ORLANDO, Fla. -- Democracy is under siege in Orange County, Fla. Progressive forces have had the prospect of paid sick time, an advance for low-wage workers, snatched from them, at least temporarily, by big business forces and their allies - the county commission and the local GOP.
Dozens of activists, including members of Communications Workers of America and UniteHere and former Occupy Orlando participants, packed the Sept. 18 commission meeting here. Many of the activists wore black and carried flowers to symbolize their mourning of "the death of democracy."
Around two dozen spoke against the commission's Sept. 11 decision to keep a sick-time initiative off the November ballot, in what some consider an apparent violation of the county charter. They urged the commission, unsuccessfully, to reverse course, and tried to add pressure on the commission and Mayor Teresa Jacobs with a flurry of last-minute phone calls and emails.
Brook Hines, director of the Community Business Association, a small business advocacy group that supports mandated sick-time, told commissioners that their actions were "showing the people that we can only have confidence democracy works in relation to how much money you have."
"If you're Disney, if you're Darden, if you're the big businesses in town, you're going to get heard, and you're going to get special treatment from the commission," she said.
"Over 50,000 citizens played by the rules and petitioned our government. But commissioners colluded with special interests and put cynical politics above democracy," said Marlon Washington, chair of Citizens for a Greater Orange County, after the meeting.
"The good news is these powerful interests have awakened a sleeping giant," he said. "Voters will eventually have their day, and they will remember whose side the commission was on." That "day" now appears likely to be in 2013 or 2014.
Hundreds of volunteer and paid canvassers from the coalition spent much of central Florida's hot and rainy summer collecting about 74,000 signatures to put the sick-time measure before voters. On Aug. 17 the county supervisor of elections certified, after verifying around 50,000 signatures (6,000 more than were needed), that the group had reached its goal.
The measure was the first citizen-initiated ordinance to earn a ballot spot in the history of Orange County. If it passed, workers at any business in the county (population 1.2 million) with 15 or more employees would earn one hour of paid sick time for every 37 hours worked, up to a maximum of 56 hours (seven days) per year.
The measure's impact would be greatest on the county's low-wage workers, especially in the restaurant, hospitality, retail and theme park sectors, who mostly don't have paid sick time.
Under the county charter the certification of a ballot measure is supposed to trigger a hearing at which commissioners have two options: pass it, or allow it on the ballot. In one last effort to run out the clock, the Republican-dominated commission, after voting 7-0 against the ordinance, adopted what some consider an extralegal third option on Sept. 11.
Commissioner Fred Brummer, a Republican former legislator, claimed that the ballot title and summary were "seriously deficient" and "unclear" because, among other things, it did not state that non-profit employers would be subject to the mandate. Commissioners approved 4-3 Brummer's proposal to hire an outside attorney to advise them on the "correct" title and summary language and to have a ballot language workshop in October - after the Sept. 18 deadline to get the ballot to the printer so that it could be mailed in time to local residents serving in the military.
The commissioners who supported Brummer did so even after they had been told by County Attorney Jeff Newton that "the board has no authority to change the ballot title or the ballot summary."
The Orlando Sentinel (Sept. 19) reported that Brummer's stalling tactic was the brainchild of Lew Oliver, a lawyer and the long-time chair of the Orange County Republican Party. Brummer told the newspaper that Oliver "was the one who told me that we [commissioners] have the responsibility to make sure that the [ballot] language is correct."
Brummer's measure was a substitute for a charter amendment that Commissioner Jennifer Thompson had proposed for the Nov. 6 ballot. Thompson, a Republican and a small-business owner, is a former officer and board member of two local chambers of commerce.
Thompson wants to bar any ordinance that regulates, requires or restricts worker benefits provided by non-governmental employers. Thompson said that her proposal came from speaking to dozens of small businesses that she claimed would be impacted by mandated sick time. However, local big business forces such as the Walt Disney Co., Darden Restaurants and the Central Florida Partnership (the parent of the Orlando Regional Chamber of Commerce) have lobbied the mayor and commissioners extensively against mandated sick-time.
Attorneys for the sick-time coalition went to court after the Sept. 11 meeting seeking an order that the county follow its charter and put the measure on the ballot. A ruling by a three-judge panel on Sept. 17 found that the sick-time proponents had a "sufficient claim for relief" and ordered the commission to either follow the charter or file an appeal within 20 days.
After the county attorney claimed that there might not be sufficient time to implement the order, sick-time proponents sought an emergency injunction on Sept. 18 to force the county to put the ordinance to a vote on Nov. 6.
The judges, however, nixed that request, stating in their ruling that "even if this court concludes that the [commission] failed to abide by its own charter, an adequate remedy ... exists because the court is able to mandate that the matter be placed on the next special, general or primary election ballot" (Orlando Sentinel, Sept. 18).