For Winter Park, the dog issue may never go away, but at least until last week, the vitriolic and heated debate over dog park politics had taken a back seat in this election cycle. It was replaced with the more substantive and pressing issues of comp plan supermajorities, pension liabilities and the use of incentives to lure or keep businesses.
Last week, Winter Park resident Herb Weiss and an awareness website known as Equippwp.org sent out a mass direct mail piece alleging that “Fleet Peeples Park has evolved into a use that is unfair to Winter Park’s residents.” While some dog park supporters are outraged, others at the city are concerned by the motivation and timing of the piece. Weiss is an acting member of the Parks and Recreation board. With the mass distribution of the mailer, the public availability of the website and possible use of personal funds to disseminate his viewpoint, many are asking if it’s appropriate for volunteer board members to lead such overt activism.
City officials were caught off guard by both the timing and contents of the Equippwp mailer. On Feb. 23, Commissioner Carolyn Cooper began fielding questions about the Equipp mailer. She quickly asked city staffers to send her a copy and to clarify the accuracy of its content.
In a city e-mail sent to administration and City Commission members in response to the mailer, Environmental Resources Manager Tim Egan described the piece as “accurate, or at least accurately identified as someone’s opinion”. Egan goes on to point out two erroneous statements made by Weiss. The first comes from the misuse of a photo attributed as “Cleanup of another Lake Baldwin Algae Bloom”. The photograph was taken during a regularly scheduled removal of the invasive torpedo grass and replanting of native vegetation. Egan said that the presence of hydrilla in the photo was due to Orlando’s treatments and not related in any way to the park.
Of greater concern to some is the use of a graph that Egan said was “intentionally altered in a way that makes the bacterial levels look much higher during several years than they actually were”. Weiss’ claim of an environmental disaster does not appear to be supported by the data that proves Lake Baldwin, and all state-regulated Winter Park lakes, to be within the safety standard levels set by the EPA.
Did Weiss act alone? Pete Weldon, who blogs on Winter Park politics at his website WinterParkPerspective.org, refers to of a phone conversation with Weiss admitting that a that a number of citizens funded the development, printing and mailing costs of his piece and that these citizens wish to remain anonymous . Estimates vary on the cost and distribution of the six-page self-mailer. Weiss was unavailable for comment, but direct mail experts estimate that if the piece had been sent to all of the registered voters in Winter Park, the total expenditure would have cost between $10,000 and $12,000. A number of households have complained about receiving multiple copies.
As a recognized and protected form of free speech, direct mail is a widely if not over-used form of advocacy. But there’s nothing free about this form of speech, when, as Weldon states, “Herb acknowledged to me that his intent is in fact to inspire further discord, to get hundreds of indignant Winter Park residents to flood city commission meetings to “change” city policy at Fleet Peeples Park.” If that’s the case, then the Roger Nair quote has never been truer: “Free speech is your right; responsible free speech is your duty.” Did Herb Weiss and company go too far? Join the conversation at WPMObserver.com