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‘Considerable Dysfunction’ Roils Disney World’s Local Government

Welcome to the Reedy Creek Improvement District.

Welcome to the Reedy Creek Improvement District. Shutterstock

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There’s been massive turnover in the tech department that serves a heavily-visited Florida locality few tourists have ever heard of.

Orlando is often associated as the home of Walt Disney World Resort in central Florida, but the massive global tourist attraction actually lies within a different local jurisdiction that most visitors have never heard of: the Reedy Creek Improvement District.

Reedy Creek was created by the Florida state legislature in the mid-1960s as a special taxing district to help pay the costs of providing municipal services—like water, sewers, electricity and roads—to Disney World and its associated development in a remote area that was at the time mostly pastureland and swamps. The district, in the eyes of Florida’s legislature, “would act with the same authority and responsibility as a county government.” Now it oversees 134 miles of local roads and 67 miles of local waterways, serves 250,000 daily visitors and manages 2,000 vendors, suppliers and contractors.

While Reedy Creek is home to the Magic Kingdom, it isn’t magically immune to the personnel difficulties that come with managing a local government.

“The current culture within the Technology Services department is not healthy or conducive to service delivery and organizational excellence,” read a report completed in June by Orlando business consultancy Diane Meiller and Associates and recently reviewed by the Orlando Sentinel. “There is considerable dysfunction and conflict at the leadership level.”

The report was commissioned for $40,000 by Reedy Creek to review the city’s tech department. The authors describe an office plagued by internal feuds, high turnover and low morale and they quote staffers who describe Chief Information Officer Yenni Hernandez as a bully who has created an environment where “employees fear reprisal for speaking out.” Department projects routinely run late on deadlines.

The consultants recommended city officials consider firing Hernandez and provide the department’s middle managers with leadership training. The Sentinel this week was unable to determine whether city officials took up any of the report’s recommendations, but there has been at least one forced staff change: In January, the department fired Human Resources Manager Tracy Schrey, who told the Sentinel she was blindsided by the decision and that she thought her bosses were joking when they delivered the news.

Hernandez, however, remains in place, collecting her $163,592 salary. She told the consultants reviewing her department that the staffers she was clashing with resisted making the kind change they needed in order to perform better. The staffers apparently had a different idea about what kind of change was best for them. Over the course of three years, 18 people left the 15-person department, the highest turnover rate in the Reedy Creek district, the Sentinel reported.

The conflict in the technology department has been playing out as Reedy Creek oversees significant infrastructure projects. The city is in the process of laying new roads and building the Skyliner gondola system that will link different areas within the Walt Disney World Resort complex.

The Reedy Creek headlines recall the bigger, badder headlines Disney made last year, when it was navigating major political struggles and public relations challenges in Anaheim, California, home to Disneyland.

Outside Wondercon earlier this month at the Anaheim Convention Center in Anaheim, California (Shutterstock)

Last September, the Los Angeles Times delivered a series of investigations into the money Disney was pouring into City Council elections in Anaheim, trying and failing to defeat candidates who were leading a movement to recast the financial relationship between the company and the city. The paper detailed the enormous subsidies the city handed to the company for years and the low-wages the company has paid employees, who have been left to lean on government services to get by.

“We’ve invested billions, really, in the children of tourists,” the Times quoted Jose F. Moreno during his successful run for City Council. “We’d now like to really turn our investments toward making sure we take care of the children of Anaheim so that they can have that magical life that I think we all want for our kids and families.”

Moreno’s hard-charging campaign may have surprised the world beyond Anaheim. The Times put it in perspective:

Disney has grown, over decades, from a purveyor of children’s amusements into one of the world’s largest media and entertainment companies, a corporate juggernaut with a stock market value of about $154 billion.

Anaheim has undergone its own evolution. In 2016, the City Council expanded from five to seven seats. The six council members are now elected by district; the mayor is still elected citywide. Last year, four seats were up for grabs, more than any previous election. The change came after the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit alleging the prior at-large election structure discriminated against Latinos, who make up 53% of the population.

Poverty, declining income and rising crime are all contributing to a creeping restiveness. The city’s crime rate, after dipping earlier this decade, increased 14% from 2014 to 2016, according to data from the FBI. It has risen 1% since 2000.

Perhaps little of this would have surprised Walt Disney. Indeed, Reedy Creek partly grew out of his dissatisfaction with the limited control his company could exert in Anaheim. By the 1960s, he was a Geppetto ready to carve out his own little Pinocchio of a city somewhere new and watch it spring to life.

Disney built Reedy Creek on nearly 40-square miles of land located just southwest of Orlando that he bought up through shell companies. In 1967, Florida lawmakers and Gov. Claude Kirk, Jr., granted the new Reedy Creek Improvement District near full autonomy. Reedy Creek is governed by a five-member board of supervisors chosen by Disney landowner-executives in what the Orlando Sentinel has previously called “Florida's most mysterious election process.” The district’s “obscure government,” as the newspaper put it in 2011, operates on its own all of the typical municipal services: fire protection, emergency medical care, law enforcement, construction permitting, transportation, power generation, and so on.  

From a governance perspective, Disney World is Disneyland freed from full-bore messy democracy. There may be personnel management heartburn, discontented staffers, office flare-ups and bruising headlines—just like in so many other localities—but due to how the Reedy Creek Improvement District was designed and organized, there won’t be any reform candidates running anytime soon to change the way “city hall” is run.

John Tomasic is a journalist who lives in Seattle.

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