By Erika Webb
Volusia Council of Governments will remain its own entity.
At a workshop June 24, focused on the results of a 360 survey of the organization, city and county officials voted unanimously to continue as VCOG rather than assemble under the Volusia League of Cities.
The survey, completed by city managers and elected officials, was designed as a complete evaluation of VCOG and its purpose.
In a June 10 email to Substance Task Force Committee members, VCOG and league executive director Mary Swiderski explained the 360 evaluation resulted from tightened local government budgets giving way to concerns among officials that costs associated with VCOG's present projects outweighs gain.
The 43-year-old organization's mission has stayed fairly constant. It aims to foster cooperation among local governments for the benefit of all Volusia County residents.
"Today's staff, in our cities and county, has great rapport with their professional counterparts in other governments," Ms. Swiderski wrote. "The need to develop consensus is not as necessary as it once was."
"In essence we have worked our way out of a job," she added.
A total of 39 elected officials and 15 managers from 14 jurisdictions, including 12 cities, Volusia County and the Volusia County School Board, returned the survey.
Nine top goals were identified, but workshop facilitator Mike Abels, IMA-CM, encouraged the group to narrow them down.
"You don't have the resources to do all of these," Mr. Abels advised. "What I would propose is that you do no more than three or four."
The group agreed to:
Identify critical county or regional issues, bring together more stakeholders, develop solutions and explore funding.
Achieve communication, coordination and cooperation among local governments.
Foster partnerships to create innovative solutions to emerging county and regional challenges.
There is a tendency for the lines between VCOG's and the league's purposes to overlap in people's minds, Ms. Swiderski said in a phone interview.
"The League of Cities deals with educating the individual official on how to be a better leader," she explained. "VCOG is for local governments to deal with issues which cross jurisdictional borders."
Issues such as homelessness, spay and neuter programs, and airport noise abatement to name just a few.
New Smyrna Beach Mayor and VCOG Chair Adam Barringer said he liked the idea of a less structured meeting format, which would be allowed under the league -- a 501c4 organization not held to the Sunshine Law.
"You wouldn't have the media taking something way out of context if you have a glass of wine or a drink," Mayor Barringer said.
Orange City Mayor Tom Laputka said he likes the way VCOG meetings are structured because there is an agenda.
Ormond Beach Mayor Ed Kelley is in favor of cooperation between himself and his peers throughout Volusia, whatever the forum.
"Together we can do more than we can individually," Mayor Kelley said, "whether it's VCOG or COGV or V League."
Deltona's absence bothers him.
Last August, Volusia's most populous city opted out of the intergovernmental alliance, instead retaining membership in Team Volusia, an inter-local agency aimed at economic development, Deltona's mantra.
At the time, commissioners cited the city's $30,000 annual expenditure for membership as the primary reason for leaving.
At the VCOG 360 workshop, Deltona Commissioner Heidi Herzberg said she was "the lone no vote" in Deltona's decision to drop out.
"We can't continue without the largest city in Volusia County," Mayor Kelley said.
City officials agreed the economic climate and changes in elected leadership have threatened the organization.
DeLand Mayor Bob Apgar said VCOG must be structured to sustain regardless of economic and political conditions.
"My commission seemed to want to be isolationists from the beginning," Commissioner Herzberg said. "When you have a representative that doesn't want to be part of an organization, the information is going to be very filtered and very one sided."
She said it's possible Deltona's newer elected officials will reconsider the decision made by their predecessors and opt to re-join VCOG.
Ms. Swiderski said when Deltona left "it started other (same-way leaning) conversations."
Edgewater Mayor Mike Thomas illustrated the need for unity by drawing a picture of Volusia County with dots representing each city to depict the county's somewhat unique geographical divergence.
His point: space creates distance, not just logistically but also in mindset. Without a common-ground meeting of the minds, the mayor said he fears more isolation.
"It's an hour from my house to Pierson," Mayor Thomas said. "I've learned so much from these meetings. I say if it ain't broke don't fix it."
Volusia County Councilwoman Deb Denys agreed with Mayor Thomas.
"We're geographically the size of Rhode Island," Councilwoman Denys said. "It's the equivalent of trying to get every city in Rhode Island to sing Kumbaya and all get along."
Mayor Barringer said Volusia County Council Chair Jason Davis has caused a deeper divide between cities and the County.
"When Frank Bruno was here ... if there was ever an issue we felt very comfortable with Frank Bruno. That's changed," Mayor Barringer said. "Whether you liked it or whether you didn't you could always talk to Frank Bruno."
Councilwoman Denys said VCOG member cities have the right to request a new council representative.
"I'm here," she said. "Don't let a personality get in the way of us doing business."
In a phone interview, Council Chair Davis said he received a letter from Ms. Swiderski after the meeting requesting a new county representative.
"If they want another representative, they can have another representative," he said. "As the County Council Chair, I'm very, very busy all of the time and I can't get to every single meeting. It's very difficult for county officials to run all over the place to get to all of these meetings."
He explained many meetings are conducted simultaneously and he has to prioritize.
Council Chair Davis said he has never turned away any discussion with city officials.
"I've been open and honest with every mayor and I've been available for every single mayor from Ormond Beach all the way down to Oak Hill and Edgewater, New Smyrna, Port Orange ... all of them," he said.
As far as VCOG is concerned, he said Volusia County Government is the council.
"I don't like redundancy in government," he said. "I was hired by the citizens of Volusia County to (eliminate) waste and balance the budget, deal with issues which are pertinent to citizens."
"They do charge us a very large amount of money every year to be a member of their little organization," he added.
He said he believes the league should be held to the Sunshine Law because elected officials are present at the organization's meetings.
"There's a gray line there and I'm going to err on the side of caution," he said.
Volusia County School Board Vice Chairwoman Candace Lankford said "naming is power" and VCOG is a positive brand.
She said combining VCOG and the league could dilute emphasis.
"There's nothing wrong or negative with Volusia League of Cities," Ms. Lankford said. "It's a different connotation."
Recent issues with community redevelopment areas and the gas tax linger in Mayor Barringer's mind.
"When CRAs faced us throughout Volusia County, we all came together and addressed the county together," he said.
Ultimately Mayor Barringer and everyone seated around the table agreed there is safety in numbers.
Going forward, the organization may look at changes, including whether or not they will retain the building used for staff offices and meetings.
Mayor Barringer suggested the possibility of meeting in the different cities, saying Ms. Swiderski could have an office at DeLand City Hall.
"As long as New Smyrna Beach pays the rent," Mayor Apgar joked.
"They said 'we want to keep VCOG' and that was heard loud and clear," Ms. Swiderski said. "I was willing to play ball any way they want. The most important thing is that we use this tool that's available to local governments."