It’s been an interesting week-that-was here in Volusia County.
The “Debacle in DeBary” boiled over this week with what local media outlets are calling the “Raid on City Hall.”
Search warrant in hand, investigators from the Office of the State Attorney and agents of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement collected some 37,000 emails between besieged City Manager Dan Parrott and all members of the city council – except Mayor Clint Johnson.
Apparently, these emails and other documents represent physical evidence in an on-going criminal investigation into a complaint filed by DeBary resident Mary Sue Scott, an ardent supporter of both Gemini Springs and open government.
Ms. Scott’s complaint alleges that Parrott may have violated the Sunshine Law when he selectively polled elected officials via email messages. These communications were in furtherance of the patently corrupt land scheme designed to transfer some 102-acres of sensitive conservation land to the City of DeBary for a sprawling “Transit Oriented Development.”
During my service in municipal government I learned first-hand the lengths to which most elected and appointed officials will go to obey both the spirit and intent of Florida’s Open Records law. The law is important, and it affects virtually everything Florida governments do, including email exchanges, text messages, public meetings, social functions, internal communications, records retention and more.
Are mistakes made? Certainly. That’s inevitable whenever human beings are involved in the process. However, in my view, the situation in DeBary was absolutely intentional. If Dinah Pulver’s outstanding investigative reporting has exposed anything, it’s that DeBary officials worked overtime to keep their negotiations and machinations out of the public eye.
The entire squalid affair reeks of quid pro quo corruption and the vile instincts of low-rent politicians and appointed officials who’s Faustian bargain put their own self-interests before the public good.
I suspect this Sunshine Law investigation is the tip of the iceberg. In the end, Dan Parrott, Roger Van Auker, John Miklos, and the rest of these greedy bastards will be exposed and forced to face the shame and public humiliation that they so richly deserve.
The “DeBary Land Deal” will forever be synonymous with failure, and the good people of DeBary will long feel a sense of disgust whenever they pass City Hall. Those members of the current council who aren’t jailed will be forced to flee, and they will never prosper again. In the end, the stench will lead all the way to the Governor’s Office, and it will expose the inherent corruption in the gubernatorial appointment process and all but ensure Rick Scott’s humiliating defeat in his 2018 U.S. Senate run.
I have nothing but praise and appreciation for State Attorney R. J. Larizza, his incredible investigative staff, the good men and women of FDLE, and most of all, ace reporter Dinah Pulver whose distinguished reporting is nothing short of Pulitzer material.
It’s high time public integrity investigations receive the priority they deserve – especially in Volusia County.
In a related story, on Thursday morning Circuit Judge Sandra Upchurch denied an attempt by DeBary Mayor Clint Johnson to squash a weird, quasi-judicial hearing by the city council to oust him for alleged charter violations.
Now, anyone who reads this blog on a regular basis will know that I haven’t been kind to Mayor Johnson.
Personally, I think his past conduct in attempting to stiff a small business owner for the cost of a very expensive bicycle under the guise that the bill would be paid by the City of DeBary is nothing short of despicable. I’ve also been hyper-critical of his near constant self-promotion, exemplified by an insane ploy to cross the Florida Straights from Havana to Key West aboard a rickety homemade raft.
Couple these weird lapses in personal ethics and sound judgment with his very public battle with political detractors and council members and you get the idea that Johnson is either a shameless grand-stander or he’s not playing with a full deck. Perhaps both.
Let’s face it, there’s a distinct “creepy factor” with Mayor Johnson that doesn’t inspire confidence. Batshit crazy is generally an undesirable trait in our elected leaders. Most people can understand and forgive what they see themselves doing – but do you see yourself drifting across the open ocean on a junkyard scow?
I think this off-the-scale weirdness quotient is a big part of the Mayor’s credibility problem, and that’s unfortunate, given the real need for strong leadership in the City of DeBary right now.
Incredibly, circumstances suggest that Johnson may be the only one in City Hall with clean hands. If so, these efforts to oust him may be nothing more than a crude attempt to deny the Mayor the level of insider access he needs to fully expose the depth of corruption at City Hall.
The only thing transparent in DeBary government is the paper-thin excuse being put forward for the Mayor’s removal.
In my view, the unconvincing and wholly inadequate argument that Johnson somehow directed staff is prima facie evidence that Dan Parrott has orchestrated this kangaroo court as a smoke-and-mirrors distraction from the much more sinister issues facing the community.
I think it is past time for Dan Parrott to be escorted out of City Hall – preferably in handcuffs. As City Manager, this entire ugly affair begins and ends at his office door, and he has an obligation to stepdown and allow the City to begin the very long and difficult process of healing. Once lost, the public trust is nearly impossible to reestablish, and it will be many years before the citizens of DeBary trust their elected and appointed officials.
They say that sunshine is the best disinfectant, and the City of DeBary desperately needs openness, transparency, and a full public exposure of this slimy land deal and anyone who was involved in it.
The sooner, the better.
Also on Thursday, the intrepid Paul Zimmerman, president of Sons of the Beach – Florida’s premier beach advocacy group – publicly called for the termination of County Manager Jim Dinneen in an open letter to the Volusia County Council.
In his letter, Mr. Zimmerman poses some tough questions for our elected officials – and states some rock-solid facts:
“Sadly it appears that the County Manager has failed. He has failed to respect our charter, which for all intents and purposes, is our fundamental governing document. He has failed to respect citizen’s rights guaranteed by that charter. He has failed to understand and protect the nature of the traditional use guaranteed by the charter and to hold in trust the beaches for the residents of Volusia County. He has failed to provide for the safety of residents and visitors on our beaches. He has failed to respect you The Council, by apparently inverting the nature of your relationship with him. It is the council who leads and the manager who administers. No, Mr. Dinneen has done more than fail, he has subverted your authority and made you subjects to his designs.”
I applaud the efforts of Paul Zimmerman and his team of active and concerned citizens at Sons of the Beach to see Volusia County free from the mismanagement and mean-spirited oppression that have been the hallmarks of Mr. Dinneen’s tenure.
As I’ve previously stated, positive change will not be possible unless and until we elect people who will fundamentally change the manner and means of governance in Volusia County – who will put the will of the people first and let the influential few know that, while they have a place at the table, the “my way or the highway” mentality is contrary to participatory problem solving.
At the end of the day, the problems facing us begin and end in the County Manager’s office.
If you want effective change, Jim Dinneen must go.