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Updated: Board ramps up Disney legal fight

Photo by Clyde He on Unsplash

By Jim Turner

News Service of Florida

May 1, 2023

TALLAHASSEE --- A board appointed by Gov. Ron DeSantis to oversee Walt Disney Co. property filed a lawsuit Monday to counter a case that the entertainment giant filed last week against the state.

The Central Florida Tourism Oversight District filed the lawsuit in Orange County circuit court. It was the latest move in an escalating battle that  included DeSantis this year appointing the board to replace leaders of the former Reedy Creek Improvement District, which was created in the 1960s and largely gave Disney self-governance power.

Disney filed a lawsuit last week in federal court in Tallahassee, alleging that DeSantis and other officials improperly retaliated against Disney because of the company’s opposition to a controversial 2022 law that restricts instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity in schools. The lawsuit said the retaliation threatens the company’s “business operations, jeopardizes its economic future in the region and violates its constitutional rights.”

The Central Florida Tourism Oversight District Board of Supervisors on Monday directed its attorneys to pursue a lawsuit.

“Disney is asking a federal court in Tallahassee to wrestle back the hands of time to 1967, while this board is instead charged legislatively with bringing the district into the 21st century with new and better policies and practices,”  board Chairman Martin Garcia said.

Garcia said the district’s response “will seek justice in state court here in Central Florida where both it and Disney reside and do business. Yes, we’ll seek justice in our own backyard.”

In February, state lawmakers passed a DeSantis-backed bill that shifted control of the Reedy Creek district away from Disney and allowed the governor to appoint the five-member Board of Supervisors of the renamed Central Florida Tourism Oversight District.

After being seated, new board members realized the former Reedy Creek board during publicly advertised meetings had turned over most of its powers to Disney through agreements.

The lawsuit filed Monday contended, in part, that the former Reedy Creek board made the changes without proper notice of a public hearing and lacked  authority to enter a development agreement with Disney.

“Disney engaged in a concerted effort to perpetuate its stranglehold over the district, using its control over (Reedy Creek) and the two municipalities that exist within the boundaries of the district,” the lawsuit said, adding that “Disney’s 11th-hour rush to insulate itself from the authority of the new board, however, produced agreements that are riddled with procedural and substantive flaws.”

In addition to DeSantis, the Disney federal lawsuit named as defendants Acting Secretary of the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity Meredith Ivey, district administrator John Classe, Garcia and Central Florida Tourism Oversight District board members Michael Sasso, Brian Aungst, Ron Peri and Bridget Ziegler.

Asked about the federal lawsuit Monday, DeSantis criticized Disney and called it “wrong for one corporation to basically corrupt a local government.”

Disney Vacation Club member Douglas Dixon, the only member of the public to speak during Monday’s meeting of the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District board, said the actions against Disney have caused him to no longer support DeSantis and urged board members to resign over “this stupid war.”

“Raising taxes to pay for your defense is wrong. If you take any of our money, it's wrong,” Dixon said.

The ramped-up legal fight came as the Florida House on Monday postponed discussion of a bill (SB 1604) that would, in part, override the agreements that Disney reached with outgoing members of the former Reedy Creek board.

Under the bill, special districts would be prohibited from complying with development agreements executed three months or less before new laws take effect that change how district board members are selected. The bill also would give new boards four months to review any development agreements and decide if they should be re-adopted.

The Senate voted 27-13 to pass the measure last week.

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