Following Orlando Weekly's September inquiry into the influence-peddling role that Seminole County's not-quite-official Development Advisory Board played in environmental politics, county manager Kevin Grace gave the DAB a choice: Go legit -- meaning adhere to public-meeting and public-records laws -- or get out.
The DAB has chosen the latter.
To recap: For the past five years, the board -- all of whose members are elites in the local development industry -- has been a de facto member of Seminole County government, rewriting ordinances and lending its high profile to occasional hiring and firing decisions regarding the county's workforce [Pulling Strings," Sept. 13]. In return, the county staffed each of the board's meetings with from six to 12 employees, preparing agendas and recording minutes; the DAB even held its meetings in a county building.
Still, the DAB didn't fall under the state's open-government laws. In particular, its members declined to file financial statements revealing their potential conflicts of interest. They also declined to air all of their discussions in public, as other, legal boards are required to do.
Grace told Orlando Weekly that, from now on, the DAB would be treated like any other special-interest group. For starters, that meant showing the DAB the door. According to Commissioner Grant Maloy, the DAB was forced to have its October meeting at chairman Mike Hattaway's real-estate office. And the DAB now receives only bare-bones staff support -- one or two persons -- though it can ask for more to work on specific issues.
"That's a double-edged thing," says Sierra Clubber Keith Schue. "Obviously, that means we're not invited to the meetings anymore." Nor will the environmental activists know who actually attends or what is discussed.
"That was the decision of the [DAB]," says Maloy. "It was never discussed at the county-commission level. I was kind of waiting for the citizens [namely, activists Deborah Shaffer and Andrea Holman, who led the anti-DAB charge] to make their presentation. I was outgunned."
Indeed, the DAB still has its allies both on the county commission and among the staff's higher-ups. Don Fisher, Seminole's planning-department manager, once served on the DAB, and a former county attorney, Lonnie Groot, currently does.
"Have things really changed?" Schue asks. "I don't know."
In a short letter to the editor of this newspaper published Oct. 25, University of Central Florida professor Jay D. Jurie praised Orlando Weekly's article, in particular likening one board member's influence in obtaining a lease of public land for private use to Teapot Dome, the 1920s scandal that came to symbolize political graft and corruption.
Some DAB members didn't take well to that. On Oct. 31, Longwood attorney James Hattaway wrote a letter to Jurie (and Jurie's superiors at UCF) threatening to sue unless Jurie states that "my client has never manipulated, exploited or otherwise violated the public trust." Hattaway identifies his client as the chairman of the DAB -- Mike Hattaway, his father.
"Dr. Jurie has two obligations," James Hattaway says. "Substantiate his allegations or retract them. If he does one of those two things, we'll be done."
In response, UCF has essentially cut Jurie off. "Unless your employment by the university requires you to speak for, or render official opinions on behalf of the university, you should not include your official title and employment by the university in your correspondence such as the letter to Orlando Weekly you recently authored," says a letter Jurie received from UCF General Counsel Mary Beth Liberto. "Moreover, if you should ever be sued for libel, slander, defamation, etc., for such statements or correspondence, you will not be defended by the university."