Ron DeSantis launches investigation into Disney
In the latest battle in the ongoing war between Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Walt Disney Co., the chief executive of the Sunshine State has ordered a “thorough review and investigation” into a move by the company's executives to get around legislation that ended its quasi-self-governing status in and around its theme park properties, as the New York Post reports.
The move comes amid news that Disney entered into an eleventh-hour deal with the board of the soon-to-be-defunct Reedy Creek District, imminently set to be replaced by the newly formed Central Florida Tourism Oversight District, to which DeSantis would appoint directors.
Battle over Reedy Creek
Tensions between DeSantis and Disney heated up last year when company executives attempted to wade into Florida politics by taking a stand against the Republican-backed Parental Rights in Education law that prohibits classroom instruction on gender identity and sexual orientation in K-3 classrooms.
In the wake of Florida's passage of that law, which left-wing activists inaccurately dubbed the “Don't Say Gay” bill, then-Disney CEO Bob Chapek acknowledged protests on the part of company employees by, among other things, vowing to halt further political donations within the state and pledging solidarity with outraged LGBTQ workers within the company.
Pledging to prevent a corporate entity like Disney to exert outsized influence over state law, DeSantis signed into law a measure that eliminated the quasi-autonomous governing status Disney enjoyed in and around its Orlando properties, a structure that was known as the Reedy Creek District, as NBC News noted at the time.
As a result, DeSantis secured the authority to appoint the new district's Board of Supervisors, a body of five members subject to confirmation by the state Senate.
Disney makes its move
However, as the Orlando Sentinel reports, prior to the transition required by the new law, Disney quietly pursued with the prior directors a 30-year development agreement and restrictive covenants that render future supervisors unable to exercise their supposed authority in regulating the company's growth and expansion.
Subsequently, the new Board of Supervisors responded by resolving to hire outside legal counsel to review Disney's agreement with the outgoing leadership and vowed to fight back against the maneuver.
“We're going to have to deal with it and correct it. It's a subversion of the will of the voters and the legislature and the governor. It completely circumvents the authority of this board to govern,” declared Brian Aungst, Jr., one of the new supervisors.
Disney, for its part, stood firm regarding its actions, saying in a statement, “All agreements signed between Disney and the district were appropriate and were discussed and approved in open, noticed public forums in compliance with Florida's Government in the sushine law.”
DeSantis fires back
As the Post explained, DeSantis sent a letter to Florida's chief inspector general, Melinda Miguel, calling for an investigation into what occurred.
The governor's letter said, “These collusive and self-dealing arrangements aim to nullify the recently passed legislation, undercut Florida's legislative process and defy the will of Floridians.”
DeSantis added that the development deal negotiated by Disney that includes continued control of zoning, air, and infrastructure rights for several decades “appear[s] to suffer from serious legal infirmities” and could therefore be unenforceable.
"Any legal or ethical violations should be referred to the proper authorities," the governor's letter asserted.
The agreement Disney reached with the prior district supervisors contained several elements that attracted attention due to their somewhat unconventional nature, as the Post noted.
According to the pact, the special district is now barred from using any images of Mickey Mouse or of any other of the company's “fanciful characters” in connection with its duties.
Furthermore, that prohibition will, based on the terms of the deal, remain effective “until 21 years after the death of the last survivor of the descendants of King Charles III, King of England,” pursuant to a technique historically used to avoid the legal principle that disfavors contractual perpetuities, but which is somewhat novel in its specific reference to the new British monarch.
Regardless of the intricacies of the agreement, now that DeSantis has issued his demand for a formal investigation and the newly appointed supervisors have retained legal counsel to counter Disney's actions, it appears that the governor was very serious when he recently said of the ongoing fight, “you ain't seen nothing yet.”