Legislator would remove sole elected official from expressway board

Osceola County's Mike Horner wants Orange County mayor removed

ORLANDO, Fla. – An Osceola County state legislator wants to remove Orange County's mayor from the Orlando-Orange County Expressway Authority, a move the mayor suspects is political payback.

If state Rep. Mike Horner's last-minute amendment becomes law - and it is set for a House floor vote tomorrow - voters would have no direct say in who sits on the board that sets tolls and policy for the authority.

Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs said she was "shocked" that Horner, R-Kissimmee, would propose barring elected officials from the board, but suspects he is acting on behalf of others whose feathers she has ruffled since taking office last year.

Among them, wealthy businessman and developer Jim Palmer, who is building a $1 billion residential-commercial project at the only Wekiva Parkway interchange in Orange County; and state Rep. Chris Dorworth, a future House speaker who has also been paid consulting fees by one of Palmer's companies.

Jacobs wants Palmer to donate or sell for less than top dollar about 20 acres he owns in the Wekiva Parkway's path, noting Palmer has already been paid $30 million by the state for other land connected to the parkway.

"I think frankly he ought to be donating it. At a minimum, we ought to be paying prices the land would have sold for prior to the parkway going in," Jacobs said. "There's no question Mr. Palmer's not happy with me about that."

Palmer has not returned a message seeking comment.

"I don't think I can be naive about this," Jacobs said. "I've taken some pretty tough stands over the last several months," including last week pushing an ethics reform that prevented a fellow member from voting to approve the Wekiva Parkway - because he had worked for Palmer within the last two years. The member, civil engineer Scott Batterson, was recommended for the gubernatorial appointment to the board by Dorworth.

"I've done a few things in the last months and weeks to upset the apple cart and I'm proud of every single one of them. That's what I was elected to do," Jacobs said. "My campaign was about ethics, transparency, accountability and everybody in this community knew one of the roles of the Orange County mayor was to serve on the expressway authority board."

Dorworth, R-Heathrow, said it was "ridiculous" and "bizarre" to suggest he was behind Horner's amendment. He said he supports it because it would eliminate any suggestion that an elected official was using a board position to extract campaign funds from those who do business with the authority.

Asked why the amendment singles out only the authority Jacobs sits on, and whether his reasoning would support removing all elected officials from all authorities statewide, Dorworth said those questions were better put to Horner.

Horner has not returned a call seeking comment.

Dorworth also cited a 2007 grand jury report that found a "culture of corruption" in how expressway authority board members led an "organized shakedown" of authority vendors and contractors for political contributions.

But the grand jury blamed only the gubernatorial appointees for that activity - not the lone elected member, then-Orange County Mayor Rich Crotty (though Crotty's campaign did receive contributions from some of those vendors).

After Local 6 and the Orlando Sentinel began exposing some of the political activities, including payment of more than $100,000 in what the grand jury called "hush money" to an anti-tax, anti-toll activist - Crotty led the board to greater ethical reforms and transparency.

"The problem was not elected officials," Jacobs said. "The problem was appointed officials. The problem was the chairman and vice chairman and how they were twisting arms to raise money for political candidates, it wasn't the candidates themselves."

Dorworth said Horner's amendment is intended to boost ethics.

"To believe that this is an effort to insure ethical standards at the expressway authority is totally far fetched," said Jacobs. "The only people the public can hold accountable directly are elected officials...I know why I ran and I know why I got elected and I know why I got 68 percent of the vote and it was to rock the boat when it needs to be rocked."

Asked if the boat were now rocking back, she said, "Absolutely. I think it's rocking back."