An inconspicuous vote made by Mount Dora council members last week was suddenly the subject of political controversy, thanks to a letter sent by four Republicans on the Lake County legislative delegation.
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The council members, with the backing of the city’s police department, agreed to enact a “Safe Place” program that has been implemented in cities across the country, including Orlando.
The program is simple: a coordinator in the police department hands out stickers, typically rainbow-colored in the shape of a police badge, to willing business owners for placement in their front windows, along with pamphlets that guide people toward resources. The liaison also checks in with the participants from time to time.
The stickers are intended to send a welcoming message to members of the LGBTQ+ community and other groups and let them know the business owners are happy to assist them if needed.
Police in Seattle began the program after research showed the LGBTQ+ community was less comfortable approaching police officers than other groups, and figured community members could act as a go-between. The program is completely voluntary and there is no training or time commitment other than placing the symbolic sticker in the window.
“We’re bring proactive,” Mayor Crissy Stile said, noting few hate crimes happen in the city. “We wanted to come up with this program to let people know they are safe in Mount Dora.”
Stile said the police chief appeared to be bothered by the fact that some people may not trust his officers. She also said she was hesitant at first because of the apparent lack of immediate need for the change, but agreed once other council members explained why they wanted Mount Dora to adopt it.
The letter, written by Rep. Taylor Yarkosky and signed by Sen. Dennis Baxley, Rep. Keith Truenow and Rep. Stan McClain, warned Mount Dora leaders of economic consequences and threatened the city with potential legal or legislative action for their vote.
The lawmakers said the program was divisive for people who chose to not participate, especially given that the city wasn’t a hotbed for incidents.
“You are picking winners and losers in your city with this program and alienating otherwise friendly business owners and residents from one another on the basis of participation in this program,” Rep. Yarkosky wrote. “We believe you are in fact creating a less safe environment in Mount Dora, contrary to the intentions you proclaim.”
The delegation invited city leaders to a meeting Tuesday morning to explain themselves, but Mayor Stile said she wasn’t aware anyone had attended. City leaders had already accepted an invitation to another event at the same time, she explained.
A spokeswoman for Rep. Yarkosky said he was in meetings and not immediately available to speak about his letter.
In a phone call, Sen. Baxley said he wasn’t 100% familiar with the city’s program or leaders’ intentions but agreed to the letter after receiving calls from concerned residents.
He also said programs like Orlando’s, which have existed without issue for years, weren’t a concern of his. He appeared to dismiss Yarkosky’s threat to take legislative action, saying the issue was local and the concerns reflected the character of Lake County alone.
“Our interest is strictly keeping the peace in Lake County,” he said. “We don’t think this is necessary.”
Baxley also expressed concern that taxpayer money was being used to fund the creation of the stickers.
Stile said city leaders would have to hold another discussion on the program, but rather than back off, she believed they simply needed to clarify what the program was and stood for, since she believed most people didn’t know anything about it.
On the streets of downtown, people who heard about the program generally agreed there wasn’t any harm in letting community members know they were safe, though some said the program shouldn’t be necessary.
“I thought we were above this type of thing simply because this is a proactive approach to letting people know that they should be safe here,” Stile said, calling the controversy nothing more than politics. “That letter that we got last night is unfortunate. Hopefully we can all sit together in a room and work this all out.”