Commission Heeds the Will of the (Tennis) People

Votes to Keep Tennis Ctr. Vendor. Will City Negotiate More $$ This Time?

Commission Heeds the Will of the (Tennis) People

Last Monday, the City Commission chamber filled up fast with supporters of the current management at Winter Park’s Azalea Lane Tennis Center. In the three years High Performance Sports Management has run the Tennis Center, HPSM president Angie Zguna has made a lot of friends – and at Monday’s City Commission meeting, Angie’s friends stood up for her.

They also sent email – lots of it – to City Commissioners.

The formidable email campaign mounted by Ms. Zguna’s supporters made an impression on the city’s politicians, creating a buzz at City Hall culminating in a unanimous commission vote that gave the nod to Zguna’s company. The commission vote in favor of negotiating a new contract with HPSM was a rejection of the city’s own selection committee whose first choice was competing vendor NetResults Tennis LLC. HPSM and NetResults bid proposals and selection committee evaluations of both vendors can be accessed by clicking the buttons below.

HPSM Proposal    NetResults Proposal    Selection Committee Evaluation

Angie Zguna’s High Performance Sports Management Wins Commission Approval

A review of Angie Zguna’s career highlights and qualifications (provided to the city by Ms. Zguna) shows that she established herself as a formidable competitor at an early age. In her native Latvia, she rose quickly in ranks of young tennis stars, earning a high ranking in singles and doubles tournament play. Her performance in her home country ultimately lead to a #16 “Junior” ranking in the Soviet Union republics. After moving to the U.S. in the 1990s, Ms. Zguna played collegiate tennis in Louisiana before transferring to Rollins College where she earned the title of #1 Singles player in Division II.

Despite the strong support Ms. Zguna received from Winter Park’s tennis devotees, she has had to overcome many obstacles to win acceptance at City Hall – including opposition three years ago during her initial bid to manage the center. That opposition included other competing bidders and some Tennis Center members who opposed her in 2009, but are now supporting her.

In 2009, Ms. Zguna bested another strong competing bidder – who also happened to be the first choice of the city’s selection committee – and then managed to survive a second challenge when the losing bidder contested the City Commission’s vote in her favor.

All sources the Voice spoke with – inside and outside city government – agree that HPSM is managing the Tennis Center better than the city did and that Winter Park’s tennis players are happy with the arrangement.

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Why Did Tennis Center Lose Money before 2010 and Make So Much After?

According to a Jan. 25, 2010 story in the Orlando Sentinel, “the city lost $200,000 in the past four years” leading up to the management change. In 2009, the Tennis Center earned $128,420 in gross revenues, but the city’s cost to run and maintain the center was $213,655.00. The city’s yearly losses are cited as a key reason the city chose to privatize the management of a Tennis Center. In 2010, the center experienced a dramatic turn-around when the city privatized center management. Under HPSM management, Winter Park’s Tennis Center quadrupled its gross revenues over the next two years – moving the center from annual gross revenues of $128,420 in 2009 to $519,240 in 2011.

The Voice asked John Holland, Director of Parks and Recreation, how the Tennis Center managed to lose so much money when city staff was running it prior to 2010. Though Mr. Holland has testified to Ms. Zguna’s skill at running the Center and lauded her expansion of membership at the center, he credited a single factor as the key reason Tennis Center revenues turned from loss to profit so quickly: Tennis Pro fees.

Mr. Holland told the Voice that, prior to 2010 when the city ran the center, tennis professionals teaching at the center were only required to pay the city a small annual fee to teach on city-funded courts. When HPSM took over management of the center in 2010, the city required Zguna’s company to charge these independent pros a percentage of the private lesson fees they earn at the Tennis Center. According to Holland, this significant increase in revenue played a large part in turning the Tennis Center from loss to profit virtually overnight.

Was the City/Zguna Deal Too Sweet?

The Voice has spoken with sources close to the story who question whether the city might have driven a harder bargain – requiring HPSM to share more of the revenues generated by the Tennis Center, which is still city-owned. City staffers confirm that they do not know – year to year – what those net revenues are because Ms. Zguna’s company is not required to report profit and loss information to the city. However, Ms. Zguna did submit tax returns to the city as part of the current bid process.

The city’s current contract with Zguna’s company specifies that HPSM pays 10% of annual gross revenues to the city with the remaining 90% going to HPSM. According to the city, HPSM was not required to pay any sort of fee or “buy-in” to take over the city facility.

Per its contract with HPSM, the city has been obligated to cover most of the expense of maintaining the Tennis Center (including utilities) except for the cost of HPSMs own administrative overhead which includes their personnel costs. The Voice has confirmed with city staff that the city’s current negotiation with HPSM on the new contract includes a requirement that HPSM will pay for the center’s water and electric utilities starting this year – a concession worth about $40,000.

Despite the limited financial information the city receives from HPSM, city staff has provided the Voice with information on its own Tennis Center costs and assumed HPSM annual revenues. This information appears to support speculation that the center may be generating significant net profits for HPSM. In the years since the city created a defacto “partnership” with HPSM by handing over 90% of revenues in return for management services, the city has continued to provide much of the maintenance and upkeep of the HPSM-run center. City costs have been at least partially offset by the 10% of revenues the city receives from HPSM.

New Contract Negotiations: Will City Leave Too Much Money on the Table This Time?

In response to Voice inquiries, the city provided the information shown below documenting the 10% payments the city has received from HPSM over the last three years. Also shown are the gross revenues the city assumes the Tennis Center is earning as extrapolated from the 10% payments received by the city:

2010 — 10% = $34,310 / Assumed HPSM gross: $343,100
2011 — 10% = $51,924 / Assumed HPSM gross: $519,240
2012 — 10% = $50,521 / Assumed HPSM gross: $505,210

According to John Holland, the city’s Director of Parks and Recreation, the cost to the city of maintaining the Tennis Center in 2012 was $50,791.73. $40,393.00 of that cost was for water and electrical utilities – a cost that will be shifted to HPSM under the new contract. If city estimates of Tennis Center gross revenues are accurate, the center grossed almost $400,000 more in 2012 than it did in 2009.

Angie Zguna Responds

The Voice spoke with Angie Zguna, who accepted the city’s numbers and assumptions, though her own calendar-year accounting and royalty breakdowns are slightly different than the city’s fiscal-year-based accounting. Ms. Zguna also points out that HPSM covers “all operational expenses of the facility” while acknowledging that the city supplies significant assets, utilities and maintenance per its current contract with HPSM.

In her statement to the Voice, Ms. Zguna expressed her gratitude for the support she received from Winter Parkers: “We are thrilled to have once again been chosen to manage the operation of the tennis center. We love Winter Park, the community, Rollins, and feel that this is our home and to be able to continue managing the courts is a privilege and honor. We intend to take the center to the next level by continuing to work with the community to attract more local residents to learn tennis, to provide community outreach by working with local schools to introduce tennis as a lifetime sports to elementary and middle school children, to bring more tournaments, increase membership, and to attract international players to Winter Park tennis center as a world class training facility.”

The Voice has asked all City Commissioners and the Mayor to comment on this story. None have commented as of press time.

Auditor Quits. Cites City "Appearance" Concerns

Britz-Parker: I maintained “highest standards for independence.”

Auditor Quits. Cites City “Appearance” Concerns

2/11/13 Story Update:
City Auditor Bernadette Britz-Parker has withdrawn from her position with the city and will be replaced by another member of her firm, James Halleran. In a letter sent to the city (see button below) and obtained by the Voice today, Ms. Britz-Parker states that she has maintained the “Independence in Fact” and “Independence in Appearance” required of CPAs.
Britz-Parker also writes that she “never violated any standard, statute, interpretation, pronouncement or regulation relating to the profession.” The Voice spoke with a member of Britz-Parker’s CPA firm seeking comment from her or any representative of her firm regarding her withdrawal from the city account, but has not received any comment prior to publishing this update. We have also requested comment from city staff, the Mayor and all commissioners regarding these developments — and any future actions the city may take — but have not received comment as of press time.

Britz-Parker states categorically that her comments concerning Commissioner Cooper were not an endorsement of her campaign: “This comment was in fact an observation about preparedness for meetings and not an endorsement of Commissioner Cooper, who as I recall, was an unopposed candidate for re-election to the Winter Park City Commission.”
In the closing of her letter, Britz-Parker acknowledged the concerns of city officials regarding the appearance her comments created: “While I am confident that my independence has not been impaired in any way, after discussing the matter with the Managing Partner of our firm and the Partner in Charge of Accounting and Auditing, we have concluded that to assuage any concerns you might have, effective the date of this letter, the partner in charge of the City of Winter Park engagement will be James Halleran.” Letter From City Auditor

Cooper Faults Bradley for Ethical Inconsistency: “Wrong / Shameful”

In Monday’s Commission meeting, the gloves came off soon after opening niceties were dispensed with. Mayor Bradley started the exchange by responding to the City Auditor’s resignation: “I personally welcome that and will welcome the new partner.” Commissioner Cooper jumped in and asked for consideration of new rules and a consistent standard of conduct. As a case in point, she spoke about campaign contributions given to commissioners by the prior City Auditor.

Cooper cited her own investigation that turned up evidence that “that our prior auditor actually made contributions to candidates — financial contributions — while they were auditors.” Cooper compared the commission’s concern about an endorsement with their silence regarding campaign contributions by prior auditors: “If we were uncomfortable with the James Moore firm saying that I prepared for meetings, then I’m sure we would be equally uncomfortable with an auditor that gave the maximum possible financial contributions to people on this commission . . .”


Mayor Bradley disagreed, referring to the Auditor’s letter of resignation: “There’s a huge difference . . . she said, I mean, in her letter as you’ve read, apparently the same thing: ‘We probably should have re-thought that’ and because of that to assure the assurance that there’s no questions that she’s asked to be relieved of that responsibility. So I support that decision. I think that she did the right thing.”
The entire Feb. 11 commission discussion of the City Auditor resignation is featured in WPV Video shown below.

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2/9/13 Story: Election 2013 was re-ignited last week in Winter Park’s City Commission meeting when Mayor Ken Bradley called for the City Auditor to appear before the commission and explain her campaign endorsement of Commissioner Carolyn Cooper. “I think it’s a serious enough breach . . . that I think she should come and explain herself to this group.”

The Mayor’s challenge of the Auditor was set in motion two weeks earlier – in the prior January 14 Commission meeting – a few days after Commission candidate Ross Johnston filed an election-related lawsuit against the city. In that meeting, the Mayor asked the City Attorney to participate in a review of “the financial independence” of the City Auditor.

The endorsement in question is a two-sentence statement by Bernadette Britz-Parker, the City Auditor, in support of Carolyn Cooper’s study habits: “In 32 years of auditing governments, I have rarely encountered an elected official who has been as prepared as Commissioner Cooper. It’s refreshing to sit down for a meeting, and realize the financial information has already been studied so we’re not starting from scratch.” Commissioner Cooper included the statement in a campaign mailer and on the Endorsement page of her campaign website.

Ms. Britz-Parker is a partner in the CPA firm, James Moore & Co., P.L., that audits the city’s finances. The firm was hired in 2010 after being recommended by an Auditor Selection Board that included three accounting professionals, the Chief Deputy Comptroller for Orange County and Commissioner Cooper. Britz-Parker’s firm was ultimately approved and voted on by the entire City Commission.

Mayor Bradley set the tenor of the discussion early in the meeting by challenging the Auditor’s actions: “I find it questionable – highly questionable. Enough that it’s created questions in this community . . .” Bradley’s sentiments were echoed by Commissioner Sprinkel, who supported the Mayor’s call to have the Auditor explain her endorsement. (See video of full discussion below.)

City Attorney Finds No Violation, But Questions “Appearance” of Auditor Endorsement

During the meeting, City Attorney Larry Brown summarized his research on the matter by stating that opinions he’s researched show that “Generally accepted auditing standards and the United States Comptroller’s Government Audit Standards . . . do require that the auditor maintain independence. Independence is generally defined in the opinions as relating to financial independence, so when you look at the opinions, they don’t get into political endorsements. The opinions deal with an auditor who owns stock in a subsidiary company that he or she is auditing, or . . . an auditor is on a subsidiary board of a government that they’re auditing. Those are the kinds of independence opinions that I found. I did not find an opinion that expressly said giving an endorsement of that type, per se, violates the standard of independence.”

Brown did venture an opinion that generally accepted “best practice” among professional firms who do government business (including his firm) is to avoid endorsing candidates. Brown indicated that many, but not all, firms avoid endorsing or contributing to candidates because “the appearance is arguably one that interferes with your independence.”

Several accounting professionals contacted by the Voice agreed that campaign endorsements in a case like this are problematic – and are best avoided in the interest of maintaining the appearance of independence. However, the sources we spoke with could not point to any direct conflict of interest where the actual work of the Auditor – auditing city finances – could benefit any individual city commissioner.

Mayor Contemplating Termination of Auditor?

In an email obtained by the Voice, (see button below) the City Attorney states that “In my opinion, an official could reasonably find that this endorsement, (assuming it is a materially accurate quote), made with the intent that it would be used publicly in the campaign, created at least an appearance that the auditor failed to take action to assure the City and the public regarding her “independence”. As stated in my previous letter, Generally Accepted Auditing Standards stress that the auditor has an affirmative duty to assure her independence.” Brown also notes in the conclusion of his email that “It isn’t my role to decide whether this endorsement warrants termination of the contract.” There is no mention in the email of who may have asked the City Attorney about a “termination” option.

The Voice contacted City Manager Randy Knight, City Finance Director Wes Hamil and all City Commissioners and submitted questions regarding potential conflicts of interest created by the Financial Auditor’s endorsement – including the question of how an endorsement of this sort could actually impact the duties of the city’s Financial Auditor, or the city’s financial standing. Other than Commissioner Cooper’s statement to the Voice, none of the commissioners or city officials responded to our questions and request for comment. Commissioner Sprinkel declined comment, citing “Sunshine Law” concerns.

Commissioner Cooper’s statement to the Voice included her contention that the Auditor’s endorsement broke no rules and that she believes “. . . it is understandable that I would ask those professionals that work with me, as a commissioner, to comment on my work habits and dedication to the job I was elected to do . . . I believe our auditor is a professional and independence in matters of the city’s financial audit was not compromised. Had I thought otherwise, I would never have asked for a statement. Only professionals who have interfaced with me as a commissioner can fairly assess my dedication and competence.” The full text of Cooper’s statement can be viewed by clicking the button below.

Are City Officials Having “Off-The-Record” Conversations About Auditor?

According to City Attorney Brown, his formal January 25 opinion letter concerning the endorsement (see button below) was triggered by the Mayor’s request at the end of the January 14 Commission meeting. However, a careful review of meeting minutes and our video of that meeting does not appear to reveal the kind of specifics that Attorney Brown would have needed to craft his opinion letter.

In his letter, Brown mentions several times that he has not received any “written” information pertaining to case specifics. This distinction creates a question of whether there were verbal “off the record” communications regarding this case between the City Attorney and city officials. Following up this question, the Voice requested that city officials provide an “account” of the initial inquiry that supplied the specifics of the case to the City Attorney. As of press time, the Voice has received no reply regarding this matter from the city.

City Attorney – Auditor Opinion   City Email re Auditor   Cooper Statement

During last week’s Commission meeting, Commissioner Cooper defended the actions of the Auditor and took the blame for exposing her to criticism. “I feel very responsible for her kind of being called on the carpet . . . I did say to her ‘Oh, would you mind giving me an endorsement?’ and so that really is my fault . . . I don’t think it has any reflection negatively on her professionalism . . . all she said is that I was prepared . . . I’m willing to accept total responsibility for it.”

Cooper Takes Aim at Leary’s Support for Her Election Opponent. Mayor Objects.

Cooper followed her explanation of the Auditor’s endorsement with a thinly-veiled swipe at Commissioner Leary’s support of Ross Johnston’s campaign for her commission seat, adding “I am willing to say as a commissioner that I will – if we could do it as a group – that I will not sign petitions on behalf of a candidate, I will not volunteer my employees to be campaign treasurers for a candidate – nor will I ask anyone who works with me in my capacity as a commissioner to give me a reference.”

Mayor Bradley countered Cooper, taking exception to her equating campaign support with campaign endorsements (neither Cooper nor Bradley mentioned Leary by name) : “I think the Auditor’s incredibly different from that . . . I think that when we go to Wall St. or anyplace else, the financial independence of the auditor’s recommendation and opinion is critical.”

The Mayor called again for the Auditor to appear and explain whether her endorsement changes her financial independence. Commissioner Cooper criticized the Mayor’s approach, “It’s just public humiliation – and unnecessarily so . . .” Bradley quickly countered “I think it’s a question that needs to be answered in terms of financial independence . . .” The Mayor then hinted at a possible outcome of the investigation: “I think it’d be a lot easier than moving tonight that we terminate the Auditor immediately . . .”

Cooper Calls for Campaign Reform: Let’s Stop Taking Contributions From Large Developers

The strained relationship between Mayor Bradley and Commissioner Cooper surfaced repeatedly during their point-counterpoint exchange – with Cooper continuing her call for across-the-board reforms of commission campaign practices. “I personally would like for us to not accept contributions from people who bring large developments in front of the city.”

Commissioner Leary spoke next – his only input into the discussion. He supported the Mayor’s request for an explanation from the Auditor. “I’d certainly like to hear her explanation for what she did . . . this is a rabbit hole we’re getting into here. I’d like to just address this one thing on the point and move on . . .”

As the discussion wound down, Mayor Bradley offered to allow the Auditor to speak with the commissioners individually and/or submit a written explanation. Commissioner McMacken agreed that individual meetings with the Auditor would be appropriate.

In response to a request for comment from the Voice, Ms. Britz-Parker indicated that she will be submitting a written statement to the city regarding her actions. Winter Park Voice will publish the Auditor’s response as soon as it is made available by the city.

City Attorney Also Targeted in Election Controversy. Job Was Threatened Last December.

Complaints about high-level city professionals have not been confined to endorsements – City Attorney Brown has also been subject to recent election-related criticism and commission actions that put his employment at stake. In the same week that Mayor Bradley first questioned the City Auditor’s endorsement of Carolyn Cooper, Cooper’s opponent, Ross Johnston, accused the City Attorney of “possible” favoritism toward Commissioner Cooper. Johnston never produced any proof of bias and ultimately dropped his lawsuit to compel the city to place him on the ballot opposing Cooper.

Thirty days before Johnston leveled charges at the City Attorney, Mayor Bradley and Commissioner Leary mounted an unsuccessful bid to potentially replace Larry Brown as City Attorney. The motion to seek bids from other law firms to serve as City Attorney failed on a 3 to 2 vote at the December 10 City Commission meeting.

Though complaints about Brown from Bradley and Leary did not include charges of bias, the Mayor and Commissioner did state dissatisfaction with the attorney’s fees and job performance. Mayor Bradley also commented that he’d like the City Attorney to be “much more a part of this team.”

A common thread linking City Commission actions to possibly replace the City Attorney – and to investigate the City Auditor – are statements by Commissioner Leary & Mayor Bradley implying that these two officials could lose their jobs. In his remarks during the 12/10 commission meeting, Commissioner Leary referred to the City Attorney’s job while openly speculating about “someone else representing us”. Mayor Bradley is on-record mentioning an option on 1/28 to “terminate the Auditor immediately.”

WPV video below shows the entire Dec. 10 commission discussion of a search for possible replacement of the City Attorney. The entire Jan. 28 commission discussion of the City Auditor investigation is featured in WPV Video shown above.

Anti-Protest Ordinance Triggers Lawsuit

Anti-Protest Ordinance Triggers Lawsuit

On October 16, three local pro-life activists, Winnifred Bell, Allura Lightfoot and Deanna Waller filed suit in federal court to overturn Winter Park’s recently adopted anti-protest ordinance. Judge Roy Dalton, Jr. denied the plaintiffs’ Motion for a Temporary Restraining Order, but will consider granting a Preliminary Injunction to stop enforcement of the ordinance pending a final judgment in the case. Click here to see court document.

In September, prior to the final vote on the ordinance, protest supporters threatened to sue and “bankrupt” the city if Commissioners approved the ordinance. The activists’ lawsuit names the City of Winter Park, Florida, City Council, Steven Leary, Carolyn Cooper, Tom McMacken, Sarah Sprinkel and Police Chief Brett C. Railey as defendants. Mayor Bradley was not named in the suit. He was the only member of the City Commission to vote against the ordinance.

Jay Rogers, a pro-life organizer of the protest on Aloma Avenue, recently commented in his blog on challenging the ordinance:

“. . . the only way to know . . . how the ordinance will be enforced by the city police would be to challenge it in court. Such court challenges are certainly coming, not only from Florida pro-life activists, but possibly from many other legal advocacy groups around the country who are concerned with free speech issues. Before this is all over, I expect the ordinance to be culled back to the parameters of Frisby. I also expect it to cost the City of Winter Park Florida tens of thousands of dollars to defend in court.

“. . . Due to Roe v. Wade, we in the pro-life movement feel that our hands are tied as to what we can hope to accomplish legislatively (beyond some limited measures restricting the “how” of abortion, but not the ability to abort an unborn child). Now with these buffer zone injunctions, we feel that a noose has been placed around our necks and it is slowly being tightened. It is vital that we resist . . .”

In the Supreme Court’s ruling in favor of protest restrictions in the Frisby v. Schultz case — the basis for Winter Park’s anti-protest ordinance — Justice Sandra Day O’Connor addresses the rationale for restricting protest in a residential setting:

“The First Amendment permits the government to prohibit offensive speech as intrusive when the “captive” audience cannot avoid the objectionable speech . . . The resident is figuratively, and perhaps literally, trapped within the home, and, because of the unique and subtle impact of such picketing, is left with no ready means of avoiding the unwanted speech . . . Thus, the “evil” of targeted residential picketing, “the very presence of an unwelcome visitor at the home,” Carey, supra, at 478 (REHNQUIST, J., dissenting), is “created by the medium of expression itself.”

In the following video clip of the October 22 Commission meeting, City Attorney Larry Brown gives details of the lawsuit and assures the Commissioners that even though most of them have been named personally in the lawsuit, they have no personal liability in the case. Judge Dalton is requiring an initial response from the city by November 7. The first hearing of the case will be December 4, 2012.

Click for Video


 

City Officials On the Spot in Workshop Q&A

City Officials On the Spot in Workshop Q&A

On Tuesday night, October 9, City Manager Randy Knight hosted a well-attended workshop whose purpose was to explore proposed changes to Winter Park’s Tree Preservation Ordinance. Even though the lead-up to the workshop caused some heartburn on the City Commission [video ], citizens at Tuesday’s workshop took full advantage of the opportunity to speak their minds and engage city officials in a lengthy give and take that took some surprising turns.

The workshop was attended by City Commissioners and members of various boards including Planning & Zoning and the Tree Preservation Board. Some officials participated, some just listened. All input at the workshop was recorded and will be part of City Commission deliberations when changes to the ordinance come before the Commission again on November 12.

Building Department Director, George Wiggins, kicked off the meeting with a presentation of city tree preservation regulations dating back to 1957. Wiggins outlined the evolution of rule changes up through Winter Park’s current ordinance, pausing mid-way to stress, “There is an extremely important point here that I cannot over-emphasize . . . we have never issued a permit to remove a ‘historic’ tree.” Wiggins did admit that, on at least one occasion when city staff denied a permit for removal, the City Commission overturned the denial on appeal. Wiggins also pointed out that 95% of current ordinance rules are unaffected by the proposed changes. However, changes that will modify the current ordinance were of concern to many members of the audience.

State Forester Makes Surprise Appearance – Questions Wisdom of Proposed Changes

One surprise for city officials on Tuesday evening was the un-scheduled appearance of Dana Sussmann, an official from the state Forest Service. Ms. Sussmann is the state Forestry official in charge of overseeing a multi-county area in central Florida that includes Winter Park. Sussmann spoke to the assembled group of her concern about the city’s proposed changes. She noted that she had attended past ceremonies at City Hall to present the city with its “Tree City USA” award and said that the city has received the award for 32 consecutive years. Sussmann warned that the proposed ordinance changes could “. . . jeopardize the city’s chances of receiving the award for a 33rd year” and offered her opinion that “. . . the proposed changes, to me, significantly weaken the existing ordinance.”

In a telephone interview with the Voice, Ms. Sussmann confirmed that her agency, the Florida Forest Service, is responsible for reviewing applications for “Tree City USA” awards. According to Sussmann, even though this National Arbor Day Foundation award does not include a cash grant, the award enables cities to score higher on grant applications that do result in additional funding. Sussmann praised Winter Park’s history of protection for trees on public and private property, but questioned the new direction taken by the city’s Tree Preservation Board, “I’ve not had a community where something like this has happened before.”

Speaking about Winter Park’s reduction in forestry staffing, Sussmann acknowledged that she’s uncertain about the impact of hiring contractors to perform city forestry services, but noted that by “. . . reducing staffing you lose so much knowledge and experience of the city. And yes, maybe it’s less expensive to outsource it, but when you have people who work directly for the city, who’ve been there, who care about the city…their level of knowledge and commitment, I think, is higher because they have a personal connection with the city.”

Authors of Current Ordinance – Hagle and Weldon – Still Disagree

At the start of audience Q&A, Marc Hagle, one of the authors of the current ordinance, presented an analysis of ordinance rules and launched a detailed critique of tree removal and replacement rules proposed by the Tree Preservation Board. Hagle pointed out that the property rights of homeowners were vigorously debated by the committee that wrote Winter Park’s current Tree Protection Ordinance. Hagle characterized Pete Weldon, a member of the ordinance-drafting committee as being a strong advocate for the primacy of homeowner rights. “Pete Weldon was on that committee – he’s also on the committee that is re-writing this ordinance . . . I have great respect for Pete . . . we just don’t agree on this particular issue.” Hagle noted that Weldon was the only dissenting vote on the committee that wrote the current ordinance, adding that the current ordinance was supported and adopted by unanimous votes on the City Commission and Planning & Zoning board. Woody Woodall, chair of the current Tree Preservation Board, told the Voice that Weldon is a key author of the proposed changes to the ordinance. The Voice contacted Mr. Weldon for comment, but received no comment on this issue as of press time.

Meeting Heats Up (Literally) During Discussion

As the evening wore on, the meeting got hotter – not the debate, but the room itself. Despite at least one request to crank up the AC, city officials were unmoved. Any hope officials may have had that a stuffy room would end the meeting at the advertised time was unfulfilled. The meeting ran long as city residents continued to communicate their concerns to city staffers and politicians despite the heat.

Who Pays for Right-of-Way Trees? City Residents Focus on Danger & Expense

The evening’s second surprise was the appearance of an issue tangentially related to tree removal: the high cost of pruning and otherwise maintaining large trees that are planted in the city right-of-way in Winter Park’s neighborhoods. The issue was a high priority for some city residents, including Martha Kuhn, a resident of Park Grove in north Winter Park. Kuhn spoke of a close encounter with a right-of-way oak tree, “My daughter and I were almost killed when one of those big oak tree limbs fell right on our car while we were driving in it.” Kuhn stated that the city had been called three times about the tree.

Kuhn’s husband later recounted a catastrophic event this past summer when a storm knocked down a large live oak in their neighborhood right-of-way, which then fell into other trees, taking them down, culminating in one of the downed trees crashing into a parked Post Office jeep. Kuhn questioned George Wiggins about the maintenance, clean-up and removal of the trees: “Who pays?. . . is that my responsibility or the city’s?” Mr. Wiggins responded that hazardous trees in the right-of-way are handled by the city, but noted that ongoing maintenance is the responsibility of homeowners. John Holland, Director of Parks and Recreation , confirmed that in years past, the city had informally taken responsibility for right-of-way tree maintenance — despite ordinance requirements to the contrary. This practice ended when hurricane clean-up in 2004 forced the city to re-focus its priorities.

Earlier in the meeting, Mrs. Kuhn summed up the feeling of many in the audience, “I think we have to do something about these really old trees . . . and I don’t think the home owners can do it.” Others pointed out that city residents are confused about who is responsible for tree maintenance in the city.

Workshop Clarifies City Policy, Promotes Communication, but Strong Differences Remain

Near the end of the meeting, Pitt Warner, a long-time resident and real estate broker, brought the meeting back to its original focus: “Let’s pass this ordinance and give people an incentive to plant as many trees as possible without having a three, four, five thousand dollar bill . . .that’s punitive. It’s bureaucratic – and as you can see here, it’s confusing . . . people don’t even know the rules here in town. So let’s try and encourage it.” George Wiggins agreed, “That’s the rationale that the Tree Preservation Board is employing by asking the replanting of trees instead of paying large amounts into the Tree Replacement Fund.”

As always in Winter Park – when it comes to trees – there was a distinct difference of opinion regarding the city’s rationale. Sally Flynn spoke to the assembled group and read a letter from Steve Goldman that disputed the rationale for changing tree protection rules. Goldman’s letter was in response to a recent email sent by Mayor Bradley to Winter Parkers supporting the ordinance changes, “I feel that Ken Bradley is certainly entitled to his opinion about whether Winter Park’s current tree preservation ordinance is too strict. However, what bothers me about this communication is that he describes these proposed changes as taking steps to ‘protect this valuable asset’, when in fact the proposal is simply to reduce the fees which must be paid when someone decides to remove part of our tree canopy. What’s wrong with being honest and saying what you really propose to do, instead of this double talk? This proposal makes it easier to remove Winter Park’s trees – plain and simple.”

Proposed changes to Winter Park’s Tree Protection Ordinance will be given a first reading at the November 12 City Commission meeting.


 

Strangers at the Door: Anatomy of a Protest

Strangers at the Door: Anatomy of a Protest

One day in mid-August, Jenna Tosh, President of Planned Parenthood/Orlando, found a disturbing flyer sitting unstamped in her mailbox. Hers was one of many, left by protest supporters who had moved through the neighborhood quietly distributing the flyers.

The message was clear. They wanted Jenna and her neighbors to know — We’re Coming.

On Saturday, August 18, protesters kept their promise. They appeared on the sidewalk in front of the Tosh residence — armed with huge images of aborted fetuses and an accusation of baby killing on a placard held by a young girl.

 


UPDATE: Residential anti-protest ordinance passes on a 4 to 1 City Commission vote. Mayor Bradley cast the sole opposing vote. Opinion was evenly split among the 20+ men and women who spoke out on the ordinance during the hearing comment period.


The confrontation began when Jenna and her husband returned home from a walk, pushing their three year old son in a stroller. According to Tosh, as the family struggled to get safely inside their home, they were forced to push past thirty protesters and their grisly placards.

The protest ended a short time after the confrontation, but not before a protest videographer filmed the confrontation, preserving the event for future use. The video and a written narrative of the event were quickly posted on the web by pro-life organizer Jay Rogers.

These are excerpts of the protesters’ own account of the Aloma Avenue protest:

“Andrew and Jenna Tosh went for a walk in their upper middle class neighborhood with their young son in a stroller and dog on a leash. Upon returning to their home they were greeted by the sight of 28 pro-life evangelists lining the sidewalk in their neighborhood on Aloma Avenue. Many were holding graphic signs depicting aborted babies from six weeks gestation through late term.

Someone promptly called the police. The Tosh family was then able to run the gauntlet of pro-lifers. Most did not recognize Jenna as the new CEO of Planned Parenthood of Greater Orlando and simply greeted them as passersby. Arriving at her front door, she summoned a police officer that had arrived in her driveway and briefly burst into tears.”

Tosh Calls Commissioner Sprinkel: Please Help

In the aftermath of the protest, Ms. Tosh reached out to her church for help and contacted a fellow church member, Winter Park Commissioner Sarah Sprinkel. Ms. Sprinkel moved quickly to request city action — an emergency ordinance designed to restrict protests in city neighborhoods. The temporary ordinance was passed unanimously by the City Commission on August 27.

WPV video of the hearing includes excerpts of Commission deliberations and the testimony of Jenna Tosh.

VIDEO: Emergency Ordinance Hearing

WP Protest Organizer Has History Targeting Central Florida Clinics

Jay Rogers, an organizer of the Aloma Avenue protest, notes on his website that “None of the pro-life community, who are the thinly veiled targets of the ordinance, were at first made aware of emergency measure. However, several were able to appear at the first announced public hearing.” Mr. Rogers, who did appear and speak at the next Commission meeting, is a veteran of the Central Florida pro-life protest community.

On his website, which promotes his beliefs, his mission and the sale of numerous video products, Rogers writes openly of his involvement in numerous pro-life “Awareness Campaigns”. In years past, Mr. Rogers’ commitment to his cause extended to the purchase of a home directly across the street from a Melbourne women’s health center.

Organizer Buys House Across from Clinic — Protests from Front Lawn

Rogers writes, “In 1993, I moved to Melbourne, Florida, a nice beach community just south of Cape Canaveral in Brevard County. There I bought a house across the street from one of America’s most notorious abortion clinics.” After buying the house, Rogers created a business name that enabled him to erect a mailbox for the home in the name of “The Killing Place”.

An article posted on Roger’s website explains his strategy. “Jay owns the house across the street from Aware Woman but his mailbox is on Aware Woman’s side of the street because the post office only delivers mail on that side of the street on Dixie Way. . . Jay’s mailbox is in the infamous “36-foot buffer zone.” Graham Dugas, who was also a resident at the house at the time, was arrested and jailed on a buffer zone injunction violation charge while going to mail a letter in his own mailbox. . .

According to Rogers, the buffer zone in the proposed Winter Park ordinance reminds him of past run-ins with authorities. “As one who dealt for a number of years with a no-free-speech buffer zone in my front yard that made it all the way to the Supreme Court, it’s deja vu all over again.” Rogers states that he was unsuccessfully sued by the Aware Woman’s clinic (AWCC) and provides on his website details of a lawsuit including these claims by AWCC:

“JOHN C ‘JAY’ ROGERS . . . owns, has primarily resided in, and has encouraged and permitted the use of the “Spy House” at 1575 Dixie Way, Melbourne, from the outset, for negligent, reckless, and tortious activities . . . Huge phony poster signs that are in violation of city codes, and contain defamatory, false & misleading allegations, are a routine form of continuous harassment from the lawn of the “Spy House.” . . . this form of harassment is ubiquitous and a daily phenomenon. Defendants often carry the bloody giant fetus signs into the buffer zone and AWCC driveway to harass and intimidate AWCC clients.”

Organizer Website “How-To” Guide Suggests Monthly Neighborhood Picketing

While Rogers’ “buffer zone” story offers a glimpse into the tactics employed in the decades-old battle between pro and anti-abortion forces, his website goes one step further by reprinting a veteran protester’s “how-to” guide to residential protest tactics in the Central Florida area. The article (excerpted here) counsels caution and careful planning.

“. . . Sometimes the neighborhood is leafleted by a separate team. This leafleting is sometimes done by mail the day before, the day of, or a few days afterward.

. . . A single picket is usually not worth the effort. For a residential picket to be effective, it needs to be ongoing. It is better to go more often in short 45 to 90 minute spurts, than to have a big blow-out event and never return. Often, the first time at a particular abortionist’s home is almost more of a “getting your feet wet” type of event. Usually, local police will have no idea how to deal with it. Neighbors will react more unpredictably than on later visits. It’s best to have a more long-term plan in place. Starting with several strong pickets a few weeks apart and then down-sizing to a more manageable once/month plan is reasonable. As time goes on, smaller groups of just three or four people can manage the entire picket. The key is to maintain a visible ongoing presence as a reminder. It doesn’t always have to be a full-blown media event.

…Walk in front of multiple residences. Do not just walk back-and-forth in front of the abortionists. Not only is there an important U.S. Supreme Court decision requiring this (1988 – Frisby v. Schultz), but it is important to spread out to make the message more effective. Go at least three houses in each direction.”

If the actions of protest supporters at Winter Park City Hall are any guide, the article’s tactical advice has been updated and augmented by Jay Rogers and others who have spoken to City Commissioners both inside and outside Commission chambers. Protesters alerted pro-life organizations and other media to the city’s proposed ordinance, triggering a flood of letters to the Commission and local newspapers.

Video of the Sept. 10 Commission meeting shot by the Voice shows Rogers and others speaking out at the meeting urging Commissioners to scuttle the proposed permanent ordinance that restricts residential protest activity.

Despite the opposition of Rogers and his group, the Commission voted 4 to 1 vote in favor of the permanent ordinance — which now goes to a second and final hearing and vote on Sept. 24.

The only member of the Commission who voted against the new ordinance was Mayor Ken Bradley, who spoke out against the actions of the Aloma Avenue protesters, but could not justify voting for the ordinance on Constitutional grounds. WPV video (click image above) includes comments from Mayor Bradley and all Commissioners.

Group Lobbies Commissioners Inside and Outside Chambers: Warns of Coming Lawsuits

Outside the Commission chambers after the meeting, Rogers’ group questioned Commissioners and City Attorney Larry Brown, challenging the actions of the Commission and explaining their opposition to the new ordinance.

In an encounter between the group and Commissioner Cooper, the Voice witnessed protest supporters standing around Ms. Cooper in the darkness outside City Hall attempting to win her over. As the Commissioner stood her ground, the group expanded its arguments to include the claim that the city could be bankrupted by lawsuits challenging the city’s new ordinance. Ms. Cooper was unswayed. A few minutes later, the group disbanded peacefully and the Commissioner continued on her own, down the steps, into the night.

On Monday September 24, starting at 3:30 pm, the Commission will conduct a final hearing of the ordinance and cast a final, deciding vote.