Crashing the Orlando 2010 Jobs Summit aka Kill Amendment 4 Rally

By George Niemann

PoHo contributor and R-LAND, UCAN, FHD-Amendment 4, FSP activist

The views expressed are my own and not necessarily shared by the organizations to which I belong

The Florida Jobs Summit took place on Friday January 15, 2010 at the Rosen Shingle Creek Hotel in Orlando. It was hosted by Sen. Mike Haridopolus and Rep. Dean Cannon. They were going to tackle some of the serious economic issues that Florida is facing – a lackluster economy and high unemployment. The goal was to have an open discussion and strategize about what’s needed to quickly fix our ailing economy.

The guest list was like a Who’s Who of business, labor and industry - Associated Industries of Florida, the Florida Chamber of Commerce, the Florida Retail Federation, the National Federation of Independent Businesses, the AFL-CIO and the Florida Education Association, as well as, many of our legislators. Considering the fact that builders and legislators were about to put on there “smart growth” thinking caps and decide how to get us out of the economic doldrums, I began to wonder if the “build or die” premise would become the centerpiece of the discussions. Could there be a hidden agenda that might turn this forum into an anti-Amendment 4 rally?

I was curious and suspicious, so I decided to crash the event and provide attendees with a pro-Amendment 4 perspective, should any anti-4 trashing start to occur. Amendment 4 is a referendum that will be on the 2010 ballot in November. It will allow communities to vote on growth plan changes in their area.

I decided to sneak into the keynote speaker’s session, which was to be followed by a public comment session. The keynote speaker was Dr. J. Antonio Villamil. He is a professor of economics at St Thomas University in Miami.

I ran into Senator Ronda Storms as I was wandering around the halls of the Shingle Creek Convention Center looking for the room where Dr. Villamil was giving his keynote speech. She represents my district in Hillsborough County. I told her I was crashing the event and she was very gracious about it, even though we never discussed Amendment 4 and most likely were on opposite sides of that issue. I told her I may want to speak depending on what is said by the presenters. She assured me that I would be allowed to speak if I wanted to. She told me to find a seat and if anyone questioned me about admittance to tell them that I was there as her guest. One thing I like about Sen. Storms is that she respects your views even if she might disagree. She believes in doing what you think is right, even if you face tremendous opposition and/or ridicule from your peers.

So I walk into the meeting in the middle of Dr. Villamil’s speech. Of course everyone in the room has business suits on, and I’m dressed for a picnic with boat shoes and jeans, so I did stick out like a sore thumb.

Dr. Villamil’s speech is impressive… he covers the broad spectrum of economic issues and talks about how we need to improve education and push to expand our role in international trade, etc.…then it happens…as he sums up his keynote speech, he leans into the microphone and speaks passionately, as though he were Che Guavera giving inspiration to the insurgents of the Cuban revolution, “Ladies and gentlemen, we must do everything in our power to defeat Amendment 4. It will destroy our economy”. At that point the attendees gave him thundering applause. They actually cheered as if he had told them that Osama Bin Laden just landed at Orlando airport and decided to turn himself in.

OK, that did it!!!! It was just what I suspected. This so-called intelligent forum was nothing more than a front for rallying business interests to campaign against Amendment 4 (as if they didn’t already have the money, the manpower, the political allies, and the easy access to, and favorable treatment by, the mainstream media). Dr. Villamil may be learned about economics and employment statistics, but it’s obvious that he doesn’t have a clue about the growth plan process, or how Amendment 4 would actually work. I got the impression that he was briefed on what to say with no background knowledge of what he was opposing. If he had any knowledge of the growth plan process he would not be making those statements because we all know that Amendment 4 would not stop or hinder growth at all, considering that the existing growth rules already in place across the state would accommodate the building of enough homes for an additional 80 million people (based on a study completed in 1999 by the Southwest Florida Regional Planning Council in Fort Myers). He would know that growth can and will continue in the future…that there are millions of construction projects across the state that are already approved and waiting to break ground…that Amendment 4 would have no effect on the employment rate because it does not control what or how many buildings are built, it just lets citizens have a say in future growth plan changes…so when the economy rebounds and there is a market-driven need to develop more land, nothing will stop builders from building and satisfying that need. But I shouldn’t have to educate him. He should already know that.

After finishing his speech, he then opened it up for comments from the audience. I stepped up to the microphone and said the following:

I introduced myself as a citizen advocate from Hillsborough County. I told the professor that I disagreed wholeheartedly with what he said about Amendment 4…I said I was disappointed in how the chambers of commerce across the state have continued to mislead everyone with misinformation…while I certainly supported economic growth for our state, I warned participants that continuing a “build or die” strategy, such as our legislature has done, is ludicrous, as well as, counterproductive. I told them we must push to attract more bio tech and green technology companies but we cannot afford to keep home building as our chief economic engine. Then I told them that I am a regional coordinator for Amendment 4 in the Tampa Bay area. I told them that they may have the money and the power, but the voters are not stupid and we will reach out to them and they will vote for Amendment 4 and it will pass because it is a fair and simple solution to a broken system that favors one special interest group - developers.

You should have heard the gasps in the room!!! It was as if I had held a newborn infant by his feet and cut his head off. Some actually hissed and booed. Then one of the organizers came running up to the stage from the audience and tried to interrupt saying that they had to move things along so I shouldn’t say anything further. I told him I had one more thing to say before closing my comments…I stared intently at all of the faces in the room…I told them that I am making an open challenge to everyone in the room - the business leaders, the education professionals, those representing labor, and all of the legislators…I would debate any and all of them in a public forum regarding Amendment 4…I told them that if they truly believe they are right, and have the knowledge to prove it, they will debate me…well, guess what happened next? You guessed it - nothing happened. Dead silence…the professor, all the super-achiever senior management of major industries in Florida, the Florida Chamber of Commerce, the legislators…none would step forward and take my challenge…I thanked them for allowing me the limited opportunity to speak and I walked back to my seat.

They were disgusted…here they were trying to rally the forces with scripted rhetoric handed to them by anti-4 lobbyists and along comes a “nobody” who tells them to put up or shut up and they don’t have the wherewithal to defend themselves. What that says to me is that they don’t have the knowledge to defend their position and all they’ve got in their heads is empty rhetoric…that they are nothing more than lemmings following the dictates of an oversized, overbuilt industry that is no longer sustainable as a primary economic engine for the state, but refuses to acknowledge it.

Interestingly enough, I thought I didn’t have a friend in the room when I finished speaking, but a few people approached me as the rest of the (angry) audience left the room. They were interested in hearing more details about Amendment 4...they gave me their business cards. I may have planted the seed of doubt in their minds. After all they’ve been indoctrinated with scripted rhetoric for the last few years and haven’t had the opportunity to establish a meaningful dialog with the other side. That shows me there is hope for all of us. They’re all not lemmings.