New Year's Day readers of the Sentinel were treated to the kind of City Hall coverage that has turned many people away from corporate journalism. In a bonus section labeled "Goals 2002" -- a promotional bit of writing designed to focus Central Florida on the problems of the day (jobs, education, poor civic leadership) -- was a column written by David Porter, a deputy editorial-page editor who specializes in criminal justice, health and city government issues, according to a biography printed in the section.
Headlined "Join me in search for solutions," Porter's column criticized a group of people that often attends city council meetings and chastises public officials for any number of perceived failings -- from the city's funding of a Parramore charter school to the redistricting process. Porter didn't name his subjects, but most people who attend council meetings are aware of the group, maybe 10 in number and from diverse backgrounds and ethnicities. Call them gadflies or call them activists, the group of citizens sometimes joins such causes as the firefighter's union or opponents to the panhandling ordinance, trying (often unsuccessfully) to persuade council members to come to their senses.
Porter began his column by announcing that some city officials have such low regard for the group that they gave it the nickname "the horribles." He went on to say the horribles have no credibility and have made a nuisance of themselves by insinuating that some council members are racist and unethical. He writes: "Most of the time, when 'the horribles' get up to speak, you can feel a groan ripple through the council chamber because everyone has heard them before." Porter ends his column by saying he would no longer listen to this group of complainers. Instead, his New Year's resolution was to listen to people with solutions because they were the true leaders.
Soon after Porter's column was published, it was clear the benefits he hoped to gain would never materialize: The 'horribles' weren't going away. A slew of e-mails ridiculing Porter flew back and forth among group members, and some were sent to Porter. The group even made fun of itself. Ezell Harris, a former Air Force cop who hosts an anti-Daisy Lynum web site, began signing his e-mails Horrible Harris. Another called himself Hagar the Horrible. Political radio talk-show host Doug Guetzloe, perhaps the head horrible since he reaches so many people and is at no loss for critical words about Mayor Glenda Hood and Commissioner Lynum, called Porter on-air but Porter hung up before answering any questions.
Porter also refused to talk to Orlando Weekly, saying whatever he had to say was already in his column. He did agree to answer one question. Since nobody can recall commissioners publicly discussing the horribles, might there have been a violation of the state's Sunshine Law? How did the nickname spread unless commissioners secretly met to denigrate constituents? Porter's answer: "If it would have occurred outside the Sunshine, I would have written about it."
Even so, Porter raises other unintended issues. With a city government justly criticized for its lack of public input, was it the most prudent use of the paper's time, column space and ink to attack some of the few citizens who attend council meetings? Is it such a good idea for a daily newspaper to cut itself off from sources who often know more about city government than its own reporters? These citizens make a number of public-information requests and are often tipped to questionable practices when gossiping with city employees. Some of them, such as Guetzloe, even sit on civic boards.
Perhaps most interesting about Porter's column is that some longtime council attendees can't remember ever seeing Porter at a council meeting. (Two reporters currently cover City Hall for the Sentinel.) In any case, Porter missed what should have been the angle for his column -- the horrible treatment the group has received by some on the council, namely Lynum and the mayor herself.
Lynum has called members of the citizens' group ants, fleas, liars, stupid, pathetic, fools and a posse of fools. Can anybody recall a public official so publicly hostile to her constituents? Hood, meanwhile, has toned down her me-first attitude at City Hall. But she still occasionally cuts off speakers and condescends to them.
If Porter is indeed looking for solutions, he might begin advocating for elected officials with more sophistication and tact than some we have now -- officials unafraid of criticism and, perhaps, with a better grasp of vocabulary. "David Porter's selection of words to describe citizens exercising their rights was terrible," says Sylvia Young, a Rock Lake resident who has been attending council meetings since the 1980s. "He used the word 'horrible.' He didn't use 'spirited' or 'overzealous.' He said 'horrible.' But horrible to whom?"