It’s time once again to turn a jaundiced eye toward the newsmakers of the day – the winners and losers – who, in my cynical opinion, either contributed to our quality of life, or detracted from it, in some significant way.
Let’s look at who tried to screw us – and who tried to save us – during the week that was:
Asshole City of New Smyrna Beach
As someone who spent a lifetime serving in a municipal government – and an ardent watcher of the fascinating intrigues of local politics – I often hold out the quaint seaside community of New Smyrna Beach as the one city on the Fun Coast that “got it right.”
Unfortunately, last week many observers were disappointed when the City Commission gifted a hefty pay increase of up to 27% for the top three municipal employees – in an era where it is increasingly difficult to find entry level personnel willing to provide critical public services – to include law enforcement, fire, and emergency medical professionals.
In an informative article by reporter Brenno Carillo writing in The Daytona Beach News-Journal, we learned that New Smyrna Beach is lavishing cash on its already comfortably compensated administrators simply to keep up with the Joneses:
“City Manager Khalid Resheidat’s salary increased by 16%, from $158,908 to $185,676; City Attorney Carrie Avallone’s salary increased by 18%, from $151,410 to $179,000; and City Clerk Kelly McQuillen’s salary increased by 27.8%, from $76,693 to $97,988.
Heather Kidd, the city’s human resources director, conducted a survey on the current salaries for the same positions in other Volusia County cities. She presented her findings before the City Commission on Tuesday.
Kidd explained that the proposed compression adjustments for the fiscal year 2022-23 budget for the city manager and city attorney salaries (an increase of 3%) would not be sufficient to put the city among the top-paying cities in the county.
With the 3% increase, the $163,676 city manager salary would rank 11th out of 14, behind Holly Hill’s $163,738. The city attorney’s $155,952 would be fourth behind Ormond Beach’s $182,686.”
In a 2021 comparative analysis of area salaries and benefit packages by the City of Deltona, the News-Journal reported that Mr. Resheidat’s annual salary was $165,280 (that’s $6,372 more than reported by the city’s HR Director this week) with a total compensation package of $190,347.
Look, as an uneducated thirty-year bureaucrat who clawed my way to middle-management and hung on by my fingernails, I don’t begrudge any of my former ilk who take every nickel they can off the table, but I happen to know the magicians’ tricks – and which senior positions should be considered “essential,” and which are more fluff and puff than substance. . .
As I see it, the problem for New Smyrna Beach taxpayers comes when one looks at the salary range for the city’s other 340 employees – a place where the top nine department heads and senior appointed officials each make over $100,000 annually – while the median salary for those who perform essential services is just $41,662 (according to 2021 GovSalaries.com) – some 4% lower than the national average for public employees.
Now, Mr. Resheidat will command over four-times the average salary of his employees.
Much to my wife’s consternation – and because I rank just below “imbecile” on the Goddard Intelligence Scale – during my senior public service I never accepted a pay increase unless my subordinates were granted an equal raise.
It was the right thing to do.
Although I never commanded a six-figure salary, and my wife and I couldn’t afford an ostentatious house, or the trappings and toys of success, we adopted a comfortable lifestyle in keeping with a police officer’s salary.
I knew when I entered the civil service I was never going to get “rich.”
In my view, public service is an honor and a sacred privilege – one with benefits that pay incredible dividends many in the private sector will never know – such as defined benefit pensions, premium health insurance, job protections, and a sense of serving something greater than one’s own self-interests.
In my view, those perquisites more than compensate for the traditionally low wages of the civil service.
Unfortunately, that customary tradeoff is quickly evolving for some at the top of the public pyramid.
Now, senior administrators command all these privileges – as well as astronomical salary packages that rival anything in local business and industry – often with extras that include car allowances, cellular phone stipends, supplemental insurance, and additional private pension contributions.
Where does it end?
Just because city and county managers now command exorbitant salaries, benefits, and lucrative “golden parachutes” (always citing the volatility inherent to the job while ignoring their own political meddling) does not mean elected officials are dutybound to meet these extortionate demands simply to keep up with a regional ranking.
Especially in a beautiful beachfront destination.
In my view, if the job pays $190,347 with bennies in New Smyrna, then that is what it pays (which is three times the $61,885 median household income of this upscale community) – and there are plenty of professional managers out there willing to accept this lucrative package to live in the relative paradise of what remains of this quaint slice of Old Florida.
Perhaps it is time for that political insulation consortium comprised of our “best and brightest” – known as the exalted Volusia Round Table of Elected Officials, who periodically assemble in effective darkness to work the Ouija board and solve the most pressing issues of our time – to set reasonable limits on these extravagant executive salaries until some of the quality-of-life issues you and I deal with daily are resolved.
In my view, this game of setting unreasonably high pay and benefits packages to attract potential suitors to the executive suite is unsustainable, and it is high time our elected officials stop allowing the tail to wag the dog.
Asshole Deltona City Commission
Let’s face facts.
After twenty-seven controversial years, it is now safe to say – based on the empirical evidence – that the City of Deltona has been a failed experiment, a cartoonish sideshow that has destroyed the public trust and organizational effectiveness of the local government.
Prove me wrong?
Deltona did not spring organically from an old-timey railroad stop or ferry crossing – the sprawling city began as a modern “planned” community – the brainchild of the Mackle brothers, one of the most prolific real estate development corporations in the state’s sleazy history.
According to a 2017 article in The Daytona Beach News-Journal:
“The Mackle family, consisting of brothers Frank Jr., Robert and Elliott, forever altered the landscape and demographics of Florida.
Their General Development Corp. was the largest land development company in Florida for a time, and they turned thousands of square miles of swampland and thick woodland into sprawling residential communities for the middle class. One of the Mackle brothers’ biggest achievements was Deltona, the community they created in 1962. They also developed Marco Island and Port St. Lucie, among others.
They had high hopes for Deltona from the outset, said author-historian Jason Vuic, a Florida native who is writing a book about Florida’s land development giants from the early second half of the 20th century.
“They had this wonderful stretch of beautiful oak land … with lakes,” Vuic said. “It was completely virgin land, and they built this entire community known as Deltona.”
Originally known as Deltona Lakes, some well-meaning residents attempted to incorporate as a city in 1987, and again in 1990, but were unsuccessful until 1995. The city’s charter was adopted on September 9, 1995, and a seven-member city commission was elected, operating under a commission-manager form of government.
According to reports, Deltona Lakes was incorporated on New Year’s Eve 1995, with its name shortened to Deltona – a contraction of DeLand and Daytona – or, as some suspect, an ancient Timucua word meaning “accursed shit show.”
For instance, the municipality has had at least a dozen city managers or acting city managers since its incorporation just 27-years ago. The longest serving manager was Fritz Behring who held the volatile post from 1999 to 2005.
Smarter people than me have tried to figure out why Deltona is so hard on chief executives – but no one in their right mind would willingly enter a political meatgrinder – which is why they have such poor luck finding quality talent from outside the organization.
Or inside, for that matter. . .
For instance, anyone remember the horrific five-year régime of Jane Shang, who damn near destroyed the municipality from the inside out?
I won’t rehash all the injuries and absurdities that Ms. Shang inflicted on the good citizens of Deltona – there is nothing to be gained from that. Besides, anyone who witnessed Shang’s abusive and vindictive reign of terror, even from a distance, will never forget what they saw.
In Shang’s tumultuous wake, Deputy City Manager Marc-Antonie Cooper was tapped in January 2020 by unanimous vote of the City Commission to serve in the acting role – then, just ten-months later, he was unceremoniously sent back to his former position on a 4-3 vote.
Cooper subsequently left for the top job in Forest Park, Georgia – and recently settled a discrimination suit he filed against Deltona for a reported $45,000. . .
In turn, the city’s Public Works Director, John Peters III, was elevated to Acting City Manager.
Although Peters received high marks from the elected officials and enjoyed the support of many residents, in June 2021, things hit the skids when he publicly threatened (in the media) to take his football and go home, citing allegations that two commissioners were treading into day-to-day operations in contravention of Deltona’s charter.
Like much of the city’s political history – the episode was ugly and shambolic – adding to the sense of dysfunction and instability that has shrouded Deltona City Hall for years.
The melodrama ended in an emotional meeting, with Peters breaking down on the dais, wailing “I am damned principled!” before putting his threat on hold when everyone agreed to play nice going forward.
That ploy only works once. . .
Just one-month later, Peters received his second $2,500 bump following a satisfactory performance review – and in November 2021, he asked for a 2.8% pay raise, a phone allowance, and an increase to the car allowance.
Then, during a May meeting, Peters requested a severance package be added to his employment agreement after he hired a full-time public works director – essentially eliminating his lifeboat should he decide to return to that position.
Interestingly, the current public works director has submitted his resignation effective October 6 – which Commissioner Anita Bradford accusatorially found “convenient.”
Equally interesting was the fact Peters amended contract had not been signed – which prompted the city attorney to spit-and-sputter about reviewing the meeting audio to deduce the commission’s intent at the time.
I mean, what city attorney worth their exorbitant salary cannot pull up the municipality’s formally executed or amended contractual obligations at the push of a button?
In my view, the unaddressed issue that has tainted Mr. Peters tenure is that, from the outset, his appointment was based on an unspoken workaround. A convenient means of circumventing the City’s charter, which requires the manager live within the city limits of Deltona.
For the uninitiated, Mr. Peters’ resides in neighboring DeBary and had no known plans to uproot and move to the community he manages – thus, the perennial “acting” status.
In my view, that arrangement is disingenuous and does nothing to promote stability in a place that desperately needs it.
In recent weeks, residents of Deltona were rightly taken aback when a commission agenda item announced:
“Please accept this Agenda Item as my Notice of Resignation as Acting City Manager for the City of Deltona effective November 17, 2022, in accordance with my Employment Contract. I have met with each Commissioner over the last week and a half to discuss the reasons for my resignation. In closing, I want to thank you for the opportunity to lead the incredible team of Deltona employees in a positive direction through all aspects of City governance for the citizens of Deltona.”
On Monday evening, as per usual, the Deltona City Commission meeting fell into confusing disarray – stretching into the early hours of the morning – ultimately concluding with the elected official’s voting 4-3 to accept Peters’ resignation “effective immediately” – with the majority rejecting his request to return as Director of Public Works.
During the often-rambling debate, a Pandora’s Box of issues eerily emerged – to include raw political friction, the power and influence of Deltona’s fire union (especially during an election year/contract negotiation), staff morale, a job search, tales of private conversations being intercepted from outside the City Manager’s office, and a veiled reference to sealed ‘secret files’ held on a city hard drive apparently related to former Human Resources Director Richard Adams and his recently settled lawsuit alleging retaliation and discrimination by John Peters.
Ultimately, Commissioner Bradford made it clear that she did not want Peters back in City Hall – period – and fanatically hammered away at both Peters and those colleagues pushing for a more measured resolution to avoid payment of another enormous severance package.
Essentially, the final vote put Peters out on his ass with full pay and benefits until November 17 – jumped the Deputy City Manager – and shoved the city’s contracted attorney, Marsha Segal-George, into the wheelhouse for at least the next two-weeks.
I don’t understand it either.
A special meeting to seek a way forward has been scheduled for Monday, September 26 – and the rumor mill is swirling. I’ve even heard wild speculation that Jim Chisholm, the controversial former Daytona Beach city manager – now very comfortably retired – is being considered by Deltona’s ruling junta. . .
Look, a city manager’s job of juggling the wants and whims of the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker who were each elected to make difficult decisions for their neighbors – while keeping the pitchfork wielding villagers marginally content – is a damn hard dollar.
Not for the faint of heart.
In my experience, Mr. Peters should have known the pitfalls going in – and realized that after 20-months at the helm – you cannot go home again. . .
The frenzy on the dais resulted in one citizen suggesting that the commission-manager form of government be abolished, and the Fire Department given to Volusia County, in favor of hiring a contract manager to juggle consultant fees and service agreements.
Something to consider. . .
If the City of Deltona is to remain a legitimate entity – then the elected officials must begin the painful process of sorting through the divisive baggage and set a collective vision, putting aside the meanspirited “gotcha” politics, collusions, and accusatory maneuvers – to find a means of working cooperatively with community stakeholders to achieve civic equilibrium.
That doesn’t come from a consultant’s expensive attaché case – it is crafted by people who care – and begins with listening to constituents and learning what is important to them.
The good citizens of Deltona deserve better.
Stay tuned, this is about to get interesting. . .
Quote of the Week
“A state audit report has identified a series of blunders at Volusia County Schools, including flawed implementation of a multimillion-dollar software program, insufficient accounting of district resources, and a security breach that sent hundreds of thousands of district dollars to a bank account that appears to be linked to an overseas fraud scheme. “District security management needs improvement,” the report states.
The district told the Observer that it has learned from the errors and has made changes to prevent similar problems in the future.”
–Senior Editor Jarleene Almenas writing in the Ormond Beach Observer, “State audit details financial, IT missteps at Volusia County Schools,” Wednesday, September 21, 2022
I published my thoughts on this scandalous situation at Volusia County Schools last month.
It bears repeating.
In July 2022, the Volusia County School Board took delivery of a shocking report detailing the results of an operational audit of district processes and administrative activities conducted by Florida’s Auditor General during fiscal year 2019-20.
The summary findings were a guided tour through a disturbingly dysfunctional organization where the concept of accountability commensurate with responsibility is a cudgel reserved for silencing whistleblowers who point out the flagrant waste and incompetence all around them.
For instance, the audit’s first significant finding explained:
“District personnel did not always verify vendor bank accounts before electronic payments were made to those accounts and, as a result, electronic payments totaling $359,566 for vendor services were made to a wrong bank account.”
According to the report, due in part to lackadaisical security and independent vendor verification procedures, the district fell victim to what the DeLand Police Department later described as an “overseas fraud scheme,” which resulted in some vendor service payments being routed to an unverified account.
Fortunately, $193,869 of the theft was recovered from the “District’s bank” and the remainder – $140,697 – was paid by the district’s cyber insurance company.
Volusia County taxpayers were on the hook for the $25,000 deductible. . .
Most telling, the report detailed the massive waste of time, money, and resources related to the district’s horribly compromised software program – something former Assistant Director of Applications and Infrastructure Alex Kennedy tried multiple times to warn key decisionmakers about until he was suddenly fired in 2020. . .
Auditors determined that the installation and implementation of the Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system was beset with issues from the beginning – complicated by the district’s failure to keep minutes of “steering committee” meetings when the software was selected – with little effort to ensure that the project progressed through implementation according to the terms of the contract.
Then the committee was disbanded without explanation – which destroyed any institutional knowledge or project continuity – leading to even more expensive delays due to personnel changes.
Ultimately, the program cost Volusia County taxpayers millions of dollars in cost overruns and functionality issues.
It also cost the only person in the district who gave a damn his livelihood. . .
From the outset, Mr. Kennedy raised concerns about the School Board’s adoption of the financial software because it was not designed for use in a K-12 setting, which required that the district spend millions re-engineering the program – explaining that no other K-12 school system had successfully adopted the program and there were other software options that cost less.
In August 2018, Mr. Kennedy authored an email to the highest echelon of district leadership, which ended with the dire warning:
“More importantly, if we are ever lucky enough to “make” this software work it will most likely be the most expensive ERP solution ever brought forward to a K12 institution with both the minimal and most complicated functionality. As an employee and tax paying citizen I strongly recommend putting this project on hold and having it reassessed by a third party state agency such as DMS (Department of Management Services).”
Unfortunately, his expert opinion was ignored.
Had district leadership listened to Mr. Kennedy instead of acquiescing to those who told them what they wanted to hear; it is estimated taxpayers could have saved over $4 million on the project.
On May 14, 2020, without warning that his employment was in jeopardy, Mr. Kennedy was abruptly terminated – because that is the fate that befalls anyone who breaks the sacred Code of Omerta in the Ivory Tower of Power in DeLand and sounds the klaxon on misfeasance, the gross waste of funds, or the organizational incompetence that permits it.
In a recent appeal of his previously dismissed whistleblower lawsuit, Mr. Kennedy’s attorney wrote:
“His repeated complaints resulted in his termination, so Mr. Kennedy brought a claim under the FWA (Federal Whistleblower Act). The FWA protects public employees from retaliation when they raise allegations of government negligence and waste.”
Considering the findings of state auditors – I wish Mr. Kennedy the best of luck.
In my view, the audit was a scathing indictment of a cloistered system that now commands an annual budget in excess of $1 Billion – now the largest public budget in Volusia County – with little oversight or answerability.
In addition to these serious issues, the audit also uncovered a lack of accountability in the disposal of tangible personal property (fixtures, furniture, equipment, and motor vehicles), lax access privileges to sensitive student data that could result in fraud and other financial crimes against individuals, the fact 5% of employees with direct contact with children had not received a required five-year background check, and a history of weak information technology security training, authentication procedures, and written guidelines which could further compromise sensitive data.
In this week’s exposé in the Ormond Beach Observer, School Board member “Clueless Carl” Persis overlooked the fact that Mr. Kennedy tried valiantly to warn anyone and everyone at Volusia County Schools of the extraordinarily expensive ERP implementation:
“These issues show why it’s important to have audits, Persis said: Now the board knows about the errors and what must be done to ensure that they are not repeated.
“We can’t change what has occurred, and the people who were in charge of it at that time are no longer here,” Persis said. “… Everyone who is in charge now will nod their head and say, ‘Yeah, we agree. Mistakes were made, but this is what we’re doing now and this is how we can assure you we’re on the right track.’”
Mistakes? My ass.
In my view, a courageous whistleblower’s livelihood and reputation have been maliciously destroyed – a chilling warning to anyone in the organization who would dare expose waste and wrongdoing – and that fact should not be flippantly dismissed as a mere slip-up.
As I have said before, these appalling revelations should send a shudder through parents, teachers, students, and staff – and enrage Volusia County taxpayers who are forced to pay for this continuing institutional incompetence.
And Another Thing!
Something remarkable happened at the Volusia County Council meeting this week.
Or so our elected dullards would have us believe. . .
After years of kicking the can down the dusty political trail on the pressing issue of increasing impact fees on new development to mitigate the corrosive effect of massive sprawl on our inadequate infrastructure and understaffed essential services across Volusia County – on Tuesday, the County Council voted unanimously to update formulas and fees for fire, parks & recreation, thoroughfare roads, and a new fee for Emergency Medical Services effective immediately.
Yep. Heroes all.
Just ask them.
What a crock o’ shit.
Now that many population centers in Volusia County are reaching build-out – with our natural places and aquifer recharge areas blanketed by ugly zero-lot-line cracker box “theme” communities and sticks-and-glue apartment complexes – our courageous caped crusaders on the dais of power now turn from years of strategic procrastination to emerge as Champions of the People!
All while those fat cats in the real estate development community – uber-wealthy insiders who bankroll the political campaigns of those malleable sock puppets who have done everything in their power to drag their leaden feet on impact fees while their benefactors slashed, burned, clear-cut, and hauled untold millions out of the pine scrub – then left current residents to deal with the gridlock and fallout.
Look around, that’s a pretty good return on investment, wouldn’t you say?
On Tuesday, District 5 Councilman The Right Reverend “Dr.” Fred Lowry moved to accept increases proposed in a consultant’s study effective immediately – which means Director of Growth and Resource Management Clay Ervin can now take his sweet time preparing ordinance amendments for a future vote by the council.
Anyone remember way back in June 2018 when we awoke to the revelation of a mysterious “Secret Study” exposed by The Daytona Beach News-Journal?
After 15-years of suppressing impact fees, we learned the results of a $50,000 publicly funded study conducted in 2016 – “…that recommended fees almost three times higher in some categories and a change to a county ordinance the consultants deemed overly generous to developers…”
The report had been intentionally hidden from council members and the public during impact fee discussions.
You read that right.
At the time, Mr. Ervin mewled to his shocked constituents:
“It was not final; it was still a draft … and we felt it was incorrect,” said Clay Ervin, the county’s director of growth and resource management, adding that traffic analyses like these are always done in phases and are never aired until they’re complete. “Whenever you go out for public review, you want to make sure the documentation is accurate and reflects the intent and purpose.”
That final deception cost former County Manager Jim Dinneen his job – and it should have been Clay Ervin’s last bite at that rotten apple – but as an entrenched member of Volusia County’s “Good ol’ Boys Network,” I’m sure he was ‘just following orders.’
Then, in October 2021 – after months of timewasting twaddle – the current iteration of the Volusia County Council agreed to pay $134,360 to a Tampa-based consultant, now known as Benesch, to review impact fees.
Although growth will never pay for itself – and government refuses to use the increase in tax revenues to pay for the infrastructure necessary to accommodate it – had Volusia County accepted the results of the “secret” 2016 impact fee study and captured revenue during the ensuing boom cycle we may have been able to salve some of the growing pains that are quickly destroying our quality of life.
Now, that’s water (and millions of dollars) under the bridge. . .
Four years ago, in a prescient statement to former reporter Dustin Wyatt writing in The Daytona Beach News-Journal, “Proposal to double Volusia County’s impact fees stirs support, concern,” the late great political watchdog Big John opined:
“They’ve lost millions of dollars in impact fees that should have been earned in the past five years and that’s a gigantic number that we gave away to the development community,” he said, adding that the full recommendation by the consultant represents the only way to gain some ground.
“Better late than never,” Big added.
Better late than never. . .
I hope you will remember this long and sordid travesty at the ballot box in November.
That’s all for me. Have a great weekend, y’all!