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Onyx Magazine - Article on Archon Byron Brooks

 | Published on 5/1/2013

By Desnee E. Young

Choosing the right Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) can be a tedious task.  Most cities will perform a state and sometimes a nationwide search for the right person.  The size of the city, the core values of those leading it and the constituents they serve make it all the more important that their ideals and those of the CAO  align with one another.  It is very rare when a candidate is found who not only has the expertise necessary for the job but who was also born and raised in the City and is well-known and respected by all.  The City of Orlando conducted a nationwide search but at the end of the day was fortunate enough to have such a candidate in their own house to fill the role of Chief Administrative Officer.   Its own Byron Brooks has a portfolio that many would envy and others would boast of.  However, not being one to boast, he lets his experience speak for him.

A native of Orlando, Byron attended Richmond Heights Elementary and Eccleston Elementary School.  It was during his elementary school years that the schools began the integration process.  His father was actively involved in the NAACP and was an integral part of that organization’s law suit which involved desegregation of the schools.  Therefore it was important that as a family they would show their commitment to this cause.  Both he and his sister attended Edgewater High School.

His parents were both educators, his mother a teacher at Richmond Heights Elementary School and his father, a principal at Eccleston Elementary School.  Byron began his college journey by attending Furman University in Greenville South Carolina.  During his studies, he explored the possibility of transferring to a university in Florida (he wanted to have a little more leisure time), but decided to stay on and complete his studies at Furman.   Bryon will tell you that Planning was not on his radar as a career choice, and it was not something that he had heard discussed among his peers, but after a conversation with one of his college professors and reading over the literature he had been given, he thought the program, being one of novice, would prove interesting.

Byron completed his graduate studies at Clemson University and was immediately faced with determining his professional direction.  Three opportunities required consideration; accepting a position in Orlando in the field of education, fulfilling an eight year commitment with the military or taking advantage of a Guard Reserve contract he had signed while in college.  He elected to attend Officer Basic School in Indianapolis, where he finished second in his class. What happens next led to a series of events that would land Byron permanently in his hometown of Orlando, Florida.

Byron humbly declined the offer made by the military to begin his career in South Korea and spent the next few months traveling and visiting family and friends before returning to a work in a position secured before he left South Carolina.  While visiting his family, a friend told him about a job that was opening in the Orange County Planning Department.  He applied, not thinking that he would get the position, and headed back to South Carolina.  Within one week, he was called for the interview and was on his way back to Florida.  An offer was made and accepted and Byron was now officially back home and working in County Government as a Senior Planner.

When Opportunity Knocks
While working on his graduate degree at Clemson, there had been many opportunities to work on special projects with some of the consulting firms in the state.  This experience along with his internship, gave Byron a wide range of expertise that would prove beneficial in his new position.  The 1985 Growth Management Act had been passed by the State of Florida and was being implemented which meant plenty of work for the county’s Planning Department.  Byron also worked on Capital Improvement Projects,  Transportation projects and consulted for other small cities that contracted with the County to assist them with special projects they were not staffed to handle.

Byron felt the need to expand his knowledge base and was ready  to change directions.  A position as Assistant to the County Administrator had opened and Byron applied and interviewed for the position.  He was hired based on his planning experience which was needed in a department where most of those employed had finance backgrounds.  After a number of  successful projects with the county, he was appointed as Acting Director of Planning and Zoning.  His experience with the county grew to include debt issues, union negotiations, and public finance.  At the age of 31 he became the Deputy County Administrator.  Byron worked for Orange County Government for almost 15 years, touching upon almost every aspect of County government.  Little did he know that this experience would serve as preparation for his future position as CAO for the City of Orlando.

The Wheels Keep Turning
The crash of the Light Rail Project, led to a request by former Mayor Glenda Hood and then Chairman Mel Martinez to assist in the transition that was taking place at the Central Florida Transportation Authority, better known as LYNX.  After careful consideration, he agreed and was glad that he did.  Wanting to do his best  he embraced the role and was convicted to find ways to improve services for the handicapped and others dependent upon LYNX for transportation.  He was then offered the permanent position of Executive Director, which he accepted.  Much was accomplished during his tenure , however,  2 ½ years later Byron would resign from LYNX due to circumstances beyond his control.  He describes the time spent there as some of the best and most rewarding in his career.

Change is Good
Having experienced the best and the worst of government, Byron decided to open his own consulting firm.  His phone began to ring after then Mayor Glenda Hood stepped down to accept an appointment with the Governor’s Office.  City government was calling. Byron was offered a position with the City of Orlando as Director of Families, Parks and Recreation by the newly elected Mayor, Buddy Dyer.  The new structure of government being implemented by Mayor Dyer was interesting to Byron and he soon found himself engrossed in the daily operations of the department and enjoying the challenges of the position.   Byron was appointed Chief Administrative Officer in 2005 by Mayor Buddy Dyer following the resignation of his predecessor.  As CAO, Byron is responsible for assisting the Mayor with the day-to-day operations and coordination of City departments and services, and oversight of implementation of policies adopted by the City Council. This involves administration of an organization with approximately 3,100 employees and an annual operating budget of over $953 million, serving a community of approximately 245,000 residents and thriving businesses. We could say that the rest is history, but the economy was  shifting at the time of his appointment and it was not for the better.  This administration would have to take immediate action if the City was to survive this downward shift.
Byron gives a  tremendous amount of credit to the spirit of the men and women that worked for the City of Orlando at that time.

“Most people where acutely aware of the economic reality.  Mayor Dyer made a brave, and correct, decision by tasking me and the CFO  with taking the message about our fiscal condition directly to the union leadership and City team members and being transparent about the decline in revenue due to the precipitous drop in the tax base (property values were especially hit hard).  Armed with information, reasonable people draw reasonable conclusions, and that was the case with the City workforce…all knew we had to dramatically reduce expenses, and that meant eliminate positions.  Also, City staff identified a number of changes in service delivery to reduce the associated cost, and we evaluated each of those ideas as well.  The Mayor and Commissioners wanted to be sure we treated City staff with respect and dignity, and they championed an early retirement plan we developed. The cumulative effect was a smaller workforce focused on core services and a much higher consciousness about cost to deliver those services. As a result of the changes made a few years ago, the City of Orlando now stands in the best financial position of any large city in Florida, and it was done without raising property taxes.”

Being the first African-American to hold the position of CAO in the City of Orlando is only one of many firsts for Byron.  He was also the first African-American to rise to the rank of Deputy County Administrator with Orange County Government, and the first to become the Chief Executive Officer/Executive Director of the Central Florida Regional Transportation Authority (dba LYNX).  Does the  African-American Community expect more from him? “When Mayor Dyer appointed me as Chief Administrative Officer in 2005, the community was already quite familiar seeing me in high profile positions and knew of my history and commitment to inclusiveness, fairness and opportunity. I firmly believe it has made a positive difference because folks know they have access, either during the workday at City Hall, or in many cases people just approach me at community and social events…they know me as a hometown kid and am very visible.  I make sure people in all communities get answers to their questions or the information they need, and I actively listen to the concerns residents and business owners express to me…and most important, I follow-up and folks have seen results.  While I cannot say whether “our” community expects more of an African-American person when they achieve such positions, I can say that I expect a lot of myself, especially as it relates to ensuring I represent people of color in a positive, confident manner, and I hope they are proud to say, “I know that brother that’s the Chief Administrative Officer for the City!”

Major Accomplishments
“Well, from a bricks and mortar perspective, I am especially moved when I drive through downtown Orlando and see several projects that I had direct involvement as I view the skyline: I worked on the Orange County Courthouse; I decided on the design of the Lynx Central Station; and, although not seen from afar, I am proud of my role with the renovation of the Orange County Regional History Center; and as I previously mentioned, I have been fortunate to be involved with the Amway Center and the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, as well as Fire Headquarters/Station #1. However, in truth, my career is best measured by the people with whom I’ve had the pleasure of working, and I am most pleased when I encounter former and current coworkers while I am with my children and they graciously tell my kids that their father is man of good character and integrity and they enjoyed/enjoy working for and with me because they felt I truly cared about them and about the community.”

Byron’s parents, Rufus and Edith Brooks have had the most influence on his life.

My parents raised me in a Christian household, in fact, our church family was very much like an extended family.  Most churches at that time were small and intimate; we had about 100 to 150 members, and that helped create a sense of God’s goodness and helped me develop a strong personal relationship with God. We were raised to see God’s presence everywhere, and believed we had a responsibility to help others. Thus, my faith is integral to who I am; it leads me, guides me, sustains me. Like many people, I have been in situations during my life that seemed hopeless; I can only attribute God for making a way or turning those experiences into opportunities beyond what I ever envisioned. I believe I have an obligation to be a blessing to others.

Interestingly, my story is somewhat of a reflection of “old Orlando” because my life has been touched from childhood by many of the legends and historical firsts of the African-American “heroes and sheroes” of Orlando, like Dr. Smith, Dr. Cox, Dr. Hunt, James “Chief” Wilson, Mrs. Eloise Reddick, Commissioner Mable Butler, Attorney Norris Woolfork, Father Pinder, and many many others. They gave me an early glimpse of what courage, achievement and dedication looked and felt like, and equally important what was required to succeed.  There has only been one rule that has held true and constant for me: the golden rule.”

It was a pleasure sitting down with Byron and learning more about the man behind the City.