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Teresa Jacobs calls faulty advisory from Emily Bonilla ‘unauthorized,’ ‘inaccurate’

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Orange County Commissioner Emily Bonilla sent an email to constituents Wednesday afternoon inaccurately advising them they still could arrange to get rid of big bulk items ahead of Hurricane Irma.

The email led Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs to issue a sharp retraction and a rebuke charging Bonilla of overstepping her authority and causing potentially serious problems in a time of emergency.

The email from Bonilla’s office, sent to 20,000 residents of her District 5 in eastern Orange County, included numerous tips on how residents should prepare for the anticipated impact of Hurricane Irma. Among suggestions, the email advised residents could still call as late as Thursday to have bulk items removed by the Orange County Solid Waste Department by Friday.

But that is not how the county’s program works, and it’s an even more difficult time to deal with bulk items as county workers prepare for the hurricane, the county’s utility’s department advised her office after the email went out. Bonilla said she then contacted Jacobs, who informed her she wanted to send out a retraction, but Bonilla’s office sent out its correction email a couple of hours after the first.

But the second email, too, appeared to be inaccurate and in contradiction of what the county was proposing since it still advised people to call to see if they could get bulk pickups arranged, according to a memo Jacobs sent to all the commissioners Thursday morning.

After sending a press advisory and email to residents, Jacobs also sent a written statement to Orlando-Rising.com that characterized Bonilla’s emails as not only inaccurate, but outside the authority of an individual commissioner, and inconsistent with what the mayor was trying to communicate with county residents through a press conference she held Wednesday afternoon.

And Jacobs suggested serious safety concerns were involved if people were putting bulk items out the curb ahead of the arrival of a major hurricane.

“With regard to the inaccurate information that was distributed regarding solid waste large-item pickup, it was inconsistent with the public statements, acknowledging that Orange County may have to consider closing on Friday based on Irma’s path and timing,” Jacobs stated. “Further, releasing an emergency advisory regarding the functions of Orange County Government without approval from the County Mayor, the County Administrator, or Department Director was an unprecedented action, and completely inconsistent with Orange County’s charter, created by the citizens of Orange County.

“For the sake of public safety, any statements regarding county operations and emergency preparations MUST be authorized by the Mayor or the Mayor’s designee,” she continued. “Any and all commissioners are welcomed and encouraged to share official information. With respect to their roles as members of the legislative body, of course, they are encouraged to communicate with their constituents, to the extent allowed by law. I would never seek to limit communication on legislative matters, but for obvious reasons, unauthorized and incorrect information — especially when such information threatens to undermine the safety of our citizens — must not be circulated.

Jacobs went on to say that in her 15 years of service as a county commissioner or mayor, “I am unaware of a similar situation ever occurring.”

Jacobs declared a state of emergency Thursday afternoon.

Bonilla said her email was sent in an effort to be helpful, intended to help constituents prepare for Irma. She said the mistake came because her office had misunderstood a communication with the county staff.

And she disputed that the second email was inaccurate. Both emails suggested residents call the department about bulk pickup, and neither advised anyone to put anything on the curb. The first email suggested pickup could still be arranged, while the second said probably not. In either case, Bonilla said, if someone called the department they would be advised that bulk pickup probably was not possible.

Bonilla’s advisory also had provided numerous other informational items, including details on county sandbag distribution, phone numbers and internet addresses for up-to-date county information, and what to do about flooded water wells.

Jacobs and Bonilla have clashed frequently throughout the year during Orange County Commission meetings, and tossed barbs outside the chambers. Jacobs did not name Bonilla in her statement, nor in her retraction, identifying the source of “unauthorized and incorrect information” only as “the Orange County District 5 Commissioner’s Office.”

The emails followed a press briefing led by Jacobs and attended by Bonilla, dealing with Hurricane Irma preparations.

“All items on your property need to be safely secured for the safety of you and your neighbors,” Jacobs advised. “I regret that this information was provided. I urge residents to take all precautions for the safety and welfare of our community.”

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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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