It's not easy being an Orlando city commissioner. Every other Wednesday or Thursday someone slaps a 3-inch-thick binder on your desk detailing the minutiae of civic stability: the roll-off franchises, the rights-of-way, minor annexations, major wastewater expenses, etc. In just four or five days — including weekends of neighborhood barbecues and ribbon cuttings — you're supposed to offer educated decisions on hundreds of issues that will come before the city council the next Monday.
Of course, by the time you crack open that binder, that decision has already effectively been made. You've been briefed (or lobbied, depending on your point of view) by city staff or chief administrative officer Byron Brooks on what all of the legalese boils down to, you've taken a lunch or two with the mayor, private parties have signed in at your second-floor City Hall office to bend your ear about just why it is they need that zoning adjustment. By the time you take your seat for the council meeting, it's more political theater than public discussion. The cameras are on, you smile and talk about how proud you are of one neighborhood's high-school pennant and another's neighborhood crime initiative. Somebody stands up to oppose an ordinance, rattles off his concerns at a spitfire pace to stay within the allotted five minutes, and then sits down again. You roll your eyes and watch the clock.
"When they show up to council on Monday," says city spokeswoman Heather Allebaugh, "there's a lot of work already done."
Translation: When the mayor says, "Jump," the council answers, "How high?" In at least the last year and a half, Mayor Buddy Dyer has never once lost a vote he's brought before the city. More astoundingly, in 2008 the city council voted unanimously — and always in accordance with Dyer's wishes — more than 99.5 percent of the time.
If you buy the adage that "If two people agree on everything, once of them is unnecessary," the city council is empirically worthless. Those long, tedious meetings are a waste of breath. Citizens who take a Monday off to protest a rezoning or tax issue are wasting their time and energy. If it's on the agenda, the decision's already made.
Why are commissioners the mayor's lemmings? When Dyer ascended in 2003, he smoothed over the ruffled feathers with a salesman's smile and softer tone. He kept his strategy more political, his cards closer to his chest, and in doing so formed a system of quiet alliances and quieter pressure to dissuade dissent — scratch my back and I'll scratch yours, the old political game. The result is a rather polite fiefdom, a quiet dictator surrounded by lapping lapdogs willing to cut checks for a billionaire's new arena while cutting budgets for city services. Who would dare to say no?
Taking a look over the past 18 months of city council meetings, it seems remarkably few would. Of all the votes taken during that time — roughly 50 or more at every commission meeting — only 22 had any dissenters at all. Of those, only four had more than one commissioner voting against the mayor's will. Even when there's dissent on huge issues, it amounts to nothing.
For instance, when the mayor brought the $1.8 billion venues package before the council on July 23, 2007, the mood was palpably giddy. Commissioner Patty Sheehan talked of no longer traveling to see Madonna concerts, commissioner Daisy Lynum looked forward to minority job opportunities and the media were present in throngs, as were backers from each of the projects. Only one commissioner, Phil Diamond, voted no. That same day, the commissioners unanimously voted to award $13.7 million to the commuter rail project.
Other controversial ideas saw little resistance: On Sept. 10, 2007, only commissioner Robert Stuart voted against an ordinance limiting blue-box panhandling to daytime hours. On July 21, 2008, only Diamond dissented from the mayor's plan to raise property taxes to make up for declining revenues. He suggested deferring the Citrus Bowl part of the venues project and using downtown tax money for police and fire service instead of hiking millage rates. Dyer wasn't having it, so that idea (which looks prescient in hindsight) went nowhere.
Dyer — who, as the meeting's chairperson, only votes in case of a tie — has only had to weigh in twice over the last 18 months, the most important of these being an Aug. 4 vote to build a mixed-use high rise. After a 3-3 split, the mayor cast the deciding vote in favor. (He also broke a tie to defer a hearing on another downtown project Sept. 8.)
Meanwhile, the cult of unanimity prevailed pushing through everything the mayor wanted, including the $893,000 Downtown Ambassadors program, the Lake Nona medical city and an ordinance codifying how pedicabs do business downtown.
"The mistake is that we think we have a city council—run government," says Stuart. "We don't. We have a mayor-run government."
Stuart says that the symbolic gesture of dissent is all part of a political and policy game. He admits to sometimes voting yes to curry favor with the mayor, or after successful lobbying campaigns by city staffers. He also admits that public input holds little sway. "What's frustrating is that you spend all this time running for office, you spend your time trying to figure out big ideas and how to move them forward, and then you end up worrying about whose dog is pooping on whose lawn," he says.
The city pays commissioners $47,945 for an officially part-time gig — nice work if you can get it — so maybe we should expect something more than acquiescence.
Diamond, the most consistent voice of opposition, sees his "no" votes as constructive: "The influence can manifest itself in several ways. Sometimes it might be on that particular issue, other times it might be something that the staff or the mayor might think about down the road when a similar issue comes up."
Asked whether his dissent singles him out for derision from the mayor or his fellow commissioners, Diamond doesn't seem to care.
"I'm not looking around the room," he says.
Additional reporting by Joe AughtmanAlso check this out firstname.lastname@example.org