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3/14/2002

News > News

The insider

 

It's hard to miss Tico Perez.

For one thing, he's a giant of a man, standing some six feet and 300 pounds. For another, he's ubiquitous in local political and power-brokering circles. Though he has never held public office, Perez weighs in on everything from your water bill to Orange County's arts spending. Last year, he was the local Boy Scouts' front man in its funding battle with the Heart of Florida United Way. Aside from the Orlando Utilities Commission (he's president), the arts council (he's vice-chairman), and the Boy Scouts, Perez -- a partner at Baker & Hostetler -- also serves on United Arts of Central Florida's boards of directors and trustees, and chairs its marketing committee. He's a past president of the Orlando Regional Chamber of Commerce and the University of Central Florida's Alumni Association -- and that's just the tip of a truly dazzling résumé.

"All of us are on a lot of boards," says Robert Haven, OUC's general manager, "but no one's near where he is."

The son of Cuban immigrants, the 39-year-old's ascension to Orlando's unofficial inner circle -- and a probable run for elected office -- is a tribute to Perez's gregarious personality and incessant work ethic. But it also illustrates a troubling fact: That inner circle consists of an incestuous group of attorneys and business leaders who comprise a sort of shadow government. Their influence pervades dozens of city and county advisory boards that help form policy and hundreds of nonprofit organizations that direct how donations will be used.

"I think it's safe to say that Tico is very well known by the folks who are helping make (decisions)," says Fred Kittenger, chief of staff for Orlando Mayor Glenda Hood and a longtime friend of Perez's.

It's an insider's game. What's missing isn't geographic or ethnic diversity -- local nonprofits and the government both strive for that -- but diversity of opinions. The in-circle often codifies mainstream thought while marginalizing "fringe" elements.

"What is that doing?" asks Debra Booth, a local labor leader who serves on a United Way subcommittee on board appointments. UW and other nonprofits, she says, only want the participation of the influential. "I'm thinking, 'Why?' There are a lot of people who could do just as good, if not better."

UW and other nonprofits tend to prefer well-known names because of their ability to raise money. "The idea for anybody who wants to be active, they have to know the leadership," concedes Perez, whose family moved from Tallahassee to Sanford when he was a toddler. "I've been in town a long time."

"You want the life changing story?" Perez asks quietly. He's on his second cappuccino of the half-hour. Given his 78-hour work weeks, it's no surprise that he's a Starbucks regular and an admitted caffeine junkie.

While at UCF, Perez volunteered with the Oviedo Fire Department. Because he was bigger than everyone else, he usually operated the Jaws of Life, which tears off sections of mangled cars to give the paramedics ac-cess. One morning, Perez arrived at the station just after the truck left for an accident scene, so he and a buddy followed it at up to 80 mph on then-undeveloped dirt backroads.

The fire truck made a wrong move and turned around. Perez's companion followed, only to plow headlong into a coming Cadillac. Perez's leg was shattered, and he still bears a scar from where his nose nearly severed. But at that moment, he summoned enough strength to kick out the windshield and throw himself and his unconscious driver out of the car. Seconds later, it blew up.

As his doctors contemplated amputating his right leg after months of unsuccessful surgeries, a friend brought him a magazine article about restoring shattered bones with electric currents, now a common method. Perez's father, a cardiologist, got him into a test group, and his leg healed.

"Everybody can have a profound effect on your life," Perez says. "You can't not want to help."

Even before the accident, Perez was an active young man: He was an Eagle Scout who volunteered his summers helping the needy and his high-school afternoons wrestling. At UCF, he became student-body president his senior year. In that capacity, he sat on no fewer than 24 university-related committees -- a precursor of his life to come.

After graduation, Perez headed north to Georgetown Law School. Three years later, he returned home and began working at a small Orlando firm that forced its associates to sit on at least one community board. His boss headed the Boy Scout Council, so Perez chose that. He also joined UCF's alumni-association board of directors.

"Anytime you need to get a speaker or representative, he's there," says Tom Messina, chairman of the alumni association. "He's very approachable."

He must be. For the past 15 years, organizations routinely have approached Perez seeking help. And not only does he serve, but he often leads as well. It's his philosophy: "If you're not willing to be chairman, don't serve," he says.

Perez started at the Chamber of Commerce in 1987, and 11 years later became the first Hispanic to chair its board. In 1997 Mayor Hood appointed him to OUC's board -- he became chair when former county leader Mel Martinez left for Washington, D.C. -- which Perez then parlayed into a spot on the United Arts board. When the county appointed an arts council, Perez became a natural choice. The more his name became known, the more phone calls requesting his service he received. He now also sits on the boards of BETA, a nonprofit group that helps teen-age mothers, and the Community Foundation, which assists those wanting to leave endowments to the community.

"I turn down a lot more boards than I sit on," Perez insists. His passions -- inner-city youth, the arts and building future leaders -- take priority.

During his stint heading the Chamber, he was instrumental in encouraging Hispanics and women to take leadership roles, according to Ellen Titen, the Chamber's second female chairman.

At OUC, Perez pushed to funnel an additional $100,000 into Project Care -- a fund for those who can't afford their utilities bills. When the Boy Scouts squared off with United Way, council leader Wayne Brock says, the fact that Perez knew everyone on both sides facilitated the compromise, which allows United Way donors to earmark funds for the Scouts.

Perez first toyed with elected office in 1992, when he lost in a Republican primary for the legislature to the infamous Marvin Couch, a right-wing Christian crusader tainted when he was arrested for soliciting a prostitute. Couch had workers at the polls tell voters that Perez didn't speak English and was "Godless and Catholic," Perez says.

His next run came in 2000, when he briefly entered the fray seeking Bill McCollum's congressional seat. He pulled out, deciding he didn't want to move to Washington. Now, Perez hints that a run for City Hall or the county commission may be in his future.

The new arts council's membership features many of the usual suspects from the inner circle: Perez; Bud Brewer, vice-president of Massey Persons Brinati Communications (Harvey Massey once led United Way's board) and head of Civic Theatre during its collapse; Orange County commissioner and ardent arts supporter Homer Hartage; Garritt Toohey, who represents the tourism community; Ford Kiene, owner of Gallery at Avalon Island; and Pat Christianson, past president of Orlando Museum of Art, to name a few.

"Everybody's watching us," Hartage told the panel members at the first meeting in January. "We need to do this right the first time."

"The first misstep will be magnified," Brewer, selected as the panel's chair, admitted.

Indeed, much is at stake. The county's promised $3 million donation to the arts -- the board helps determine which groups get what -- has shrunk to $500,000. The tourism industry didn't let go of even that small amount of its bed taxes easily, and it's closely watching how the money's spent. The council will likely be results-oriented, meaning arts groups won't get money without demonstrating prior success.

But while large groups such as hoteliers and United Arts are well-represented, there's no proven advocate for smaller organizations. Kiene is closest, having worked closely with the city in its arts-district quest. Some members of the arts council have absolutely no relation to arts, and others cited such obtuse things as their mother's love of paintings as justification for their presence. Perez, in addition to his work with United Arts, mentioned that his brother was a ballet choreographer in New York.

"This is the only board I've seen," Hartage said, "where people are lobbying to get on the council." At least eight people who applied were turned down, county records show.

The board's members came straight from the top -- appointed directly by the county commission -- though most city and county selections are routed through nominating boards. Both the city and county say that they limit the number of boards one can serve on, and actively recruit new faces.

But even when it's not the same people on the boards, it's often the same type of people: bankers, attorneys, and representatives of Disney, Darden Restaurants, UCF and Lockheed Martin, as well as city and county officials.

"I think that's a pretty standard thing," says Heart of Florida United Way spokeswoman Michelle Herbold. "But please keep in mind, [at United Way] anyone can volunteer." Most people outside of that circle, she says, gravitate toward the fund-distribution panel or the board of volunteers. Most of the companies represented on the board of directors push their employees toward civic service.

Business leaders sometimes bring frugality and real-world economics to "low-paid, more liberal" nonprofit administrators, one frequent volunteer who asked not to be identified points out. Other times, however, "they don't do shit," the volunteer adds.

In part, labor activist Booth says, the boards are homogenous because outsiders don't care about them. They don't apply because they aren't plugged in.

"You know the old saying, 'If you want something done, ask a busy person,'" says former Chairman Linda Chapin, who appointed Perez to committees seeking the Olympics and pushing a sales-tax increase for schools. Chapin herself springboarded to the County Commission through her participation in the Cham-ber's Goals 2000 program in the 1980s and also through her work as a bank executive. Boards offer great opportunities for "exposure and contacts," she points out.

"Those who answer the call will get called again," says Mark Brewer of the Community Foundation of Central Florida.

Dissenters, however, can be shut out of the process. In the early '90s, ECO-Action leader Beth Hollenbeck protested OUC's plan to build new coal plants. She became such a thorn in its side, she says, that OUC created a "citizen's committee," then completely ignored that committee's advice. That's too common a situation, local Democratic leader Doug Head charges: "Until they get enough diversity, the boards will be hand-picked by management."

Boards tend to seek those who go along with the vision already in place, meaning that unless there's a change in leadership, no one challenges the status quo. The only real shake-ups, Head says, come when an executive director is replaced.

"On all the boards I've served on, I've seen a sort of gentlemen's agreement not to ask the [tough] questions," says former Orange Commissioner Fran Pignone. That happened in the early 1990s with the UCF Research Park board, she says. It did nothing while the park defaulted on loans -- at least until Pignone appointed some rabble-rousers.

"[Ignoring] those 'horribles,'" she says, referring to Orlando Sentinel columnist David Porter's recent criticism of City Hall gadflies, "we do that at our peril. If we can't answer [their] questions, we're really missing the boat."

There is a local watchdog group, CountyWatch, which strives to make organizations more inclusive of the citizenry on its boards but, as Pignone (who is an executive committee member) points out, "It doesn't seem to make much progress."

Even if more people did want to get involved, there's nothing to prevent nonprofit groups from sticking with their usual, high-profile volunteers. Time-share mogul David Siegel, who served on the United Way board until the Boy Scout debate, was able to bring in thousands of dollars. Similarly, United Arts relies on heavy hitters such as Rick Walsh of Darden Restaurants, John Hitt of UCF and Ashley Allen of the Sentinel to rally donations.

United Arts has an especially closed system. About half of its directors come from its board of trustees, which comprises representatives of governments and organizations that donated $100,000 or more. While UA goes outside that box for a few of its directors, it has a longstanding reputation for supporting big-ticket arts projects, such as the ballet or opera, at the expense of smaller, struggling theater companies.

"I would think that any city with major corporations [based in them] has them represented," says Joanie Schirm, who serves on the Economic Development Commission, the Chamber of Commerce and the Florida High-Tech Corridor Council. But Schirm, who is the owner of Geo-Technical and Environ-mental Consulting, says her personal history illustrates that anyone can get involved if they really want to.

Schirm started by volunteering in 1987 for a subcommittee to the Orange County Sports Executive Steering Committee, which she read about in the newspaper. A short while later, she joined the official committee, then was selected by Chapin to lead the effort to bring the World Cup to Orlando.

"I have never found this community not to open its arms to people who want to be involved," she says. "All they need to do is go and ask."

Not everyone believes that Perez is a Pollyanna. "He's a rainmaker for his law firm," Head says. "He raises the profile of Baker-Hostetler; they can [afford to] have him out there." And the contacts Perez makes may help his firm get a heads-up on potential business, Head says.

Perez's friends and associates don't see it that way. In fact, they say, he adds valuable insight to each of his organizations and brings viewpoints not otherwise represented by the corporate types at the table. Rather than cloaking his employer's ambitions in the guise of public service, they say, Perez is an open book.

"He's a guy who doesn't pull any punches," says Bud Brewer. And he certainly isn't coy about his political aspirations.

His first county-wide political battle came in 1997, when he led a campaign for a penny sales tax to aid school construction. Perez's proposal was unique -- the money wouldn't go to the school board, but to a specific list of projects that had to be completed during an established timeline. He thought that would assuage voters fear of overrun bureaucracy. He was wrong.

Perez got the county's 13 municipalities and the school board to agree -- not an easy feat, he adds -- but voters rejected the measure anyway. "It's a tax," Perez shrugs when asked why it, along with his hundreds of man hours, went down the tubes.

Still, the experience provided Perez with even more political allies. "I have never seen anyone who can get along with such a wide range of people as Tico can," the Boy Scouts' Brock says.

Tico's brother Louis Perez Jr. believes his sibling has a sense of destiny: "He realized that life is something you live and not something you let pass you by."

Amando Payas Jr., an Orlando lawyer who has known Perez since their days as fraternity brothers at UCF, has picked up on Tico's philosophy. With a little push from his old pal, Payas recently got appointed to the city's nominating committee.

"There are a handful of people who are very engaged" in their community, Payas says. "You want to get as inclusive as possible."

But, he adds, a major problem in getting wider participation is: "Are there that many people who want to?"

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