Stalled contract jeopardizes relations between new Disney governing body and firefighters

ORLANDO, Fla. — After appointees of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis took over Walt Disney World’s governing district earlier this year, its firefighters were among the few employees who publicly welcomed them with open arms.

But that warm relationship is in jeopardy as a new district administrator has reopened negotiations on a contract that was approved last month by the unionized firefighters, promising pay raises and more manpower.

A vote on the contract originally was targeted for last month during a meeting of the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District board of supervisors. But it was never brought up, and it did not appear on an agenda released ahead of the next meeting scheduled for Wednesday.

Under the three-year contract proposal overwhelmingly approved by 200 firefighters and first responders, annual starting pay for firefighters would increase to $65,000, up from $55,000. It also promised hiring up to three dozen firefighters and paramedics.

At several meetings since the DeSantis-appointed supervisors took their seats this spring, Jon Shirey, who leads the firefighters’ union, praised them for visiting firefighters at their stations around the 39 square-mile (101 square-kilometer) Disney World property.

The firefighters looked forward to collaborating with the new supervisors and administrator after years of clashing with their Disney-supporting predecessors, and viewed the appointments as “an opportunity for a fresh start,” he said.

“Almost overnight, a change occurred that we have never experienced — transparency, open dialogue, the ability to sit down and have our issues heard and felt listened to,” Shirey told board members last month. “You have been able to build bridges that were long burned.”

The feeling was mutual, with board chairman Martin Garcia saying last month that the supervisors were working with the firefighters to resolve their issues. Even so, Garcia made clear that the firefighters weren’t the only district employees the board wanted to support.

“We also need to let the (other) employees know, we love you, too. We care about you. We love you as much as we love our firefighters,” Garcia said.

But the delay in approving the contract has alienated the firefighters’ union, which last year endorsed the gubernatorial reelection campaign of DeSantis, who recently launched a campaign for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination.

The old contract expired four years ago, and the firefighters declared an impasse last year when the district’s board was still controlled by Disney supporters. The Reedy Creek Professional Firefighters, Local 2117 have warned for years that they are understaffed, which poses a safety risk as the central Florida theme park resort grows bigger.

Last month, District Administrator John Classe, who originally negotiated the new contract, was replaced by the board with Glenton Gilzean, a DeSantis ally who previously served as president and CEO of the Central Florida Urban League and will receive a $400,000 salary in his new job. The district also is paying Classe to stay on as a special advisor.

Board spokesperson Alexei Woltornist said negotiations with the union were continuing, without explaining why they were reopened with a contract already approved by the firefighters and first responders.

“Administrator Gilzean is actively working with the fire department to finalize a deal that offers a competitive compensation package and gives firefighters the resources they need to protect the public,” Woltornist said in an email to The Associated Press.

Officials with the firefighters’ union did not comment.

While Gilzean may alienate the firefighters, whose support gave the DeSantis takeover some legitimacy, he may gain credibility with other constituencies within Disney’s governing district and put some distance between himself and his predecessor, said Richard Foglesong, a Rollins College professor emeritus who wrote a definitive account of Disney World’s governance in his book, “Married to the Mouse: Walt Disney World and Orlando.”

“He’s an unproven administrator, yet here he’s showing he’s no pushover when dealing with a cantankerous group, which frankly impresses me,” Foglesong said.

The DeSantis appointees took over the Disney World governing board earlier this year following a yearlong feud between the company and DeSantis. The fight began last year after Disney, beset by significant pressure internally and externally, publicly opposed a state law banning classroom lessons on sexual orientation and gender identity in early grades, a policy critics call “Don’t Say Gay.”

As punishment, DeSantis took over the district through legislation passed by Florida lawmakers and appointed a new board of supervisors to oversee municipal services for the sprawling theme parks and hotels. But before the new board came in, the company made agreements with previous oversight board members that stripped the new supervisors of their authority over design and construction.

Disney sued DeSantis and the five-member board, asking a federal judge to void the governor’s takeover of the theme park district, as well as the oversight board’s actions, on the grounds they were violations of company’s free speech rights.

The board sued Disney in state court in an effort to maintain its control of construction and design at Disney World.

The district was created in 1967 when then-Florida Gov. Claude Kirk signed legislation authorizing it to regulate land use, enforce building codes, treat wastewater, control drainage, maintain utilities and provide fire protection at Disney World.

Such private governments aren’t uncommon in fast-growing Florida, which has more than 600 community development districts that manage and pay for infrastructure in new communities.

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Follow Mike Schneider on Twitter at @MikeSchneiderAP

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