ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. (FNN NEWS) – Walt Disney once wrote, “You can create and dream the most wonderful place in the world, but it takes people to make the dream a reality.” Factor in an election in some of our most wonderful Central Florida cities and the “people” can get downright nasty. This article is simply an observation of local politics. Things might vary in other parts of the country, but in municipalities in and around Orlando, small town politics…they’re interesting.
Some of the more memorable local races were Mayor Scott Vandergrift of Ocoee; the battle for Orange County Property Appraiser between incumbent Bill Donegan, who ultimately lost to Rick Singh; and the battle to fill the void after the passing of long term Orange County Tax Collector Earl K. Wood, leaving the local Democratic Party to decide the future tax collector. The contentious and rigorous selection process ultimately saw Scott Randolph, a former State House Representative and former chair of the Orange County Democratic party, fill the role. But it’s the observance of politics, in general, in the spotlighted cities of Belle Isle, Winter Park and Apopka that have grabbed recent attention.
THE CITY OF BELLE ISLE
Belle Isle is a small city of approximately 7,500 people just south of downtown Orlando which encompasses the Conway Chain of Lakes and beautiful tree-lined streets. But don’t let all that beauty fool you–it seems there is always some drama in the town hall. First, know that the City elected officials, the Mayor and City Council, all work for free–yep, for free–so you’d think it must clearly be the love of the City that’s their motivation. Well, I’m sure that’s part of it, but when you factor in the ever increasing value of real estate in the area and the proximity to downtown and the airport, Belle Isle is a very desirable place to live and call home. And desirable sometimes brings drama.
Much like the Town of Windermere in the early ‘90s, Belle Isle is a city evolving, a meeting of established residents and newer residents ready to identify a tear down home to build their dream home. Additionally, like Windermere, Belle Isle is primarily a residential area. Simply put, there are residents that long for the way Belle Isle was, and many wanting to advance it to the future.
The Mayor of Belle Isle, Lydia Pisano, a long-term member of the City Council, was voted into office by proxy, if you will, when her opponent in 2016 left the race for reasons many still aren’t aware of. This immediately placed Mayor Pisano in an unlikely position: she won with no voting necessary.
For some residents, this was and remains a sore spot. One resident, who preferred to remain anonymous, said, “Our Mayor is far too active on Facebook. I think it undermines her role as an elected official.” For others, they recognized the commitment and length of service Mayor Pisano has brought to the community. Another resident sees her differently: “I feel our Mayor is a tireless servant to our community and we’re lucky to have her.” Uniquely, the Mayor has no vote on the Council, leaving all control to the remaining City Councilmen and Councilwomen. And Pisano, who ran for County Commission twice, is rumored to be considering a third bid for County Commission to replace term-limited and popular Orange County Commissioner Pete Clarke, who is also rumored to be considering a bid for Orange County Mayor.
Pisano’s immediate challenge, once elected, was identifying a replacement for City Manager, Keith Severans. This process made the news as interim replacement, Richard Anderson, was caught up in a scandal of allegedly leaving the scene of an accident. The situation, of course, gained a great deal of media attention for the city. Add to that a former Belle Isle finance manager being accused last year of stealing $15,000 from the City and you have a reality show in the making. While the Sunshine Law is a wonderful way of ensuring transparency, in Belle Isle it’s often put to the test with an investigation still ongoing from the State Attorney’s office. This too made the news last year, forcing nearly all of the City Council and the Mayor to present countless emails, social media posts and messaging as well as text messages.
Of the three highlighted cities, Belle Isle seems to get the most media attention. And some attention is actually great. Probably the brightest spot of Belle Isle Government is its police department. I’ve had the pleasure of working on a few projects where they were engaged and you simply can’t ask for a more professional and dedicated community driven team.
Additionally, some Belle Isle police officers were actual first responders to the tragic Pulse mass murder event of June 12, 2016, where 49 innocent people were killed. The Belle Isle Police Department continues to receive ongoing recognition for its efforts.
They’ve also been spotlighted in the media for bringing awareness to the need for Narcom, a drug that all but reverses heroin overdoses. But it isn’t cheap. The department chief worked with time share mogul David Siegel to ensure they and other departments have this life saving remedy at hand.
Recently, we learned the Belle Isle Police Station was found to be filled with deadly black mold. Belle Isle resident Chris Comins, a philanthropist, stepped in offering to manage the construction and totally rebuild the station at his own expense. Not too many people would lend their own resources to such an endeavor, but for Comins it was a simple decision.
While items like these keep the City in the headlines, you’d be surprised that it’s the more obscure things that fall under the radar. For example, last year we learned that there’s no law in place to keep hunters from shooting ducks on the Conway Chain of Lakes. Most of us would consider hunting in a residential area prohibited. I mean, imagine you’re sitting on your boat dock with your favorite beverage and all of a sudden people are boating by shooting at ducks.
Further investigation illustrates why the City unfortunately has no control over this issue. The waterways are in fact controlled by the State. Surprisingly, the neither Belle Isle Mayor nor City Council have any control over the hunting laws and guidelines. As a result, the City of Belle Isle can only lobby state officials to reverse this law. And when you factor in all the issues facing the State, duck hunting on a residential lake, while surprising, isn’t a top priority. Don’t look for any changes on this issue anytime soon with the legislature soon leaving session this coming Monday and no perceived action in place.
THE CITY OF WINTER PARK
When I completed my Public Relations Internship at Walt Disney World in 1987, I recall driving what seemed like forever to get a haircut on Park Avenue. I had heard Winter Park was an upscale area and my initial visit certainly supported that opinion, which still holds even today. In recent years, especially during the Mayoral Election of 2014, there was what amounted to an old-versus-new approach to Winter Park politics between former Judge and longtime Winter Park resident Cynthia McKinnon and newer, forward moving and thinking candidate Steve Leary.
Additionally, there were traffic nightmares with the the newly erected shopping area that included the much anticipated Trader Joe’s. It was one of the more recent highlights of commercial development in the area, yet no one needed a degree in urban planning to quickly realize the parking and traffic issues it created. How no one anticipated the excitement of Trader Joe’s and the predicted success of all the shops in the plaza is still a mystery. In fact, the red flag of how this area impacted the “thinking” of Winter Park development was now clear for all to see.
It would create huge discussions regarding the development plans for the historical Best Western hotel property located on 17-92. McKinnon operated on a platform of preserving old Winter Park and Leary suggested we could have managed growth and maintain the presence of such a beautiful area also known for its chain of lakes, tree lined streets, majestic homes and fine shopping and dining. Leary, now Mayor Leary, won that race by less than 500 votes and a new and energized leadership approach stepped in. To his credit, there are far less rumblings than that of yesteryear, so he, the City Council, and City management must be doing something right.
In the recent City Council elections and possibly even back then, there was a far-from-silent yet powerful group of people, known as “One Winter Park,” that organized grassroots efforts to impact the election in a surprising way–but don’t waste your time searching for a Facebook page or Google results. No, this group operates stealthily yet effectively. Some have even suggested the group uses intimidation, slander and alternative facts to create narratives that make the candidate not of their choice, well, dead in the water. And in a City with a clash of ideas on maintaining the City’s historical integrity coupled with growth, there’s certainly the opportunity for a showdown in the 2018 mayoral race. Uniquely, we’re seeing a wave of calling out such groups that go for the jugular in politics despite truth or integrity. The 2018 Mayor’s race should be a nail-biter with one City Council member already rumored to be willing to take on the incumbent Mayor. Grab your popcorn, folks.
THE CITY OF APOPKA
Located in the northwest quadrant of Orange County, The City of Apopka is best known for agriculture. Travel that way and you’ll find everything from fields of ferns to acres of roses being pruned. But Apopka is growing by leaps and bounds residentially as a result of its proximity to the ever-growing City of Orlando. Apopka too is going to have a nail-biter of a mayor’s race next year already heating up by former State House Representative, now Orange County Commissioner, Bryan Nelson announcing he will take on the incumbent Mayor Joe Kilsheimer. Kilsheimer gained attention almost immediately when we won the seat from longtime Mayor John Land by terminating powerhouse Attorney Frank Kruppenbacher and all but giving himself a raise to boot. Nelson, who is also known for his family’s rose business Nelson Roses, is a staple in the Apopka area and considered a down-to-earth neighbor-next-door type. Nelson is leaving his Commissioner seat after one term, giving up a conservative stronghold on the board of county commissioners as the district skews more left. “The mayor’s race should draw a lot of attention, pitting fiscal conservative Bryan Nelson against free-spending incumbent Joe Kilsheimer,” said Barb Zakszewski, an engaged Apopka resident no too pleased with the current Mayor’s performance.“A host of issues are expected to be brought up during the campaign, making things very interesting for the City of Apopka.”
ONE UNIQUE CONNECTION
Apopka and Belle Isle have something in common: Richard Anderson was the City of Apopka Manager when he went to help the City of Belle Isle as interim City Manager for a mere rumored $6ka month. Not a bad gig if you can get it. Recently, Anderson pled to a lesser charge in his case and settled for probation. It certainly is a small world.
All in all, Central Florida is a great place to live, work, play and raise a family. We have a quality of life unlike many places on earth. Whether in a city here, or anywhere, local politics truly are interesting, rivaled only by discussions about religion. (Can I get an amen?) What appears to be a common theme in most local politics, since all politics are local, is the struggle for power and control. If a politician tells you he or she doesn’t have an ego or agenda, don’t believe it. Everyone has an agenda. And you know what? Walt Disney was right: “You can create the most wonderful place in the world. But it’s the people that make the dream a reality.”
Randy Ross is a contributing political writer for Florida National News. He is President of the Orange County Trump Republican Club and Florida Chairman for America First Federated. firstname.lastname@example.org