Maybe nobody saw it coming — actually, maybe everybody did — but all is not well with the city's year-old foray into downtown pedestrian customer service. The Downtown Ambassadors program, officially launched in January 2008, rolled Segways onto the sidewalks in hopes of keeping up urban appearances for what the mayor and downtown developers predicted would be a boom in Orange Avenue foot traffic.
Like every "innovative" thing this city conjures up, the Ambassadors idea was ripped off from similar programs in Atlanta and Jacksonville — cities where downtown thoroughfares are actually confusing. The city dove in headfirst, coughing up $893,000 to pay for a dozen part-timers to roll around downtown, facilitating public safety and welcoming lost tourists.
But what were they really doing? Not much — at least when this reporter tagged along during the ambassadors' December 2007 soft launch `see "I was a Downtown Ambassador," Jan. 10, 2008`. During that outing, team manager Rose Garlick revealed that the whole thing was an effort by the Downtown Development Board to boost flagging condo sales. (That worked well.)
Now, one year and an economic collapse later, the program's cracks are starting to show. A former ambassador — who was fired Jan. 18, days after he began talking to Orlando Weekly — describes the entire program as a money-sucking joke rife with lack of accountability, wasted time, hazardous working conditions and a complete lack of leadership. And, he adds, Garlick has admitted to him that the program is on its last legs.
Speaking anonymously under the pseudonym "City Change Agent" — he asked not to be identified because of other business he claims to have with the city, though the Weekly has verified his identity with city officials — the insider says the $10-an-hour job is nothing but an exercise in futility.
"I've seen employees repeatedly falsify or over-exaggerate their work activities for the day just to say that they accomplished something meaningful and to assist the program out by reporting a false act," he writes in an e-mail. "Like Disney, we have become a world of ‘make believe,' inventing and conjuring up `a` grandiose image of what you want to believe to be true but in actuality is not. Welcome to our Ambassador fantasy."
On Nov. 30, he sent an anonymous e-mail to the city about possible Segway risks — including inclement weather, debris and darkness — and the fact that Segway malfunctions could lead to a lawsuit. He also raised these issues with his superiors, he says. His warnings were ignored. When he was called into the office on Jan. 18, he says, he knew the ax was about to fall, and it did. He was given no explanation. The city says that as a contract employee, he could be canned at any time for any reason (or no reason at all), but denies he was fired for whistle-blowing.
Though the city may dismiss him as a disgruntled ex-employee, he says he's nonetheless putting together an exhaustive analysis of the program's shortcomings to present to Mayor Buddy Dyer. Among his alleged findings: safety problems with the Segways and Ambassadors fudging reports to indicate they were working when they weren't.
A few months into the program, he says that the dozen ambassadors were issued so-called "magic wands," instruments with which they would tap 26 strategically placed buttons scattered about downtown, so they could demonstrate where they were going on those city-issued Segways — in essence, to prove that they were at least moving about. That system cost $3,500, according to the city. (The city paid almost $63,000 for the program's equipment expenses. It paid another $35,500 for its six Segways.)
The program has morphed since its inception, the source adds. Now, during high-traffic times the ambassadors have to walk rather than scoot around on Segways. He also says that some ambassadors had injurious accidents that went unreported to save face, citing a Lake Eola incident where an ambassador was knocked off his Segway, although not seriously hurt. Additionally, initial requirements to have the ambassadors travel in pairs have been routinely overlooked.
According to city records, since the program's launch its ambassadors have assisted the Orlando Police Department 91 times and the homeless 422 times, dealt with panhandlers 614 times and given directions 13,828 times, among a plethora of other tasks, including umbrella assistance (356 times). The insider, however, insists that those numbers are inflated to make the program seem more worthwhile than it actually is.
"The reason the topics `of ambassadors' duties` were made so grossly general instead of specific is so that the employee would just put something on the paper and that would then show the public that we are, through the use of exaggerated numbers, now providing value to the public," the ex-ambassador alleges via e-mail, though it's worth noting that "umbrella assistance" seems fairly specific.
Asked about that possibility, city spokeswoman Heather Allebaugh replied via e-mail, "The ambassador supervisor is a working part of the team — working with each ambassador on a regular basis — and constantly monitors the accuracy of these reports. The ambassadors do not have goals for the amount of contacts they are to make so I am not sure why they would feel they need to `embellish`."
Here's one thought: A program that demonstrably did nothing would probably be put out of its misery, and the ambassadors would lose their superfluous jobs.
Ultimately, none of this may matter. The city is in a budget crisis and looking for programs to cut. Hacking this one probably wouldn't be too painful. Allebaugh declined to comment on the program's future, other than to say that everything's on the chopping block. In August, the Downtown Development Board approved the creation of Downtown Orlando Community Programs Inc. — a nonprofit combining the Orlando Farmers Market, the Downtown Ambassadors program and the Downtown Orlando Information Center — which would allow for private donations to fund the programs. (There's been no activity as of press time.) The city council will decide whether or not to renew its funding of the ambassador program this summer when it takes up next year's budget.
The former ambassador says he's looking for accountability: "Inevitably, there's got to be some responsibility. There's got to be some explanation."email@example.com