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Jerry Demings’ eyes future to govern in Orange County

Orange County Mayor-elect and still-Sheriff Jerry Demings has made no announcements yet on any of the imminent changes the county’s government will undergo on matters ranging from his chief of staff to departmental reorganizations when he is sworn into office Tuesday.

But that doesn’t mean he’s not looking ahead.

He says he is looking far ahead. In an interview with Florida Politics, Demings, who retires as sheriff and ends 38 years in law enforcement on Tuesday, said he would rather, for now, take the time to make the changes in Orange County government as the future becomes clearer.

And by future, he’s not just talking about the next few months or the next year or two: he is seeking clues to what the county, its business community, and its residents may be evolving toward throughout decades, as the 21st Century changes old ways of doing business.

“In order for this organization to reach its potential, that organization is going to have to take some measured risk,” Demings said. “For any human being to achieve their full potential, that individual has to take some measured risk in life to achieve their full potential. That’s kind of where I’m taking Orange County. People ask, what does that look like? To me it’s there’s this vibrant community that is like the experimental prototype community of tomorrow. Epcot.”

That reference appears to not be about the theme park at Walt Disney World, but to Walt Disney‘s vision for the future, spelled out in a presentation he made on his “Wonderful World of Disney” TV show in 1966, describing plans [that were never fulfilled] for a utopian community set up for the future.

“The vision is of this community that is really a prototype community of tomorrow, that is full of innovation, culture, entrepreneurial opportunity, where the experience of living here is going to be one that is exciting, full of vibrancy, where we have taken care of environmental issues,” Demings said.

Demings has just completed a 90-day review of the administration under Jacobs, which included a 37-member transition team, led by former Orange County Chair Linda Chapin and businessman Harold Mills, which met several times and produced a 60-page report on recommendations.

Meanwhile, Demings said he personally met, one-on-one, with 75 members of the current administration. That followed a 13-month political campaign in which he said he had hundreds of meetings with constituents, stakeholders, and others.

Among the themes that emerged:

— Orange County government needs better technology to provide services ranging from building permit processing to law enforcement responses. For that, the transition team recommended the creation of a chief technology officer, something Demings sounds committed to doing.

— Orange County needs to aggressively become greener and more resilient, embracing sustainable energy and other initiatives, and he views the city of Orlando as a model for what the county should be doing.

— Orange County needs to recognize that technology is revolutionizing the business sector in the 21st century. And while that may mean the painful loss of jobs rooted in 20th century needs and ways of doing things — he cited airport skycaps as an endangered job — that reality must be accepted as the county encourages the growth of new industries.

For the immediate future, there is the issue of key members of his team. He’ll need a chief of staff and members of his inner administrative and political circle. He has held those cards very close; even members of his transition team say they do not know whom he will appoint.

Two appointments were announced without him: On Friday Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer announced his longtime city administrator Byron Brooks would become Demings’ county administrator, succeeding the retiring Ajit Lalchandani, Orange County administrator for 20 years.

And Jeff Williamson, Demings’ public information officer at the Orange County Sheriff’s Office, is on the Orange County Commission’s agenda for confirmation as Demings’ communications director at Orange County.

The rest of Demings’ mayoral office inner staff, including a chief of staff, remains unannounced. In addition, several county department heads also are preparing to retire, including Animal Services Manager Dil Luther, Public Works Director Mark Massaro, and Utility Director Ray Hanson. Other leadership jobs already are open, including the top two jobs at the Orange County Convention Center, and the head of the Department of Corrections, positions that former Mayor Teresa Jacobs left open for Demings.

No hurry, Demings said.

“If I had just made the assumption that we were going to keep the positions exactly the same, well if their job duties change, you understand, you may have recruited the wrong person,” Demings said.

On Tuesday another change will transform Orange County. Demings will be the first Democrat to hold the top office since Chapin in 1998. Elections also transformed the Orange County Commission from one that has been controlled by Republicans since the mid-1990s to one that features four Democrats and two Republicans, not including Demings. The offices and the elections all are officially nonpartisan.

Demings offers the standard nonpartisan rhetoric.

“While we all are affiliated with the party, I’m more concerned about the people than the party. I believe on this commission that I will be a part of, that will always be my priority. The first question I will always ask will be: How is what we are doing will benefit the citizens? The second question I will always ask is: What will it cost or save? And the third question I will ask is: How will this impact our employees here in Orange County government?” he said. “We can make those decisions without any association with any political party.”

And yet, he acknowledges, it is a very partisan world.

So I am going to be active in Washington [where his wife is Democratic U.S. Rep. Val Demings of Orlando.] I will be active in Tallahassee. And I will certainly be active in this local community, to make sure that as a repressive of the people, when I speak at any of those levels I will be speaking as a representative of those people,” he said.

“We want to make sure we are attracting the kinds of businesses that pay the kinds of salaries that we want to see in this community. We can’t solve the affordable housing crisis without addressing wages, job skills development, transportation. All of those play into us having the kind of quality of life we need to have here,” he said.

“So you’ll see me involved in all of those different spaces.”

Written By

Scott Powers is an Orlando-based political journalist with 30+ years’ experience, mostly at newspapers such as the Orlando Sentinel and the Columbus Dispatch. He covers local, state and federal politics and space news across much of Central Florida. His career earned numerous journalism awards for stories ranging from the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster to presidential elections to misplaced nuclear waste. He and his wife Connie have three grown children. Besides them, he’s into mystery and suspense books and movies, rock, blues, basketball, baseball, writing unpublished novels, and being amused. Email him at scott@floridapolitics.com.

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