The Debacle in DeBary: The Last, Best Opportunity for Change

As the Daytona Beach News-Journal recently pointed out in an opinion piece (and not so subtle suggestion) entitled “Five reasons not to fire a mayor,” DeBary’s elected officials were smart to reconsider the emotions and underlying personal conflicts that are driving this bizarre effort to oust Mayor Clint Johnson.

At last evening’s “hearing” – before the White Rabbit could read the accusations and the Mad Hatter could be called to the witness stand – the Mayor’s attorney Doug Daniels was successful in obtaining a continuance from the city council.

If any good came of this, perhaps it gives all concerned a chance to contemplate the long-term ramifications of their actions and seize a golden opportunity to stop this embarrassing spectacle before real harm is done.

Also, it appears that beleaguered City Manager Dan Parrott has finally come to the realization that he’s overstayed his welcome and will be relinquishing the helm on Friday.

This is the most positive development of the week, and marks the city’s last best opportunity for real change.

Like the mad Captain Queeg in The Caine Mutiny, somewhere along the way Parrott cracked under the pressure and has been obsessing over the missing strawberries while the much more serious problems aboard the good ship DeBary go haywire.

It was like watching a great ship steam full speed ahead into the eye of a massive hurricane, and all we could do is stand idle and watch in horror as the captain stood at the rail and dreamed up more frivolous charges against Mayor Johnson, oblivious to the miasma of destruction and shit-rain falling down around him.

Unfortunately, (and to their political detriment) the remainder of the city council went along with Parrott’s weird public breakdown – right up until the moment last night when they looked at each other, and the citizens assembled, and finally realized ol’ Dan really had lost his marbles.

Sad, really.

I recently had a conversation with a smart friend regarding the very serious issues facing DeBary government.  In fact, we took the short drive to West Volusia and visited the beautiful Gemini Springs area (a fantastic place, by the way) and toured the quaint City of DeBary.

Like most small towns that are bisected by a central thoroughfare once you get off the “main drag” you get the full flavor of the community and a feel for its neighborhoods.

Living in the Halifax area, I haven’t spent much time in West Volusia – and I don’t think I have been to DeBary more than a time or two before.  Having visited, I am very happy to report that it is a simply charming place and I was immediately struck by how much DeBary reminded me of the small city where I worked most of my life.

The neighborhoods have a quiet, unpretentious feel and we saw children riding bicycles on tree-lined streets, senior citizens walking near a lovely golf course, public parks and an attractive community center – all in a setting of beautiful live oaks, rolling hills and abundant green space.

There were no weirdos to be seen.  Except maybe me, and I was much too relaxed for any serious craziness.

If you live anywhere in Central Florida and haven’t been to Gemini Springs Park – you’re doing it wrong.  The natural beauty of West Volusia’s spring system is simply breathtaking.

But like all communities, with a trained eye you can spot a few of the City’s challenges straight away.

For instance, it was obvious that code enforcement is not a high priority in DeBary (it wasn’t in the community I served either), traffic was moving a bit too fast for conditions on most of the surface streets (there didn’t appear to be a visible law enforcement presence) and the commercial corridor has been somewhat outpaced by Deland and points in between.

In total, DeBary is a typical small Florida community.  Clean and comfortable.  Somewhere you would want to raise a family.

I always felt that the most positive aspect of a small municipal government is the accessibility and responsiveness of the elected officials.  I doubt very seriously that unless your name is J. Hyatt Brown you could pick up the phone right now and reach your state representative, and forget about interacting with your congressman or senator (unless you’re Mori Hossieni).

But just about anyone can speak with their city commissioner or mayor, especially in a small town where most folks know one another personally, worship together, patronize each other’s businesses and discuss the issues of the day when they meet on the street or over the back fence.

I suspect that’s the way things are done in DeBary.

Unfortunately, when you enjoy that intimate level of interaction with your public servants, when things go bad at City Hall, the citizens tend to feel the effects in a most profound way.

Like most families, small municipal governments tend to be stable for years – but when the wheel comes off the cart – the damage can be extremely ugly and divisive, and the consequences will resonate for a very long time.

Regular readers of this forum know that I have previously provided an insider’s perspective of the importance of the city manager’s role, and the incredible power that is bestowed on that office by most municipal charters.

The executive has the ability to hire, fire, set the budget, promulgate and enforce internal policies, rules, regulations and operating procedures, and is given almost carte blanche authority over the day-to-day operations of the city.

In essence – and when practiced in its purest form – the council/manager form of government has the elected officials acting as a legislative body, debating and setting public policy, passing ordinances, voting on appropriations and large expenditures, approving zoning variances, etc. Perhaps the most important responsibility of the elected body is to establish an overall vision for the community.

In turn, the City Manager has the responsibility – and the commensurate authority – to implement public policy, provide management for the organization, and execute the council’s vision for the future of the community.

A clear benefit of this system is having an impartial administrator to buffer the influence of politics (to the extent possible) on the day-to-day operations of the government.  This is often reinforced by the city charter – a municipal constitution, if you will – that in most cases specifically prohibits elected officials from directing the actions or influencing the operational decisions of staff.

However, the council/manager form of government – in its practical form – is far from perfection.

The elected officials are members of the community.  They are the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker, your insurance agent and your mother’s dentist – and they are responsible for representing the interests of their neighbors – from garbage collection to assessing the collective tax burden.  They take the late-night calls, field the questions, accept the criticism, fade the heat, and accept the ultimate responsibility for getting things done in their zone, ward or district.

Unlike the appointed officials and staff, if they fall down, local politicians are out of a job at the very next election.  No union protection.  No contract.  No severance.  Just out on their ass if they don’t perform to the often high and eclectic expectations of their constituents.

As a result, the elected officials need timely and consistent answers from the manager – and sometimes staff – on issues large and small.  And sometimes political expediency requires that politicians use informal lines of organizational communication to get the information they need.

Especially when the city manager selectively controls which elected officials receive information, and which do not.

In over thirty years of municipal service I have seen the very real damage an unethical city manager can cause in a very short period of time.

Unfortunately, the City of DeBary is experiencing the utter confusion and dysfunction that comes when the tail wags the dog.  Nothing positive results when the appointed administrator is allowed to direct and control the power of the elected body for his or her own devices.

It upsets the delicate equilibrium of the system and the oscillations of that instability have far reaching implications.  After all, no one wants to establish a business, make an investment, run for elective office, or relocate their family to a community in the throes of a meltdown – especially where the whiff of political corruption is in the air.

With Parrott still in office, progress was not possible, and I think the city council is slowly coming to that realization.   The city manager was far too deeply embroiled in far too many sleazy issues, with more allegations surfacing by the day.

The fact is, Dan Parrott knows that his personal orchestration of this cheap coup d’état is wholly unethical – if not criminal, given the other 800-pound gorilla in the room, namely the patently corrupt Gemini Springs Annex land deal.  Add to that new accusations of sexual harassment by department heads and federal gender discrimination lawsuits and you get the idea Dan had a lot on his plate.  Most all of it the result of his own arrogance.

To this point, the false sense of political security provided by groupthink, the intractable belief that there are no viable alternatives, and the entrenched bunker mentality currently in place at City Hall made it all but impossible for the current council to see the forest for the trees.

Mayor Johnson is not without his faults – but at the end of the day – the citizens of DeBary elected him in a fair election to represent their best interests.  In my view, the will of the voters is inviolate – it is the very foundation of our democracy – and absent clear and convincing evidence of malfeasance or misuse of public office, Mayor Johnson should be allowed to serve out his term then answer to his constituents at the ballot box.

The very logistics of last night’s duplicitous hearing reeked of a choreographed rush to judgment and continuing this ridiculous kangaroo court risks disenfranchising the citizens of DeBary.

Since when does a city manager have the right – under the charter or the law – to bring charges against a sitting mayor?  Since when is sending a critical tweet – or a harsh Facebook post – considered a violation of the DeBary city charter?

Insanity.

Folks, this is a government run amok over a delusional vendetta that continues to jeopardize public funds in the form of lawsuits, judgments and massive legal bills.  If the city council allows this to continue, no one but the lawyers will win.

At the end of the day, Dan Parrott and his treacherous cabal of cheap-jack “consultants,” “directors,” and half-bright advisers think they can simply walk away from this sordid debacle they have created.  Like a bull in a fine china shop, you can lead the beast out of the store – but it’s going to be a long time before its business as usual.

They should be publicly keelhauled for their hubris and colossal arrogance.

Regardless, it’s time to stop this embarrassing madness and let the healing begin.  The good citizens of DeBary deserve better.

 

(Photo Credit: Daytona Beach News-Journal)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2 thoughts on “The Debacle in DeBary: The Last, Best Opportunity for Change

  1. Loved this. You should really try to sit down with the Mayor. You would understand lots of the crazy that you have written about in the past.

    This was spot on though. And pretty sad.

    Sent from my iPad

    >

    Like

  2. Incredible! This blog looks exactly like my old one!
    It’s on a completely different topic but it has pretty much the same page
    layout and design. Wonderful choice of colors!

    Like

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