By STEPHEN HUDAK
A citizens’ panel, tasked with tweaking Orange County’s governing document, is probing a plethora of proposals, including expanding the county commission and removing the mayor from the board.
“We’re just getting started,” said Angel De La Portilla, a member of two prior Charter Review groups and chair of a committee studying commission expansion and the mayor’s role. “There’s still a long ways to go.”
Every four years, Orange County convenes a Charter Review Commission to study the document considered to be its Constitution. The panel can propose improvements and additions.
The 15 appointees, three selected by Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings and two each by the six commissioners, debate ideas in public meetings assisted by invited experts and citizen input.
The panel began its work in February and likely won’t finish until May or June 2024.
“This is your opportunity to have a part in how your government is run,” said former Orange County Commissioner Homer Hartage, who serves as the panel’s chair. “We encourage the public to join us.”
Proposed charter changes must be approved by voters to become part of the document.
“When you put it in your charter, your government’s married to it until somebody is powerful enough to make it change and that takes a lot,” said Charter Review Commissioner Beverly Winesburgh.
She spoke to Apopka City Council in September because they are considering a charter review.
Four years ago, the 2020 Orange County Charter Review Commission proposed three changes — a provision to protect the rights of nature, another to protect Split Oak Forest from development, and a third aimed at adjusting rules for gathering signatures for a citizen-led initiative.
Voters approved all three, the first two by landslide margins of nearly 90%.
But before Orange County voters went to the polls, state legislators passed a law in June 2020 preventing local governments from granting “any legal rights to a plant, an animal, a body of water, or any other part of the natural environment …”
A judge cited the pre-emption in 2021 when she threw out a lawsuit filed in Orange County circuit court by an environmental activist on behalf of Crosby Island Marsh, Lake Hart and Lake Mary Jane.
The charter committee’s meetings are recorded and can be found on the Comptroller’s website.
The full panel has held meetings in all six commission districts and listened to pitches from citizens and elected officials during public comment, including former mayoral candidate Chris Messina.
He urged the panel to propose creating a restitution fund for county workers “harmed physically and financially or both” by a COVID vaccine mandate imposed by Demings during the pandemic.
The panel is divided into four umbrella committees with study topics.
Chaired by de la Portilla, this committee is looking at five issues, including the mayor’s role as a voting member of the Orange County commission, expanding the board by one and revising term limits.
De la Portilla said the mayor’s role as Orange County’s chief executive officer and as chair and a voting member of the county commission, a legislative board, conflicts with the principle of separation of powers.
“We’re looking at whether the mayor should be serving in both capacities,” he said.
De la Portilla said the committee is studying whether the public would be served more efficiently and effectively by county commissioners who were not limited to two, elected four-year terms of service.
Chaired by mayoral appointee Dottie Wynn, who owns a consulting company, the committee is considering relaxing some county requirements for people to put an issue on the ballot by petition, a method requiring citizens to collect thousands of signatures from eligible, registered voters.
The 2016 Charter Review Commission drafted changes that made the process harder.
Sustainable Growth and Charter Clean-up
Chaired by Eric R. Grimmer, a leader with Orlando YIMBY, which advocates for a more affordable and sustainable community, the committee is considering a proposal to create a rural boundary in east Orange.
The measure may be similar to one approved by Seminole County voters in 2004.
Seminole’s rural boundary protects nearly a third of the land in Orange County’s neighbor to the northeast. The law limits development densities to one home per 3 acres in some areas and one per 10 acres in others.
Creation of a public bank
Chaired by lawyer Alisia Adamson Profit, the committee is researching a public bank.
“It is new to all of us so we are studying whether or not it’s a possibility,” she said.
An advocate, Nelson Betancourt, pitched the idea to the panel of Orange County commissioners.
In an email to the Orlando Sentinel, he said the county could set up its own public bank and self-finance the proposed $560 million expansion to the Orange County Convention Center without incurring the interest fees ordinarily required to float bonds or borrow from a Wall Street bank.
A public bank would not provide consumer loans or issue debit and credit cards.
Source: Orlando Sentinel
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