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Orange County hopes to control its growing pains

Published Oct. 16, 2005

Some folks in Hillsborough have been looking over their shoulders at Orange County lately, worried when they see a sports franchise or corporate headquarters moving in and national media calling it Florida's hottest community. Come November, Orange County will have another addition for them to ponder _ a mayor at the helm.

The job's title is officially county chairman, but the person who fills it will be the first full-time chief executive of the county, a place that has suffered significant growing pains in recent years.

Many say that rapid growth and its challenges are the major reasons Orange County needed to trade its commission-run government for the political choice of a new generation.

"It is quite apparent to me that a form of government which worked okay when Orange County was a largely rural, agrarian county is simply not the right structure to go forward into the highly urbanized, cosmopolitan era that we face," said County Commissioner Linda Chapin, a candidate for the chairman's job.

Not everyone, not even every chairman candidate, feels the same.

"I think we've been able to accomplish the things we needed to accomplish under the system we've been working under," said Commissioner Tom Dorman, who also is running for the job. He's running because he is up for re-election anyway, and he would rather run for a countywide office such as the one he holds. After November, all commissioners will be elected from districts instead of at large.

Orlando resident Frances Pignone, a member of the charter review commission that proposed the change, says business interests made a strong push for a mayor.

"If you have business with a county this large and this urban, it facilitates your business to have a point of contact," she said.

She worries about the risky idea of the top vote-getter having the skills to run an urban county, and she wonders who will control the mayor's purse strings.

"It's very hard to find people who have the strength to take somebody's money and then say, "No, I don't think that's best for the county,' " she said.

James L. Harris, a former Orange County administrator who was chairman of the charter review commission, says the framers of the new government tried to provide leadership with limits.

The chairman is restricted to two four-year terms. Unlike many executives, Orange's chairman won't have a veto. He does get to vote along with other commissioners, which takes away another opportunity most executives have _ to lobby commissioners privately to get what they want. Florida's Government-in-the-Sunshine Law won't allow that.

"If you have someone who is the ceremonial and operational head of the government, who proposes the policy, who is full time when commissioners are part time, that's enough power," Harris said. "If they can't push their program through with that much oomph in their hands, then there's something else wrong."

But even Harris, who is as confident as anyone that Orange County has made the best move, still points out, "Anyone going into it has to say to themselves they could be wrong."