Ask an Alumn: Orange County Commissioner Betsy VanderLey

Last December, Orange County swore in two newly-elected commissioners to its governing board, and as it turns out, they are both Valencia alumnae. We can’t say we’re surprised given the decades of exemplary work by Valencians, who’ve helped make and enforce laws, both for Central Florida and the entire state.

We sat down to speak with Betsy VanderLey (District 1) and Emily Bonilla (District 5), and each described unique journeys that brought them to public office. Both commissioners, however, stressed the importance of compromise, especially when encountering people of differing backgrounds and opinions. Over the next two weeks we’re posting our Q&As with the commissioners. First up: District 1 Commissioner Betsy VanderLey…

Valencia College: You began studying at Valencia Community College in 1978. What brought you to Valencia?

Betsy VanderLey: I was a Boone [High School] graduate just trying to figure out what I was going to do next. At the time, there was no Bright Futures, no Prepaid College Plan, no money for college. There were some grants available but the landscape for financing an education was vastly different than it is today, so the cost was on me. The reasons I chose Valencia were two-fold: I didn’t want to take out any loans for school. That meant that I needed to work full-time, which precluded going to Florida State University or University of Florida. I needed a middle ground to continue my education and Valencia was perfect…

I worked full-time at Disney, went to school part-time. And I wasn’t entirely sure in which direction I wanted to take my education and I felt that Valencia was a good vehicle for me to discover that.

What did you study at Valencia?

I started with general studies, but as I progressed I took on a serious interest in earth sciences, thinking seriously about going into geology. I’ve always liked the natural world. It tells you the history of who we are, and I thought I could really be happy in a career outside, discovering what the world is all about. That was what I was thinking about towards the end of my time at Valencia. That year, I ended up getting married and having my first child. I’d always intended to circle back and finish, but life just kept happening.

I used to joke with my grandson, who is now in college, that when he went to college, I would just go with him. It was always my intent. Maybe when I finally retire, I will just go ahead and [return to college].

I’ve been a life-long learner, so even though I didn’t finish my formal education, I’ve always looked for things to read and ways to get educated. And I think Valencia had a lot to do with that. One of the things that Valencia did for me, that high school did not, was to challenge me to think of the world in a broader sense.

In order to take care of your newborn, you had to leave Valencia College a couple credit hours short of graduating in 1981. Walk us through your career arc after that. Did you envision a life of public service?

First, I was at home for a while raising children, I went through a divorce when my kids were 3,5 and 7. I found myself as a stay-at-home mom with three kids in tow, and I needed to put dinner on the table. I looked in the want ads, looked at jobs that paid about what I figured I needed to bring in to keep body and soul together.

I became a project manager in a construction company. My dad was a contractor, so I figured I could bluff my way through the interview and, if I got stuck, I could always call dad for advice. I got hired, and the man who would become my husband today happened to work for me there. It was a contracting company that built stores in malls across the country, as far away as Washington state, as close as in Orlando. I would coordinate all of the efforts and permitting and subcontractors around the U.S. – it was a big job.

In the early 1990’s, my mother and I launched our own contracting business doing pollution storage clean-up at underground storage tank sites under Florida’s Dept. of Environmental Protection

Then the state changed the regulations under which that program was operated, and that business went under pretty quickly. I learned a valuable lesson about diversifying your client base. I then went back to work for some of the engineering companies I encountered along the way. They needed business developers to help them grow their client base. I did that for a number of years. When my daughter was in college, we flipped houses to help pay for her college, so she could graduate debt-free. My career just evolved over time.

I still have my own company providing business development and strategic planning for engineers, architects and land planners.

Along the way, my dad ran for mayor of the little town of Oakland [in west Orange County]. I saw him, in a town of 2,500, start a charter school and transform the town from one that hadn’t had a satisfactory audit for many years and was on the verge of being taken over by the state, to a really viable town with good infrastructure and the West Orange Trail running through it.

I grew up in the Nixon era and had a very cynical idea of what politics was. Then, as I watched my dad do that and I started to think, ‘Huh, that’s a different look at politics than what I originally thought.’…

When the [District 1 Commission Seat] came up, I had a lot of really good people twisting my arm and asking me to run. My kids were out of the house and we were financially able to manage the commitment. I understood what needed to happen and felt I had a very strong voice in what I think should happen so, after much thought and prayer my husband and I decided I should run.

Typical day as commissioner?

There is no typical day. On any given day, I could have a conversation with somebody about a boat dock, another person about land development, and another regarding garbage pick-up. Yesterday, I had a bunch of high schoolers in here through the West Orange leadership program, wanting to know what it’s like being a commissioner.  What I told them was this;

I have the fastest growing district the county. Last year, about 55% of all residential building permits in Orange County were pulled in my district. Every day I talk about road infrastructure, where you could put a school – how we manage and improve parks, wetlands, bike trails and all the infrastructure that happens as a result of growth. My daughter used to play a game called Sim City. In many ways, I feel like I’m playing Sim City for real.

Tell us about District 1.

In much of my district, for instance in Horizon West, there are very strong guidelines as to how a building can look, where schools and parks should be and how we should develop. Winter Garden is also in my district. How they are developing is very unique to them,  there are a lot of really cool architectural pieces coming out of the ground there, and they will continue to enhance that downtown corridor of Winter Garden. The district itself is enormous: It includes Oakland, Winter Garden, part of Ocoee, and all of Windermere,  it also includes Dr. Phillips, Disney, Universal, Sea World and reaches all the way down to Hunter’s Creek and Williamsburg to the Osceola County line and then over to the Lake County line. It takes 90 minutes to get from one corner to the other.

The voter base in that area is bigger than that of some states, in terms of people that show up to vote.

There are roughly 1.3 million people in Orange County, and in West Orange County there are about 250,000 people. This district is bigger than some cities. The Horizon West area has been intended as an area of growth. It used to be full of orange groves, but the back-to-back freezes of the ‘80s pretty much decimated that; at the same time, property values were rising because of the influx of people. So District 1 can boast of the very first sector plan in Florida.  It was a very forward thinking planning document and it informs how we grow in that area to this date.

Just to give you some perspective, my family moved to Orange County in 1970 when I was in 7th grade. From that time to 2015 (when I decided to run for commissioner) there was an average net growth of about 25,000 residents per year. By contrast, last year, [the county grew by] 66,000 and next year seems to be tracking for somewhere in that same range.

It’s Valencia’s 50th Anniversary. What would you like to see from Valencia in the 50 years going forward?

I think Valencia is very innovative in how they approach education. I think they are very responsive as to how they respond to the population as it exists, not as they wish it to be. Case in point: I think Sandy Shugart has been really bright in making sure the college looks at [Central Florida’s] shortfalls in the job market.

Take for example, the inmate construction training program over at the Orange County Jail.

Everyone who is moving to the area wants housing. When the recession came, all of the people who were working in construction needed work and since there wasn’t any in construction they moved to other states or other fields of employment, so when the construction boom started again, we had an incredible shortage of qualified personnel – we had an enormous demand and no way to fill it.  President Shugart saw that shortfall and matched it with a population which needed viable employment.

What I would like to see Valencia continue to do is to look at what the world as it is, not as you wish it to be, and figure out how the college can respond to make a positive impact on people going forward as they have in the past

I love Sandy’s anecdote: If you’re making $10 an hour at a fast-food restaurant and you get a construction certification that will get you $15 an hour, that’s an enormous impact, a 50% increase, and then suddenly you can start to see your way forward to a much better future for your family.

What would you want for Orange County over the next 50 years?

Orange County has a lot of incredible opportunities in that we have the tourism mecca of the world in our backyard. That’s fantastic! But we can’t just depend on that. We have to diversify our economy so that when the next downturn comes – and it will, because it always does – the low we hit is not as low as this last time. So we have to look toward making sure that we’re bringing other high-paying jobs, allowing for people to get educated here and stay here to build their lives and our community

Right now, we have a very immediate problem with affordable housing, because we have a booming economy and so many people moving here that the price point for a house is pretty steep. There is not a lot of room to negotiate and that drives people out of housing affordability. We’ve got to find creative ways to attack affordable housing.

When I was a kid, on one street you’d see a house that was clearly a mansion and right next to it, was a regular 3/2 and next to that was a little shotgun shack. That diversity was all on one street. The way we build now is in this homogenous way that everyone on the street makes roughly the same amount of money. What that does is: 1) move housing prices out of range, and 2) When you grow up in an environment like that, you think that’s the world. There is no, ‘How do you get along with people of different socio-economic backgrounds?’ There is nothing that drives us to learn how to compromise with people.

We’ve customized our experience of living to the degree that we’ve forgotten how to work with people who don’t have that same experiences. Then we wonder why we get into conflict with people with other views.

What can be done in West Orange to ensure you will find that diversity?

Part of it is continuing to build parks and public spaces that draw people into them, without an economic strata, so that everyone can participate in that and you have more chance of interacting with people of different incomes, ethnicities, races. I think that’s a piece of it. Another is to talk to as many people as you can. Don’t put yourself in this little bubble. I’m not a huge fan of gated communities, because it implies that you have to reach a certain threshold in order to live back there, and the rest of the world is specifically uninvited…Why not instead, interact with the world and change what the future looks like based on your involvement?

That’s part and parcel of why I ran for office: To make sure those conversations are being had, and people are thinking of our community in a much more multi-dimensional way than they have in the past.

Valencia opened up my eyes to a new way of thinking. I was raised in a family where you came to the table prepared to talk about books, family, religion. There was going to be an intellectual conversation at that table. But I hadn’t found that experience any place outside of my family. And all of the suddenat Valencia, talking humanities, literature, art, and competing ideas. It was wonderful, I found myself  with a whole group of people having these conversations that help me look at the world in different ways than I’d seen before. I always like when differing opinions are respectfully offered, because it forces me to examine my held belief. Is my held belief defensible, or is it just a prejudice?

That was one of the things I learned at Valencia, too. Other people made me vet my own beliefs.

You go from graduating high school where it’s your parents’ idea to be in school, when I got to Valencia and suddenly I had to fill out the paperwork, I had to put the money down, I owned it.

It’s funny how much my grades went up at that point. It’s not that you don’t have the smarts, it’s that you don’t have the personal investment. I think that’s what Valencia offers: the opportunity to see a bigger world, and to personally invest, to own your ideas, your thoughts, your future.