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Exclusive Interview: Mayor Jacobs Goes On the Record

Interview with Teresa Jacobs – Orange County Mayor

Conducted by:  Mike Cantone, City Editor – West Orlando News Online

Date:  February 01, 2013

Mayor Jacobs_profile
Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs. (Photo: M. Cantone/WONO)

WONO:  I want to jump right in, Mayor Jacobs.  You are halfway through your first term already, it has gone quickly and you have had many successes, as well as some set-backs, along the way, as is natural in politics.  In your first two years, what accomplishments are you most proud of?

Mayor Jacobs:  One of my big goals, when I came in, internally, as the CEO of the organization, was to really try to foster and culture an Orange County government of a couple of things – service, a real commitment to a positive customer service experience when people come in the door, and to have our employees recognize that there is a lot of honor in public service and to be proud of what they do.  And I think we have made great strides in that regard.  We do a lot of employee recognition.  I get a ton of feedback from citizen’s who say “I called or I came in and I never expected somebody to say how can I help you and to be positive, enthusiastic.”  That’s a little thing to some people but, I think it speaks volumes about the organization and how citizens should be treated.  The other area, internally, that I think that is important, is the idea that we should be a highly ethical organization.  Integrity should be a core part of who we are.  We created the ombudsmen position, we created the whistle blower protection policies and what we are seeing is that we have had a couple of people utilize the whistle blower protection.  We have done some major changes in our procurement practices because of one particular complaint that came in.  What’s probably, even more encouraging, my goal was that we get to the point where people didn’t feel like they had to anonymously report things, where the culture was such that they felt that they would probably be in more trouble if they didn’t report something wrong.  I think we are starting to turn that corner.  We have had people that have come through the normal process.  We had one lady that reported supervisors who weren’t actually showing up at the job.  It had been going on for years and in her complaint that she filed, she put right in there, “We have a Mayor who’s all about ethics, and, for the first time, I felt empowered to come forward with this.”  She had been sitting on this information for a long time feeling not proud of where she was working or the people with whom she was working.

WONO:  And how she felt in her position, and that’s changed fundamentally?

Mayor Jacobs:  Exactly.  And we would have never known about that problem.  She didn’t go through the anonymous whistle blowers; she didn’t feel like she needed to.  To me, that’s when you have really arrived, when people feel comfortable and safe in an organization.  Those are a couple of things that I’m extremely pleased with internally.  I think there are a lot of things that we have done in terms of policy.  One of the policies I’m pretty proud of is our HELP ordinance and expanding the city’s domestic partnership policies that they had and making that countywide.  I think I took a lot of flak for it taking me longer than it took the city, although I pushed back and said Mayor Dyer was in office ten years and I was in office a year and a half, so I think we did. I do things differently than Mayor Dyer would for different people.  I am far more likely to study and evaluate things and make more cautious decisions.

WONO:  Building off that, you have taken a leadership role even on ethics and transparency on your time during the commission.  There were several reforms that you championed, again when you got into office, as you have listed.  Most recently in the issues around texting, you jumped to the forefront to propose reforms, even with some push-back from the commission.  Do you ever feel that you don’t get the credit that maybe you deserve for opening it up more than other agencies? 

Mayor Jacobs: Yes. Sometimes.

WONO: As you have said: you study things, you are cautious, and then you implement the policies.  You are not just about talk, you do act.  Do you feel like because you have only been in office for two years that you need a little more time for the public to really see all the changes you have made?  Especially in the culture?

Mayor Jacobs:  Probably, and one of the interesting things is, when I got elected and I was talking to a county manager in another county and I told him that change in the culture of the organization was a major goal of mine. He said “that takes eight to ten years”.  I said “well, it can’t because I have term limits and I only have eight years so we’re going to have to revise that time frame”.  So, some things do take time to materialize.  On the ethics, that was a long battle starting in 2006.  Coming in as Mayor and being able to say, o.k., the loopholes that I couldn’t get closed, I’m Mayor, 68% of the voters supported me, let’s close the loopholes. It was a lot easier to do.  Having said that, getting them through the Expressway Authority was a slam dunk.  Getting them through GOAA [Greater Orlando Aviation Authority], on the airport board, I could not get a second for the very same things that we did here in Orange County and we did at the Expressway Authority.  Later this month, those same reforms are coming through MetroPlan, and I expect that they will pass.  I could be wrong; they were very enthused about it, back in December, when I explained what we had done.  We had a situation there where a member of the MetroPlan board voted on a fairly large contract and then a month or two later was employed by that company.  Technically, under the law, that might not have been improper, but we all felt uncomfortable.

WONO:  I remember you raised that concern with the texting issue, as well.  That it might not be illegal, but it’s not appropriate.  I think that really strikes the heart of what you are trying to accomplish in changing the culture, is that correct?

Mayor Jacobs:  I think you have to be careful when you think something doesn’t feel right and then you slap people on the wrist for doing something that was technically legal, but not right.  That’s where, when we adopt ordinances and resolutions and policies here, we raise the bar and we say, o.k., now from this day forward this is what is right and wrong.  We are trying to get our bar of right and wrong in line with what the average citizen thinks is right and wrong.  When something makes you very uncomfortable, there’s probably a reason for it.  I think we are heading in the right direction; I still have a little challenge ahead of me with texting with some board members.

WONO:  Again, do you see that, as part of your job as mayor, it’s not always in your control, you are not a dictator, you are not the ultimate say in these matters, so it does take that coalition building and compromise.  Have you seen that over the first two years?

Mayor Jacobs:  Yes. It’s interesting; it is very different than being a Commissioner, the role of being Mayor and dealing with the board.  There are different styles and you can try to be very domineering and controlling and pressure the board into going along.  I don’t think, long-term, that’s healthy.

WONO:  Do you push back when some critics in the community say that they identify the other Commissioners as “your board” and that you have a say over the way they vote?

Mayor Jacobs:  Yes, I hate that because I don’t think it’s fair, obviously, and while I could try to be very heavy-handed and abusive with my role as Mayor, I don’t think that that’s right.  I don’t believe the ends justify the means.  I believe that they are accountable to the citizens, and not to me.  I think that we all come together.  I think that we are a pretty good board and we work well together, but, if one of them stumbles, or makes a mistake, that’s not my fault and that’s for the citizens to resolve and not for me to resolve.  I do hope we end in a good place on the text messaging and I hope that we end up being as we were on financial disclosure and voting conflicts, I hope that we will become a model for the state.

WONO:  Do you expect those reforms to pass?

Mayor Jacobs:  Most of them.  I really think that there should be a hard line between your personal e-mail and your personal phones and your official correspondence.  I’m not sure that I’ve got the votes, I think I will.

WONO:  Kind of changing topics a little bit.  Among America’s 100 largest cities in the country, only twelve of them have women as Mayors.

Mayor Jacobs: Oh, that’s interesting.

WONO: I understand we are a county, but it’s on par with the largest cities.  Nationwide the number of women serving as Mayors and County Commissioners and Legislators is on the rise.  There is talk, once again, in 2016 that the glass ceiling might be broken, depending on who runs for President… 

Mayor Jacobs: Yeah, wouldn’t that be awesome.

WONO: That obviously makes you a role model for many women and young girls in the community.  Do you view yourself as a role model and what advice would you have for young women who aspire to get into leadership positions, both corporate and public, based on the obstacles that you might have pushed through in your achievements?

Mayor Jacobs:  Well, I hate to admit it, because it shows my age, but things have changed.  They have gotten a lot easier than they were when I first left college and embarked on a professional career.  I guess my advice would be one, there are no excuses, in this country. Today, if you dream it, you can do it.  Also, if women or any minority group feels that because they haven’t broken that glass ceiling they are owed some sort of easy route, wrong approach.  For most of my life I’ve felt like I’ve had to over-prove, over-achieve, and over-study to keep up but it’s actually worked pretty well.  There are great advantages to being a woman, I wouldn’t trade, sorry guys, but I wouldn’t trade shoes for any guy in this world.  I love being a woman and I think that the opportunities are endless.  The only thing that will, I think, stand in the way of a woman’s success is her unwillingness to put in the effort.  If you have to work twice as hard; if you really want something, I don’t care, this is the coolest place to live in the world; this county, its phenomenal; the opportunities.  This is a great time to be here, don’t you think?

WONO:  Oh, I agree!

Mayor Jacobs:  Imagine being born a hundred years ago versus where we are or even a few decades ago.  We are really seeing a pivotal shift in our country and it’s a pretty cool thing.  I see the difference between my generation, my kid’s generation and what I learn from my kids that are now 21, twins are 23, and the oldest is 26.  I’ve learned so much from them, it’s really cool.

WONO:  Coming from a family with three brothers, so four boys total, I can imagine that was a challenge.  We gave our parents a lot of trouble.  Do you think that that experience, being a mother, and your background – you were not in politics initially, you had a private career, a private family – do you think that that really helped you become aware of the community concerns and how to approach those things?

Mayor Jacobs:  Yes, I think, it’s odd, but I think that probably the best training that I have had for what I do today is not my college degree. Some people laugh, I was in the circus in college also, some will say it was probably tight rope walking or juggling or something. But it was not, it was being a mom and really developing some values of what’s important in life and what’s not.  And then that appreciation that you develop as a parent about the future.  Suddenly it’s not just about the here and the now in this generation.  You really start to think about your kids, your grandkids, and the world they’re growing up in.  Not to say that people that don’t have kids shouldn’t run for office, but I think it is one of my greatest strengths.  It also holds you so accountable.  The whole eight years I was in office there were a lot of times when I might have made an easier decision I wouldn’t have been proud of, but for the fact that I had to come home and face my four kids, I never wanted them to be disappointed in me.

WONO:  Looking back over the past two years, were there any surprises?  Moments that just made you say “Wow, I did not see that coming.”  More specifically, what will you take from some of those experiences in the next two years to adapt some of your strategies?

Mayor Jacobs:  You know, that is always the key.  It’s not what goes wrong, it’s whether you can turn that into something positive; a learning experience.  I certainly, boy, I learned a lot in the eight years I was Commissioner.  I hope I grew from a lot of those experiences.  I’m trying to take that and temper, sometimes, my passion and enthusiasm for something so that it does not put people off and so that it can be productive rather than divisive.  A few, probably ah-ha moments, I would definitely say, the texting was one of those.  I’d always felt before, as a commissioner, I was able to communicate well with the public and the press and that’s been more challenging as the Mayor.  I don’t know that may just be the spotlight on the position.

The lack of the time on my part to be able to draft and articulate – that was something I did as a commissioner. On any controversial issue, I spent the time to write and send out mass e-mails; you may not agree with me but here’s why I did that.  I almost always got: ‘yeah, well I still don’t agree with you but I get it and we can move on,’ or, ‘oh, now I get it.’  I rarely ever got anybody who wrote back and was still angry.  I don’t have the time to do as much of the personal communication. The time constraints on this position are unbelievable.

WONO:  How will you use what you’ve seen in that realm for the next two years?

Mayor Jacobs:  We are constantly working on that.  We are constantly trying to figure out what is the right mix of how to use that time.  One of the things that I rarely do is, I rarely meet with people who are lobbying regarding public hearings.  That cuts out a lot of time.  I try to differentiate between the role of a commissioner and the role of the Mayor.   It’s hard because people saw me at every community event in district one, and they still want to see me at every community event in district one. But now there are six districts.  Being visible at events is really important but it’s difficult and it’s always a joy, that’s the one thing about it, it’s always a joy.  People are always nice.

WONO:  Your office does a good job promoting the events that you are attending, especially lately, all over the different areas of the county.  That does spread you thin and it takes away from that time. 

Mayor Jacobs: Yeah, it does.

WONO: Do you see that as an important aspect, that the community does see you often and that you keep that grassroots and local feel?

Mayor Jacobs:  Absolutely.  It’s one of the things, when I was first elected commissioner, I went to a habitat house and people were so excited that I was there. And it was like my first week in office.  It was a weird feeling because before I could have been there and nobody would have cared and I wasn’t any different.  At first it was just a strange feeling that I didn’t get. Then I began to realize that it’s also quite a blessing and a gift if you can show up and make people feel good because you took the time to show up.  I think that being accessible and still trying to get out in the community and talk to people is important.  They need to know that their elected officials, at the end of the day, are still human beings.  We laugh, we cry, we bleed, we make mistakes, you know, we’re still human beings.

WONO:  That’s an important message to carry.  Well, kind of jumping into the top issue of the day.  As you know, given the current economy, people are still struggling; families are still having a problem making ends meet here in Orange County.  One of your priorities has always been to strengthen our local economy, diversify our economy, and, in fact, the county has sponsored numerous economic summits.  I know you held eight summits in 2011, seemingly dropped off in 2012, but you recently concluded your first 2013 Orange County Economic Summit.  What have been the results from these summits and are they making an impact to our business community?

Mayor Jacobs:  Yes.  As I said, when I first got elected, I think we need to have short-term, medium-term and long-term approaches.  On the long-term, one of the things that came out of the initial summits really was: what does it take to help diversify our economy and create jobs?  The one thing that everybody said was, ‘we are, probably one of the least understood regions.’  Everybody knows us as Disney, Universal, Sea World and theme parks.  Nobody knows the thriving economic opportunities here.  They don’t know we have a really cool downtown. They don’t know about Winter Park and the Wine Room. They don’t know the neat places to live. They don’t know about the medical city. They don’t know that we are the epicenter for modeling, simulation and training industry in the world.

If we could do a better job of expanding that brand, which is my major push in the coming years. Hopefully, by the end of this year, we have articulated that brand that incorporates more than theme parks.  If we can expand that and be judicious about tax incentives and who we try to encourage to come in. We are trying to bring in high wage jobs even though we have a lot of citizens in Orange County that are never going to qualify for those.  I hear from people, most of our citizens aren’t going to get a job with Medical City.  Having said that, surprisingly, there are a lot of jobs that people probably could do at Medical City, but even more importantly, it’s those high wage jobs that help to lift everybody up.  I know it sounds trite but the fact is, when somebody has disposable income and they can go out for dinner and they can go to the movies and they can spend more money, then we all benefit from that.  So, there is a huge impact from that.  The branding is one of the things that is underway this year.  We kicked that off at the end of last year. By the end of this year, we should have defined that and we will start talking about how we roll it out.  The beauty of it is we’re one of the few places that don’t have to roll it out – out, because we have 55 million people, 56 million people coming in.  I’m thinking if we can even touch the 56 million people that come, there are going to be some folks out of that 56 million that can be game changers for our economy.

WONO:  I see that a lot too.  I often get, when friends or family are in town: ‘hey come meet me downtown,’ and they are in Downtown Disney, and they don’t realize that.  So, one of your goals is to help bring the already traveling tourists and visitors, bring them into the other areas of the county?

Mayor Jacobs:  Yeah.  As part of the re-do of the Convention Center, we are going to make some cosmetic upgrades. The other thing that I want to do is build in large electronic digital boards so that we can start showing pictures. I don’t really want to do it through text as much as through visuals, of what’s going on in this place, so people are going, ‘oh my God, they have the downtown, how cool, that looks like a neat place.’ Depending upon the type of convention we have, if it’s a medical convention we can be showing the robotics going on at the Nicholson Center or the research going on at Sanford-Burnham.  You can just do it in a very attractive, quiet way and have people go, ‘huh, that’s interesting.’

Then we want to have QR codes so that if somebody says, I want to tour that, how do I see that, they can.  We see that as the kind of quiet, soft sell of getting people to see.  For other types of conventions it may just be telling about what’s happening in Mt. Dora, telling what’s happening in Winter Garden.  I don’t know if you have been out to their farmers market on Saturdays, oh my gosh, there’s just flavor.

WONO:  Such diverse communities all around our county, it really makes it somewhere special to live. 

Mayor Jacobs:  Yeah exactly. The other thing that I’m hoping and we started working on this last year, is to try to develop an area that we don’t have. A really neat Hispanic cluster of restaurants and shops.  You know, you go to some place and you have Little Italy and you have China Town, you have that kind of thing. We have such a great diverse Hispanic group of citizens and business owners and if we could create a place, preferably somewhere on the east side of town where it fits in, where you could know this is where I go and there’s entertainment, there’s food, there’s fashion, all those types of things.  So, we are kind of working on that. It takes a lot of the private sector to make that happen as well but, it could make for a really cool environment too.  Another one of those things when visitors hear they go, ‘oh that’s neat.’  For those of us who live here it’s just that added entertainment that comes from living in a more diverse, eclectic kind of place.

WONO:  Yes, something not every place has, to be honest.  To wrap on the economy, in July 2010 to WONO, I know right before your election, you rated the state of Orange County’s economy as a ‘D.’  I think you tied it, in part, to the national economy at the time.

Mayor Jacobs: Oh, yeah. Thanks for reminding me.

WONO: So looking back, now that you’ve been in office for two years and a lot of elements, nationally, have changed and some have stayed the same. How would you rate both, locally and nationally?

Mayor Jacobs:  Locally, I think, we are definitely improving better than nationally.  When you look at where we were, we were at 11.1%, I think, unemployment. We are now at 7.7%, I think.  A lot of that is still coming from tourist jobs and “a” job is better than no job.  In terms of diversification we still have great strides to be made.  I’d probably put us at a B minus right now.  It’s always precarious because the whole world has become more globalized, in terms of the economy, that if you look outside of what is happening here you get a little bit more of a nervous picture of what’s happening overseas and nationally, but much stronger than we were.

WONO:  As you travel and help export Orange County’s brand, not only nationally but internationally, are you getting good reactions and are you hopeful and optimistic of that international travel and tourism and economic boost?

Mayor Jacobs:  Yes.  The wonderful thing is that everybody loves us and when we go to Brazil, they just love us.  They only think vacation, they don’t think of bringing businesses here, and that is what we are trying to change.  Columbia, the same thing, Puerto Rico, everywhere I have gone, England, everybody loves us and they say it’s so cool that you live there, you know, that we live in Disney.  Again, it’s changing that picture to paint a broader picture of a cool place to live.  We have some room to grow, still, in terms of becoming a cooler place to live.  I came from Atlanta and there were a lot of things to do in Atlanta.  When I moved here, 20 years ago, it was a change of pace.  There were things I absolutely loved.  I loved that fact that, unlike Atlanta, everywhere, within two or three years, I was so connected to this community.  I would see them at church; I would run into them at the grocery store, their kids would be in Boy Scouts with my kids, we were tripping over each other.  I didn’t have that in Atlanta.  It was big and disconnected.  In terms of community involvement, I never thought in Atlanta, could I serve on an advisor board? Could I go volunteer at something?  It never occurred to me.  Here if you want to get involved, this community is wide open.  That I loved, but we were missing some things and we have come a long way in these 20 years.  The Performing Arts Center, I went and toured it the other day.  That is going to be unbelievable, just absolutely unbelievable.

WONO:  So you are really hopeful to bring in more economic boosts? I know you’ve recently also signed off on helping out with the Citrus bowl renovations.  So the county is committed to seeing these venues projects completed.  Do you see that as an important element of our local economy?

Mayor Jacobs:  You might remember, I pushed for the Performing Arts Center ahead of the Citrus Bowl because when you talked about game changing venues for future economic diversification for being more than just service jobs. Service jobs are good but you have to have a mix of jobs to support a community that has the kind of lifestyle, quality of life, and an education system that we all want. And a Performing Arts Center changed a lot of how people will see us in the future more than the Citrus Bowl renovations would.

WONO:  Are you at all concerned with the county’s credit rating or financial status involved with these dealings with the city?  I know you have led the way in the past, demanding more transparency, more accountability…

Mayor Jacobs:  I’m not concerned about the county’s; I’m concerned about the city.

WONO:  And how will you protect county tax dollars that are being involved in these spending projects?  I don’t know if you are aware but the SEC is increasing scrutiny on municipal securities which are used often by the city of Orlando to fund these projects.  How do you see you role as County Mayor in protecting the tax payer?

Mayor Jacobs:  It’s a great question, because what we have done, and what Mayor Crotty was very careful to do, was to set up a structure that protected the county as an entity.  If the city of Orlando was willing to take risks that we weren’t, to be clear about where those risks lie and any impact to credit ratings would go to the city.  Having said that, while that line is pretty clear it doesn’t necessarily change the pressure that will be on us if the city fails at one of their venues.  There’s the reality.  There’s a protection built in but at the same time I am not naive enough to believe that if the Performing Arts Center can’t operate that the pressure will be back on Orange County to ride in to rescue which is why I am much more cautious.  The city has the ability, because they are a city and they have a county and we control the tourist development tax, they have the ability to come to us if it doesn’t work out.  I don’t know who we go to. I suppose perhaps the state, you look at some of the stadiums in South Florida, Miami, instead of doing what we are doing and using tourist development tax, they went to the state.  I’m not optimistic. It’s not my nature to assume someone is going to bail me out if things don’t work out and I think that, maybe, for whatever reason that’s just historically been the culture and relationship between the city and the county.  Maybe the demographics of the people and who they elect, I’m not quite sure.  It’s an interesting dynamic.  On one hand I think, why don’t I mind my own business, if the city wants to do that but I have a feeling it’s still going to become our business.

WONO:  On the issue of public safety and school safety specifically, in response to the Newtown tragedy, you were very quick and did not hesitate to fund putting deputies in our schools. Obviously acknowledging you understood the need for additional measures to protect our children.  Are you now confident that our children are as safe as they can be in schools and will deputies be in schools start of next year?  What are your long-term plans?

Mayor Jacobs:  Deputies have always been in our schools.  We have a full time deputy in middle schools and high schools.  Some of the high schools have more than one.  Elementary schools have had a rotating deputy.  There’s always been a little uncertainty from the public standpoint if they knew that there might be a deputy there.  So what we did was up that and as much as possible have a deputy around the clock in each of the elementary schools. One, to give our kids piece of mind.  Being a mom of four kids, it wasn’t that long ago they were little and the last thing in the world you want is kids going to school scared.  I don’t think there was anybody in this nation, hardly anybody on the planet that had access to TV, that didn’t see and know what happened.  That piece of mind for the kids and for the parents.  For the school district, it’s really their responsibility for school safety.  They’ve got a great safety coordinator that they’ve hired, prior to this.  The only concerns are some of the older schools and their capital improvement plans that they have in place, because most of our schools have secure entrances, single entrances. Some of our older schools are designed differently so we also wanted to give them time to make whatever modifications they needed to make this year to address those schools.

The plan for next year will probably be to go back to something more like we had but to make sure the public is well aware that our schools do have enforcement. We are not going to tell you what the schedule is, so enter at your own risk.  The other thing we are going to be kicking off soon is a Mental Health Commission.  Because I think when we focus on schools, because that’s where we saw the tragedy, the problem isn’t schools. The problem is mental illness; the problem is a social problem’ the problem is bullying that’s happening at an early age; it’s all of those things and if we don’t get to the root of the problem, we could just shift. It could be our library next, it could be our parks next.  We as a society still have not generally come to terms with the fact that mental illness is not a decision, it’s a disease.  Until we recognize that and treat it like a disease, we are not going to address this problem appropriately.  Doesn’t mean I want to go back to the dark ages of insane asylums and institutionalizing people.  We’ve got to figure out some place we haven’t been yet when it comes to this.  It’s big for our county to take on.  I don’t think we are going to find all the answers but I do think we have some pretty strong people in this community and maybe we can come up with some recommendations and some ideas.

WONO:  And that makes you confident that we have the right system in place? 

Mayor Jacobs: Yes.

WONO: This week at a community forum on Semoran, the hot button issue of redistricting resurfaced and nearly 200 residents in the room were still expressing anger, upset over the process and the final districts. Looking back would you handle redistricting or any issues like that differently? How have you taken that learning experience to make sure you are more inclusive to the Hispanic community?

Mayor Jacobs:  The outcome I wouldn’t have changed.  Probably we needed to do something different in the process and that was hard at the time to figure out because it was a relatively small group of people who felt that we needed to draft our districts in such a way that we could get as many Hispanics into one.  I think that the concern that I had, the packing concern, that that is also an illegal practice of trying to make sure that a minority only gets one vote and can be discarded was an equally legitimate concern.  I also think that when you start to believe that the only way you can get someone elected if they are a minority is if you have a majority of people that says that we have accepted that we’re a discriminatory society here in Orange County. I don’t think our history demonstrates that. I think our history demonstrates just the opposite and I don’t want to see going down that path.  What you think you are is often what you become.  That’s a failure that I think was, in many ways a failure of the press and giving a voice to very small group of people and not giving a voice to the majority. And over time people, if that’s all they see, that’s what they begin to believe.  Perception becomes reality.

We have our work cut out for us.  Obviously, I wasn’t aware of that meeting.  I have my work cut out for me because that’s very important.  I grew up in Miami and I watched as Miami changed, first it was my dad who joked about the Jews that came down from New York; well I married one.  And then we had Cubans coming in and there were clashes of cultures and it wasn’t always very pleasant.  One of my goals as Mayor has been to try to figure out how can we incorporate different cultures and celebrate them and grow richer, rather than feel threatened and divisive.  It troubles me enormously when I see things like that and yet doing the wrong thing because, it’s easier than saying well that’s it, we’ve acknowledged, we have to have 50% or 55% in order to elect a Hispanic. It’s just not the case. Mel Martinez wouldn’t have been elected Mayor and he ran against someone who had a ton of money. I backed him and I’m not Hispanic.  An awful lot of my friends and an awful lot of people backed him.

WONO:  Shifting to one other hot issue that’s obviously garnered some national media attention as well is the growing number of hungry children and homeless children here in our community.  Sadly our public schools are becoming necessary food pantries for many of these children.  In addition to that, the growing homeless population here in Orange County and the city of Orlando is continuing to struggle; thousands of students have nowhere to go after school.  Even the Commission on Homelessness recommended they cease to exist last year…

Mayor Jacobs:  Yes they did. That was a short-term recommendation by somebody who ceases to exist on that commission.

WONO:  So that was corrected? 

Mayor Jacobs: Yes.

WONO: What steps are you taking moving forward so that we don’t find more frustrating announcements like that, as opposed to proposed actions?

Mayor Jacobs:  That was very disappointing.  One of the things that we have, is a lot of very good organizations in this county that are all independently trying to help address the problem. But because we have all these different organizations there’s not a coordinated effort and that’s the goal of the Homeless Network, not to solve the problem but to be the vehicle that pulls everybody together.  John Hillenmeyer is now heading that up.  We had a presentation on that, actually, just this past Tuesday.  I think we’ve got the right guy in that role but he is in a volunteer capacity.  One of the things that we have to look at, most of our homeless are homeless not by choice and I think we have to recognize there are going to be some people that are homeless by choice.  That’s a very different situation.  When you have people that are homeless not by choice those are people that you can help. We have to look at what are the best tools, what are the best models for addressing homelessness.  That’s what John and our group is committed to and then making sure we are putting our resources effectively into that.  It’s more than just giving people meals.

WONO:  Do you think we will see some of those recommendations this year, in 2013?

Mayor Jacobs:  Yes.  We are finally moving in a positive direction, I think, for the first time with getting groups that have seen each other as competing non-profit organizations.  Sometimes competition can be good, sometimes it’s very destructive.  In this case I don’t think it’s been helpful.  It’s one of the reasons that Mayor Dyer and I have been involved in the hope that those groups would say ‘o.k., wait a minute.’  I don’t know what comes with the bully pulpit, but there’s something about having the two of us saying we need everybody to line up and get behind this issue and support each other and the common goal.  I think we are making some serious progress in that regard.

WONO:  Do you feel the homeless issue was serious enough concern to do that?

Mayor Jacobs:  Major concern.  You know we’ve got a lot of things that are going well here, that we don’t probably toot our horn about enough. But then we’ve got a couple of really serious problems.  Homelessness is a very serious problem.  The human trafficking, for most people they are not aware of it. It could become a big problem.  Law enforcement is all over it but we need greater public awareness.  Domestic violence.

WONO:  You just re-launched the Domestic Violence Commission.

Mayor Jacobs:  Absolutely.  Mental health, it’s by no means unique to Orange County but it’s a growing problem and one that has to be recognized.  We’ve got our share of challenges.

You had asked about economics and I wanted to mention, you have probably heard of this, but last year we did the largest number of economic development projects in the history of Orange County, I think.  We did 11 projects with projected job growth of 1200 high wage jobs.  That’s a record for us, a county record.

WONO:  Are you looking to implement more projects like that in 2013?

Mayor Jacobs:  Oh yes, constant. I get out in the field, I try once a month to work in the field with our staff and I won’t mention his name but last Friday I was out in the field and I met a gentleman who was very depressed.  He had been in and out of the hospital for mental illness and depression and we got him into a good environment to help him deal with that. But at the heart of that he said “I needed a job. I’ve been out of a job for two years.”  It’s more than and economic problem when you don’t have a job, it takes quite a toll on the human psyche to not be productive.  It will continue to be a focus.  The other thing, I would encourage people who do not have a job to volunteer because it is a very good feeling, for while you may not be bringing in the paycheck you want, you are doing something worthwhile.  We all need that; we all need to feel that our lives bring value.

WONO:  To touch back on one other issue, based on your background and history – coming up organizing neighborhood associations, having a local issue impact you – do you have any bonds or connection with people like the Occupy protesters or like the residents of Paramore who are organizing right now about Creative Village and overdevelopment in their areas? What recommendations, based on your successes, would you give people who have concerns in the community that are serious, but maybe don’t know the forum or the route to take to be more productive in getting results?

Mayor Jacobs:  It was the thing that I loved the most, my time with the Orange County Homeowners Association, was coaching neighborhoods on how to be effective because someone coached me.  I actually had a speech written, I was going to walk in here and blast all the Commissioners and just tell them how stupid and wrong they were.  I really was. One of my mentors with OCHA read it and said “what’s your goal?” I said “well my goal is to stop this road.” And she said “well it looks like your goal is just to piss off a lot of people and if you make them mad they are not going to agree with you. So let’s try a different approach.”

I think that you have to use different approaches at different times.  Sometimes there has to be a bad cop and a good cop. Let’s face it sometimes somebody has to be the one who draws attention but to get somewhere you have to be reasonable. You have to have a positive approach and you have to be able to work with people. You have to be able to get people to sympathize with you.  I would tell people that come into our chambers that the greatest chance you have at success is if you can get us to sympathize and relate.  Coming in and name calling doesn’t work. It doesn’t work, it just alienates, rather than building support.  You need to be able to articulate the goal and then explain it in human terms, why does it matter.

I think the Paramore issue is an interesting issue.  We can change Paramore. But have we helped the people who live in Paramore or have we just put them someplace else?  Is that fixing the problem?  I think it’s a very interesting issue and we’ve seen it happen time and time again throughout history and to watch it happening right here.

WONO:  And you are engaged in at least paying attention to what’s happening out there?

Mayor Jacobs: Oh yeah.

WONO: I know that you’ve always welcomed, even people you disagree with, into your chambers, into the public comments, into the record.

Mayor Jacobs:  Yes. I know it sounds crazy, but one of my personal goals is to – it’s impossible in politics – gosh I’d like to be able to meet people half way most of the time to win over those people who just don’t believe there is any hope.  We have some that show up and it’s like, ‘hmm.’  Most of the time, generally, instead of being angry at them for being there, I try to look at the positive, that at least they care enough to show up.  Most people don’t. Most people just sit at home and complain. It’s better that you show up.  I wish they had somebody like I had, that pointed out that I wasn’t going to get anywhere by insulting people.  That rarely works.

WONO:  How do you think the Magic will finish the season?

Mayor Jacobs:  [Laughs] Not as well as they are going to finish next season!!

WONO:  You mentioned the Performing Arts Center. What play, if you could pick any one show that you would love to see in the new Performing Arts Center when it opens, what play would you want to see?

Mayor Jacobs:  There’s so many that I haven’t seen.  That’s not fair. Throw me another one.

WONO:  Obviously the stresses of being Mayor can build up day-to-day.  So what do you do to unwind?  Over the past two years you must have found some escapes.

Mayor Jacobs:  Yes, I have.  It’s my backyard.  If you go on my Facebook page, I built a garden in my backyard and have a raised bed garden and I’ve got vegetables. I try very hard to go home, my husband always wants to talk about work, which is nice that he cares but usually I just want to change the subject. I’m home, I just want to be home.  When I was Commissioner, I worked 24/7. I try really hard, my brain gets a little burnt out if I fester over issues for too long, so I try to come home…my gardening, I am loving. And I am learning Spanish. I have always wanted to learn Spanish and it takes 100% of my concentration, which is good because then I can’t do anything else.  And I read, I like to read, for eight years I never read a book, I only read work-related periodicals, that kind of thing, and I am trying to do a little bit more pleasure reading.  It’s also a way of taking yourself out of…taking your brain and putting it someplace else.  My husband and I like bike riding, we do that.  The kids are now starting to join us.

WONO:  Enjoying everything that the county has to offer.  Any Oscar predictions, are you a movie fan? 

Mayor Jacobs:  No, I’m not. I always catch them when they are out the second time around when I can watch them at home.  I’m spoiled but I love that.

WONO:  Just to wrap up, anything that we might have missed, or that’s very important to you.  As you look ahead to the next two years, I know you did mention earlier that you would need eight years so I assume you are planning at this point to run for re-election?

Mayor Jacobs: Oh gosh yes, absolutely. Absolutely.

WONO: What do you see in the lead up to your re-election bid as a top priority moving forward? What can we expect to see from Teresa Jacobs in 2013 – 2014?

Mayor Jacobs:  Well, we are going to continue to do everything we can to stimulate job growth, so you will continue to see a lot of work in that regard, expanding that identity of who is Orlando, Orange County, Central Florida.  The issues that we have talked about, domestic violence and homelessness and mental health are going to be top priorities for me.  I serve on the homeless commission, I will probably also serve on the mental health commission which kind of came as a surprise to some of my staff.  I think, for me, it’s a very important issue.  We’ve created a sustainability task force which is headed up by John Martinez.

WONO:  What will be the focus of his work there?

Mayor Jacobs:  Primarily environmental sustainability, and how do we build in policies that promote a sustainable environment while sustaining our economy?  A lot of opportunities.  The nice thing about sustainability is that it also creates an economy around green energy.

There’s never a dull day.  Tomorrow there will be something that I didn’t know was coming.

WONO:  It’s been worth it, being Mayor?

Mayor Jacobs:  Absolutely, in my wildest dreams I would have never imagined that I could find something this rewarding.  I tell the story about how apolitical I was years ago and didn’t see the value in it because what I saw was what I read in the papers, saw in the news, it was the negative part. And it is so rewarding to be able to be in a position where you can change things.  That’s what’s so cool about the whole government.  You could be in Washington, and I’m glad people will put themselves through that, but I don’t know how much you get done. Here you can get something done, you can actually, in a matter of a couple of months, change polices and change lives, and that’s just awesome.  I wouldn’t trade this for anything.

The best part, probably the silver lining to it all, is that in my ten years now of public service, my kids have been proud of me and not many people get to raise teenagers that are proud to have their mom around.  Little silver personal lining.  It’s all been good.


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  1. Wow. thank you for this kissy-assy interview. I learned all of ZERO from your completely gushy questions. Yippee for you.


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