text messages. The messages were quickly placed on a Tribune Co. server, and momentarily went live on the Sentinel website. Rather than apologize for making such a monumental mistake (it left the mayor “crushed,” according to a Sentinel report), the county went on the offensive.

In an Oct. 1 letter addressed to the Sentinel – and forwarded to Orlando Weekly when it became clear to the county that we also had obtained the records – county attorney Jeff Newton demanded the return of the records, citing invasion of privacy litigation: “Please be advised that our office has advised Mayor Jacobs that she likely has personal legal recourse against the Orlando Sentinel if it elects not to comply with these demands.

Jacobs then publicly railed against the Sentinel for accidental misattributions in its reporting on the recovered texts, and county spokesman Steve Triggs suggested that the paper was cherry-picking texts to mischaracterize the mayor’s position.

After a short period, the Sentinel caved, forcing county reporter David Damron (who declined to comment for this story) to fall on his sword twice in printed apologies for his minor reporting errors, effectively forcing Damron to get quotes on how he did a disservice to his own employer and then publish them; the newspaper also deleted the texts from its server.

Task forced

From the outset, Jacobs and the county commission made clear that they would rather see proposed sick-time mandates handled at a state level than have the onus of enforcement put on the county. This year in the state Legislature, that task was achieved in a manner that couldn’t have seemed better choreographed. State Rep. Steve Precourt, R-Orlando – who is seen in public records telling Commissioner Scott Boyd that he’s “here to support you guys” on the issue via text message – and Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, each presented local pre-emption bills this legislative session, both having the full support of the mayor. (Notably, Jacobs is the former president of the League of Counties, which boasts a core tenet of protecting local governments’ home rule.)

Precourt’s initial draft would have pre-empted living-wage requirements, presently enforced in both Orlando and Miami-Dade County, in addition to mandatory sick leave. Simmons’ bill stuck with the sick-time motif, guaranteeing only unpaid sick days. In the end, House Bill 655 passed both houses on a compromise – it would merely prevent municipalities from mandating benefits from private businesses.

The mediating caveat of the bill was the addendum of an “employer-sponsored benefits study task force.” That 11-person board – which is supposed to be organized by Sept. 1 – is tasked with measuring the effects of statewide pre-emption on benefits and reporting them to the Senate president and House speaker by Jan. 15, 2014. Porta and Organize Now submitted a list of 11 nominees for the task force (which must include two legislators, two small-business owners, two large-business owners, a physician and an economist), but none of their picks has yet been contacted. (Porta says Simmons’ office assured her that he recommended her selections.)

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