Orange County lawmakers advance local bill to repeal tourism oversight board
State lawmakers who represent Orange County voted Friday in favor of a proposed local bill that, if passed into law, would repeal the governor-appointed board currently overseeing the special district that includes Walt Disney World.
The measure would allow lawmakers to “go back to square one” and reorganize the special district formerly known as Reedy Creek, according to Sen. Linda Stewart, the Democrat who proposed the local bill to Orange County’s Legislative Delegation.
Right now, Florida’s governor appoints all five members of the board of supervisors for the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District, which last year replaced the former Reedy Creek Improvement District dissolved by Governor Ron DeSantis.
But this new local bill would change that structure, which Stewart said was “rushed” through during a special legislative session last year, and is damaging the area governed by the district.
“It's just not working,” Stewart said. “It's tearing Disney apart, it's tearing the community apart, it's tearing our collection of funds apart.”
“If it comes through the delegation, and the delegation votes for it, that's an indication that locally, this is what the elected members feel is best for their communities.”State Sen. Geraldine Thompson (D- District 15)
Members of the district’s current board of supervisors lack government experience, according to Stewart, and have made decisions disrupting area stakeholders’ plans to develop affordable housing and other projects.
“I do think that the bottom line on this repeal is: if we do nothing [else], we reorganize that board to be reflective of government, and [place] experienced government people on that board,” Stewart said. “Because right now, they are not experienced, and they're causing a lot of damage to the business properties because of their lack of experience.”
Disney’s “brain trust” is disappearing, Stewart said, with the resignation and termination of more than 40 former district employees. Echoing her concern, Orange County District 1 Commissioner Nicole Wilson said during a public comment period that talented former employees are leaving not just the area, but the state of Florida.
Another major concern, Stewart says, is district supervisors’ failure to timely deliver requested public records. “There’s no transparency in this board,” she said.
Several Republican delegation members at Friday’s meeting also expressed concerns about transparency, saying they weren’t clear on the origin and viability of Stewart’s local bill.
“We're going into session, committee weeks are pretty much over, and I'm just now coming aware of this bill that encompasses a very important part of my district and constituents in my community,” said Republican Rep. Carolina Amesty, representing parts of Orange and Osceola Counties.
But Sen. Victor Torres, a Democrat and chair of Osceola County’s Legislative Delegation, pushed back on Amesty’s claim, saying members of that delegation did not accept earlier invitations to discuss the bill proposal.
“We asked, were they available for a delegation meeting on this local bill? And unfortunately, we couldn't get a quorum,” Torres said.
Unlike general bills, local bills must first be heard and approved by the local county legislative delegation at a public hearing in the county, per House rules. Although local bills can be introduced in the Senate, they’re usually introduced in the Florida House.
“Generally, the legislature gives great deference to local bills,” said Sen. Geraldine Thompson, a Democrat. “If it comes through the delegation, and the delegation votes for it, that's an indication that locally, this is what the elected members feel is best for their communities.”
Although Republican Rep. Doug Bankson said he’s open to changing the district’s current oversight structure, he doesn’t support totally repealing it.
“I'm not opposed to always looking at something and finding better ways to do things. Where there's holes, we need to fix the holes,” Bankson said. “But to go backwards and repeal this, I think, is the wrong move. Because we need to have an equal footing for all of our players in Central Florida, not just a favoritism towards one.”
The district’s reorganized oversight board could still include several members appointed by the governor, Stewart suggested. But it should also include other members representing the area, she said, like an elected official from both Orange County and the City of Orlando.
“Right now, the way it’s going, it has been like chaos out there, and we need to rein it in,” Stewart said.