Some Deltona city commissioners expressed frustration at a recent meeting over being left in the dark regarding negotiations for Deltona’s currently-under-construction Amazon distribution center.
“I want some answers,” Commissioner Christ Nabicht demanded of Mayor Heidi Herzberg, as the commission entertained what were supposed to be closing comments. “Who authorized you to go in and talk to Amazon?”
The remarks came after more than four-and-a-half hours of dialogue and debate about a wide range of issues — from a hotly contested zoning case to a contract for the interim city manager.
Although civic and business leaders are still celebrating Amazon’s decision to build a huge distribution center in the northwest part of the city, there is jealousy over who knew what and when regarding the deal.
Herzberg remained calm, as the recent memories of the monthslong mystery and suspense surrounding the deal — which had been code-named Project Normandy — were revived.
“I’m on the board of Team Volusia,” she replied. “Representatives of the company asked me to come. … I was asked not only as a member of the board, but also as a mayor.”
Herzberg said former City Manager Jane Shang had known last year about the then-pending deal between Deltona and Amazon.
State law allows local officials to enter into and abide by confidentiality agreements with private businesses contemplating relocation or expansion, while sensitive or critical negotiations over such matters as site selection, real-estate contracts and financing are taking place.
When The Beacon asked Herzberg when she had first learned Amazon was the company being wooed to Deltona, she said “probably in September.” She also said she does not recall signing a nondisclosure agreement.
The players in the negotiation included city officials, notably Shang and Economic Development Coordinator Jerry Mayes; DOT Properties, the Australian owners of the land along North Normandy Boulevard; Seefried Industrial Properties Inc., of Atlanta, the site-selection firm; RMA, the real-estate consulting firm hired by Deltona to develop a strategic plan for recruiting new businesses; and Team Volusia, a corporation that works to raise the county’s profile as a business destination and attract new firms.
Herzberg said Shang had kept the identity of the incoming company secret, consistent with the client’s request for confidentiality. Shang knew the name of the company, but members of the commission said they did not know.
All they were told, they said, was that “something big” was happening.
“The negotiations were going downhill, and they were going downhill at high speed,” Herzberg said, in defense of her role in the Amazon deal.
Nabicht reacted sharply.
“You were not directed to negotiate,” he told Herzberg.
“You need to know your place as mayor. You’re a figurehead,” Nabicht added, noting the equality among all seven elected members of the City Commission and telling her she was not supposed to be “a strong mayor.”
Under the city-manager form of government, the elected commission is a legislative and policymaking body, whose individual members have no individual executive or administrative power.
The city manager, whom the commission hires or fires, heads the administrative branch of the municipal government. A strict separation of powers requires commissioners — including the mayor — to avoid taking part in the administrative affairs of the city government.
The near-breakdown in the talks to build the Amazon complex in Deltona happened around last September, Herzberg said.
September was also the time when Herzberg had previously said she had begun to lose confidence in Shang’s leadership.
Shang resigned as city manager Jan. 28, a week after the City Commission voted 4-3 in favor of a no-confidence motion in her leadership.
The commission likewise voted 4-3 on Herzberg’s motion to fire Shang, but because a supermajority vote — meaning at least five of the seven members of the elected body — is required to terminate a manager, Shang remained in place.
A few days later, Shang submitted her resignation.
Did the mayor lose confidence in Shang because of the negotiations to land Amazon in Deltona?
“No comment,” Herzberg told The Beacon, noting the behind-the-scenes details of the Amazon deal may “still be under the confidentiality agreement.”
Another high-echelon insider at City Hall also denied any advance knowledge of Amazon’s advent to Deltona.
Hired by Shang as assistant city manager of Deltona in 2018, Dr. Marc-Antonie Cooper said he was not told the name of the company coming in a big way to Deltona.
“Unfortunately, I was not part of it,” Cooper, now Deltona’s interim city manager, told The Beacon. “I knew we had a major project going on. I read the papers.”
Meanwhile, construction of Amazon’s 1.4 million-square-foot Amazon distribution center is well underway. The facility is supposed to be complete and ready to begin round-the-clock operations in or before December.