Feb. 21, 2000, was not a good day for Mayor Glenda Hood. On that date, emotions from the most contentious mayoral election in years flooded the Orlando City Council chambers. There were allegations, insinuations and, in the case of Commissioner Daisy Lynum, threats from a constituent who accused her of campaigning against another council member.
As if that weren't enough, a majority of four commissioners -- one who was running against Hood, and three others who backed his campaign -- voted that day to oust Hood from a coveted seat on the city's airport board. In her best schoolgirl voice, the mayor scolded them for playing election-time politics.
"I hope you feel very proud of yourselves for what ya'll have done today as far as the integrity of the city," Hood said. "I'm very saddened by it."
As Hood angrily adjourned the meeting, Commissioner Ernest Page leaned into his microphone and said, "Yeah, well, too bad."
That February day proved to be the strongest jab the four commissioners -- Page, Betty Wyman, Don Ammerman and mayoral challenger Bruce Gordy -- were able to land against Hood, a far more resilient politician than her critics expected. She went on in the March 14 election to cream Gordy, who wasn't as masterful at delivering a campaign message as he was at leading the airport coup.
Yet Hood, whose third term now finds her in her ninth year as mayor, could play politics, too. Through her husband's companies, she contributed a total of $3,000 -- the maximum her husband and his two companies could legally give -- to candidates running against Page and Wyman, the only Hood antagonists who were facing re-election.
Now, almost a year after that rancor, the six-member council has settled into a much more deliberative body. Partly that's because commissioners haven't faced a big-ticket item like the light-rail transit system that turned the four members against Hood. It wasn't so much Hood's advocacy that caused the rift; every commissioner backed light rail at one time or another. Rather, tensions erupted when commissioners felt they were being manipulated by Hood and her staff, and weren't receiving complete answers. Ammerman went so far as to call a hastily arranged council meeting in September 1999 a "sneak vote."
Yet another reason is the truism that time heals all wounds. Because commissioners are bombarded with new issues, it's easy to leave the old ones behind. It has helped that the two newest commissioners, Vicki Vargo and Patty Sheehan, arrived in June with none of the baggage that burdened the previous council.
Even so, there are new alliances and adversaries, some of them surprising even to the commissioners themselves. Most significantly, commissioners moved themselves out from under Hood's heavy thumb with periodic luncheons -- without Hood or her staff's participation -- soon after Vargo and Sheehan took office. It's an attempt, according to Ammerman, to break free from council meetings "orchestrated" from the top, so that commissioners could talk freely about their own problems.
Page and Wyman still feel a kinship with Ammerman, and already back him for mayor in 2004. (Hood has said this current third term is her last.) The three have voted together on all 277 issues the council has faced since Vargo and Sheehan attended their first meeting June 12. Similarly, Lynum and Hood have voted together on every issue since then.
But those records are somewhat misleading. Most council votes reflect the mundane tasks of governing: zoning, annexation and street name changes. Only nine votes have not been unanimous, with Vargo the lone dissent on four occasions. Of the other five votes, four had to do with banning billboards on residential streets, the only issue on which the council split four votes to three.
But even that wasn't the most contentious issue of the past year -- at least not to the general public. That designation went to the council's September vote to raise their pay by $8,400 a year, or 32 percent, to $34,562. The public was so furious that Hood's office received a death threat, saying each commissioner would be "taken out one by one." Sheehan, the city's first openly gay elected official, received a message calling her a "tax-sucking faggot."
Other issues brought public outpourings but little divisiveness on the board. Among them: tandem housing, or the practice of building two large homes on one residential lot; an ordinance limiting the number of tattoo parlors downtown; a unique solicitation law that forced panhandlers to beg only in marked zones downtown; Parramore redevelopment, including a $53 million headquarters for Hughes Supply and the effort to woo, and win, the Florida A&M law school.
But these issues weren't on the minds of commissioners when Orlando Weekly sat down with them in early February. Surprisingly, most mentioned the Nap Ford Community School, a controversy-plagued elementary school that, with the city's help, won a charter from the Orange County Public School board in November. The privately run school is supposed to start classes in a city-owned building in August, in advance of an eventual move into the Parramore neighborhood.
Commissioners were discouraged to learn they'd approved the school's use of the John J. Jackson Center when state and federal contracts require that the center remain open to the public for recreation purposes. Ammerman, for one, was disappointed that Hood's administration -- so eager to approve the school -- had again made commissioners look like "fools of government."
Yet tension between the mayor's office and city commissioners no longer defines the council's identity. Rather, the unkept secret in City Hall is the bad blood between Vargo and Lynum. The two haven't sparred publicly, though Lynum snapped at Vargo at the Feb. 26 meeting, suggesting that Vargo pay closer attention to her own district and less to other commissioners.
"Nobody teaches you how to do this job," says Lynum. "This job is about class. And frankly, I don't see this woman with any."
Tension between all commissioners is likely to increase in April when the council goes through redistricting based on new Census numbers. Though the previous two redistricting efforts have been placid affairs, and laws such as the Voting Rights Act limit radical changes to minority districts, more than a few commissioners are holding their breath, waiting to see how their districts will be carved up.
"I'm not expecting any problems," Page says, "unless they start screwing with me."
First elected to the council in 1992, Ammerman, 54, acts as its elder statesman. He often sets the tone for issues whenever other council members are slow to show their feelings. A commercial real-estate broker, he is also the board's wealthiest member. He considered running for mayor last year but says his time and attention were diverted to building several multimillion-dollar warehouses on McCloud Road. He now says he'll run for mayor in 2004 if he's encouraged by enough people who believe, as he does, that he's an "honest and first-rate" representative.
Ammerman took over Hood's district when she became mayor, so it might seem natural they would develop into allies. Not so, at least not after the light-rail debate. More than any other of his council colleagues, Ammerman has continued to criticize Hood and her staff. He says he was especially disgusted last year when several city employees suggested in his office that the city condemn property owned by the downtown First United Methodist Church. The city wants the property for a performing-arts center that Hood is pushing.
"The day government goes to condemn church property," he says, "I'm not going to be part of it."
Ammerman sees the commissioner luncheons as a way for council members to break free of the mayor and her allies. In council meetings, he says, not only are the issues dictated by the mayor, she sets the tone and tempo as well.
"Oftentimes the mayor would cut you off or belittle you for raising something different than her opinion," says Ammerman.
Hood and her staff were at their worst, he says, during light-rail discussions. "We got information from Lynx [the public-transit agency] they wanted us to have, but we didn't believe in some of the issues they were raising," he says. "There was no validation to the numbers at all. Ridership was a guess. So when you raised real-world questions, they looked at you like you didn't know what you were talking about. If you're a naysayer, you are categorized as someone not on board. Therefore, you are condemned."
He sees a parallel between city staffers' protective handling of light rail and the Nap Ford Community School.
Council members asked the city's legal and parks departments if there were any problems with leasing the Jackson Community Center for the school's use starting next fall. After being told no problems existed, the council voted in favor of the measure, only to learn months later that state and federal agencies had given the city grant money for renovating the center, and thus required that it not be diverted for private use. The city already has fended off a complaint from state officials but still is pleading with federal officials to support their plans for the privately run school.
"I'm very supportive of school, but I have a great dislike for being misled by the mayor's staff, who presume to know an answer rather than actually knowing it," Ammerman says. "There were guesses being made. ... There has to be a realization that the mayor's office doesn't have all the answers. Nor does it know all the questions to ask."
A retired telephone-company manager, Betty Wyman is the Southern belle of the council, and the commissioner least likely to criticize her colleagues -- or to say anything at all.
Indeed, Wyman rarely speaks during the council's public sessions. But she will weigh in with the occasional observation such as, "Mayor, I think we have a mess on our hands," as she did last August during a flap over awarding a construction bid for one of the city's cornerstone parks.
Wyman, 69, says she keeps up with constituent issues by driving through her entire district twice a week; her signature touch is to personally visit each and every person who registers a complaint with her office.
Still, her input and involvement is so minimal that after Wyman recently was assigned by the mayor to be the city's representative to the Inner City Games -- a somewhat ceremonial task for the annual event -- Wyman portrayed it as "the most important thing I've done" since she was elected to City Hall in 1992. Wyman says she is coaching five kids from each district on how to play golf and tennis in preparation for the athletic contest.
Notoriously media shy, Wyman all but disappeared from her own press conference last summer to announce that she was changing her political-party affiliation from Democrat to Republican. (Contests for the city council are nonpartisan. But with Wyman's shift -- and a similar party swap around the same time by Commissioner Ernest Page -- Republicans have a 4-2 majority on the council. Hood is also a Republican.) At Wyman's announcement, party heavyweights such as Mel Martinez did most of the talking. "I'd just as soon not have had a press conference," she says. "I'm really a private person. I thought it was overdone, and so did my mother, who is a staunch Democrat."
Although the light-rail rift caused Wyman to join the council majority that backed Hood-challenger Bruce Gordy, she downplays her opposition to the mayor, and says the issue marked the only time that she and Hood have disagreed.
"A lot of people printed that because they wanted the story," says Wyman. "They want the story of conflict. I don't like conflict. I believe in working together." Her sole reason for opposing Hood, she says, was that light rail had become the mayor's "obsession" even as a majority of voters had turned against the idea.
Wyman sees herself as mild-mannered, a balance between the arguments that flare up between commissioners from time to time. Even so, she did spar with Vargo over the proposed ban on billboards in residential areas. Vargo was eager to see the ban imposed citywide. "I got a little bit perturbed over billboards in my district," says Wyman, who campaigned by placing her face on a billboard. "I called her to the side and said, 'Take care of your district, and I'll take care of mine.'"
Wyman says the council is much different today than it was at this time last year. "There's no smart remarks," she says. "There's no one trying to belittle anyone. I think it's very professional. Come back in a year and see how we feel. We might have the boxing gloves on."
Vicki Vargo came into office last year promising to be independent. And she's made good on that promise. She was the only one to vote against the Nap Ford Community School and the council's pay raise.
Yet Vargo, 46, a real-estate and mortgage attorney, has paid a political price. Ask about Vargo, and Page and Ammerman just shrug. Wyman and Sheehan each have their concerns -- and Lynum is especially critical.
Vargo says she's been rebuffed in her attempts to work out differences with Lynum, which she says began almost from the day she took office in June. "It's pretty tough to come to a meeting of the minds when one party cuts off communication," says Vargo.
Rumor circulated that Lynum and Wyman would try to block any measures Vargo introduced. But that rumor proved false on Jan. 8, when Lynum seconded a motion by Vargo to send a case involving a cell tower back to a hearing officer. Vargo was encouraged.
Since the two women's districts border each other, constituents would be better served if they'd work together. That's especially clear with Court-Watch, a grass-roots movement that asks judges to impose maximum jail time on habitual hookers and drug dealers. Begun in Sarasota, the effort has been embraced here by business owners and residents near Orange Blossom Trail and West Colonial Drive who are frustrated with the inability of police to stop the action from occurring within view of customers and kids.
Vargo helped start the program on the north side of Colonial Drive. But Lynum, who represents the south side, decided not to help, saying, "It is intensely time-consuming to do that. My people work. They don't have time to go down to court. Why should we implement it when we don't know if the first one [in Sarasota] works?"
Lynum turned down an invite two weeks ago to meet with the program's director, Sharon Leichering, who says it's a no-brainer for public officials to endorse anti-crime measures. Other CourtWatch activists are more critical. "There is a well-founded perception that other commissioners care more about the needs of the people in her neighborhood than [Lynum] does," says Tom Rosenberry, who lives in the same Rock Lake neighborhood as Lynum.
Lynum also criticized Vargo for what Lynum says was Vargo's opposition to the Florida A&M law school. But Vargo endorsed it, even writing letters to FAMU offering internships. Vargo says she was concerned only about placing the school in Parramore, where female students might be more vulnerable to sexual predators. "I supported the FAMU law school coming to downtown," says Vargo. Lynum "would only support it if it was in her district."
Though the council has been quiet lately, Vargo expects more disputes. "The two incoming commissioners [Vargo and Sheehan] had stronger personalities than their predecessors, even though we are women," she says. "Commissioner Gordy was a dentist. He was a healer. I'm an attorney. I'm an advocate." As for being a pariah, Vargo says it's part of the job.
"As an attorney, I don't think of issues as divisive. I don't consider disagreeing as being divisive. I look at issues first and relationships second. Whether that's good politics or not, I don't know."
Since taking office in June, Patty Sheehan has earned a reputation as a crusader for violations of the state's Sunshine Laws, making sure that everything is done out in the open. Several months ago she blasted city officials for allegedly polling council members in their offices about upcoming issues, and warned city employees to stop telling constituents that the city couldn't halt construction of tandem housing -- two housing structures on a single residential lot -- because the City Council wouldn't support a ban. (The issue was one of Sheehan's campaign themes.) Since then, city employees have backed off, according to several commissioners.
Sheehan, a 39-year-old analyst for the Florida Department of Agriculture, is on the verge of becoming Orlando's first full-time commissioner. She is losing her day job in April because her office is being moved to Bartow, and Sheehan doesn't want to make the commute. That's one of the reasons she voted in favor of the council's pay increase.
After nine months on the council, Sheehan concedes that one of the biggest surprises was how much she identifies with -- and votes like -- Lynum. "If you would have told me that a year ago, I would have told you that you were crazy," she says.
Lynum had openly endorsed Sheehan's opponent, Bill Bagley, contributing $150 to his campaign. But upon reflection, Sheehan says, it makes sense that she relates to Lynum. Both are motivated by anger, she says, especially when the anger is prompted by social injustice. "We're both single women," she says. "We're both minorities. [Lynum is black; Sheehan is gay.] We have a lot in common in terms of life experience. Because of that, I think we see things a lot alike."
Sheehan inadvertently incurred Wyman's wrath last summer when, in a discussion on billboards, Sheehan said, "If I'd have put my face on a billboard, I wouldn't have gotten elected." A staunch billboard defender, Wyman had placed her picture on one of the large signs during her re-election campaign last year. "I felt really, really bad," says Sheehan, who apologized.
As the two newcomers, Sheehan and Vargo have inevitably been paired. The two even shared some campaign staff during the election, and both have the clout of neighborhood associations. (Sheehan came up through Colonialtown's, Vargo through Rosemont's.) It's ironic, then, that Vargo has become the colleague about which Sheehan is most unsure.
In particular, Sheehan says Vargo is hard to read -- the same observation Sheehan makes about the mayor. She worries that she might have lost an ally in Vargo over tandem housing, which Sheehan adamantly opposes. The issue has Sheehan rethinking her election-time endorsement of Vargo.
"I never would have supported someone who was for tandem housing," Sheehan says. "Vicki is now saying that it works in certain parts of College Park. I say, 'OK, what about Colonialtown?' She hasn't given me an answer. I'm not saying she owes me something. I'm saying I pick people based on their ideology, and I picked her because of her stance on tandem housing. Now, I'm finding out that wasn't true."
A disciple of the late city commissioner Nap Ford, Daisy Lynum took office in 1998 backed by downtown entrepreneurs who thought she'd be an independent voice. But in the last year, she's become known as the mayor's first lieutenant, a position formerly held by Bill Bagley.
Like Bagley, Lynum, 54, a social worker with Orange County Public Schools, denies she's anyone's crony, pointing out that she and Hood have no personal relationship to speak of. So when the media (including this newspaper) or anyone else attacks Hood's handling of the Nap Ford Community School or virtually any issue relating to Parramore, Lynum takes it personally. "I don't think they are attacks on the mayor. I see them as attacks on people who live there and me. ... Everything in District 5 is mine."
Lynum and Sheehan are the council's only Democrats. But Lynum says she's been approached by both Democrats and Republicans to run for mayor in 2004. She'd rather be an Orange County commissioner, but makes her pitch for mayor anyway. "I think the city would have a ball. I don't know anyone in the world fairer than I am. I'm nobody's enemy, and I don't believe in standing still."
More than any other commissioner, Lynum will jump feet-first into controversy. Opposition to light rail, for example, boiled down to racism, she says; one resident told her he opposed it because it wouldn't benefit anybody but black people. "I thought that was the most ludicrous statement I'd ever heard," she says. When officials started jumping ship on the issue, "I felt so ashamed of other city and county commissioners, because they missed a chance to make this a class 1-A city."
The Nap Ford Community School also boils down to race. Not long ago, Lynum visited with a woman who wanted to volunteer at the charter school because she'd seen how black kids were separated in Orange County Public Schools. "She said she walked into a classroom and all the black kids were in one room." She continues: "In the '60s, nobody wanted to integrate these kids. ... I don't have a problem reversing some of these things."
On no topic is Lynum more heated than when it comes to Vargo. Lynum said she was offended when she heard that during Vargo's campaign, Vargo told voters the two of them were friends. "She lied and said we have a good relationship," Lynum says. Even worse, Lynum says, Vargo isn't a team player. "All her e-mails are 'I, I, I.' That points to a character disorder when everything is 'I.'"
Mostly Lynum -- the most territorial of city commissioners -- is offended that Vargo has made overtures into her district. She says the relationship is irreparable. "I'm not here to be her enemy. I'm just someone who works with her, someone who holds no personal relationship with her."
Lynum says that if any commissioner wants to help her district, especially Parramore, they should move the Coalition for the Homeless out. "I'm not a commissioner for a district where all you have to think about are sidewalks. If I could think about things that other commissioners think about, I'd probably enjoy my job a lot more."
Ernest Page, who has been in office since 1996, is seen as the commissioner with the best sense of humor and, in spite of his "too bad" crack hurled last year at an angry and disapproving Mayor Hood, as the uniter on the council.
A youthful 58, Page says the council's split with the mayor last year had more to do with the way she was running her office than with light rail. He says that information was flowing from department heads to Hood, skipping past city commissioners, who don't have a staff of their own. His backing of council colleague Bruce Gordy for mayor was meant to send a message to Hood: You continue to disrespect us at your peril.
The mayor's office, he says, overreacted to that message and to the Gordy campaign. "It was change, and change is always difficult," Page says. "The council was exerting itself. That's certainly a position the administration had never been in before."
Page, who runs a nonprofit development company, says there still are signs that the mayor's office hasn't relinquished its desire to control aspects of city government. Last month he invited several city department heads to give presentations at a forum for residents of his district -- a fairly innocuous gathering where the public was educated about a range of issues, from schools to street problems. Yet the three-hour event still made the administration uptight, Page says.
"It makes the administration nervous because council is exerting itself without restriction, without comment or knowledge from anyone in the administration," he says.
Even so, Page is willing these days to give Hood the benefit of the doubt. He says, more than anything, that she may be trapped by the strong-mayor political structure outlined by the city charter.
"We're dealing with a system, and sometimes that system controls the mayor," he says. "There's not a lot of drastic changes, because the system is already in place."
Not that Hood has ever been heard to complain.
"We're not mortal adversaries," Page continues. "We might have slight differences of opinion on management. Some of it is spoken, some of it is unspoken. I think the staff sometimes find themselves caught up in that."
Indeed, Page is still concerned that commissioners aren't receiving all the information they should be getting. For example, he intends to call the National Park Service himself to learn more about the contract governing the federal funds that were used to renovate the city's Jackson community center. That's where the city planned to locate the privately run Nap Ford Community School -- unless the feds rule that their contract with the city requires the center to be open to all. Either city staffers didn't know that possibility existed, or kept the information from commissioners when they were asked to vote on the issue. Page wants the details, so he can decide if he has to reverse his original decision in support of the community school.
"I need to know as a decision-maker," he says, "what is going on."