The Debacle in DeBary: In Politics, Self-Regulation is rarely effective…

I admire people who stand out from the crowd through their own grit and determination.  My heroes have always been those who protect others and serve the common good, those who make a difference in the lives of others simply by seeing a wrong and trying to right it.

That takes courage – especially when those wrongs are perpetrated by the wealthy, the powerful and the well-connected.

When I was young my father made it clear to me that he didn’t care what I did in life, so long as I tried to be the very best at it.  While I’m not sure I ever measured up to my dad’s high standards, I always tried.

I can tell you that there is something incredibly rewarding about spending yourself in a noble pursuit, something greater than your own self-interest, and standing up for that which is right and good.

Contributing to your community in a positive way is something to be proud of.

I was reminded of this while reading Editor Pat Rice’s excellent piece on the extraordinary work of Daytona Beach News-Journal reporter Dinah Pulver and her brilliant exposé of the grubby dealings by DeBary city officials and John Miklos, chairman of the St. John’s River Water Management District’s Governing Board.

As I’ve said before, I believe Ms. Pulver’s writing on this issue is worthy of the Pulitzer Prize.

Through her work she has demonstrated a tenacity and shrewd understanding of the facts and nuances of this catastrophe that has brought depth and life to her reporting and helped the citizens of Volusia County gain a better understanding of how their government works when no one is looking.

Dinah has also proven she has some hard bark.  You need that when you take on the high and mighty.

Someone once said that those who seek the truth should give no mercy – and expect none.  Clearly, Dinah Pulver’s efforts in DeBary live up to that that high principle.

In my view, this level of investigative journalism is refreshing, and the initial fall-out has demonstrated the real need to shine a light on the machinations of government at all levels – especially in matters involving public/private collaborations where the “private” side of the equation stands to make a lot of money by using your money.

The press – when properly focused – is perhaps our greatest public advocate.  They protect the vulnerable and expose those who would victimize us – from the street to the boardroom or the dais of high political power – the Fourth Estate stands watch.

Information is power, and it allows us – the governed – to make educated, intelligence-based decisions on issues affecting our lives and livelihoods.  Anyone from a homeless person to the rich and powerful can pick up a newspaper and receive the same news and opinions on the issues of the day.  The individual reader’s interpretation and perspective may differ, but the facts remain the same.

Good reporting shapes the healthy debate of competing ideas and helps ensure solid public policy by leveling the playing field.

Governments – even small ones – have a lot of moving parts. They are also staffed with career civil servants who, for the most part, take great pride in their work and put the needs and wants of those they serve above their own self-interests.

While government is far from perfect – the dedication of those who serve at all levels of government help to make our American democracy the best form of governance in the history of the world.  If you don’t believe me, try to get a package through customs in the Dominican Republic, obtain a transit visa on the fly in Port-au-Prince, or explain your case to a police officer in Mexico City.

Given the nature and pace of government service, inevitably mistakes are going to happen and I’ve made my share of whoppers through the years.  But I learned a long time ago that when you make an honest error – or act in a manner that inadvertently gives even the appearance of impropriety – the best policy is to publicly accept personal responsibility for your blunder, apologize and take your lumps (both deserved and undeserved), learn from your mistake, then do your level best to make things right again.

It’s what people respect.

In aviation, we teach new pilots a simple procedure for getting themselves out of trouble should they inadvertently get lost: Climb. Confess. Comply.

By climbing higher, we can often gain a better view of things and the new perspective will often allow you to get back on course and find your way again.  By confessing that you’ve made a mistake, you can receive valuable directions from others that can help restore your bearing and situational awareness.  But this technique is only effective if we are willing to comply with the good advice and insight others provide.

I think the “Three C’s” are also a good decision-making tool for politicians in trouble and others who lose their moral compass.  Talk to someone above your pay grade – especially your constituents.  Explain that you screwed the pooch on this one and ask for constructive suggestions for correcting your misstep.

In essence, humble yourself to the fact that we all need help now and again.

One of the greatest leadership maxims I ever heard is, “People can understand and forgive what they can see themselves doing.”

Falling short – or just screwing things up – is only a problem if you fail to recognize the chain-of-events that led you there.  By analyzing mistakes and learning from them, we can prevent similar issues in the future.  In fact, it’s the only way to effect positive change.

Public corruption and unethical conduct by sitting officials is something else altogether.

I believe that we have a right to honest, open and effective service from those who accept public funds to perform work in the public interest.  When those individuals decide to line their pockets – or those of their friends and political allies – we are all victimized and, perhaps more important, the system itself is weakened.

Unfortunately, given the lasting damage public integrity issues can cause there are very few safeguards in place – especially in Rick Scott’s Florida.  That is specifically why we rely on an alert, engaged and vigilant press.

In politics, self-regulation is rarely effective.

In a 2013 op-ed piece in the New York Times, Dr. Meena Bose, a former faculty member at the United States Military Academy at West Point and current Chair in Presidential Studies at Hofstra University, wrote:

“The well-known principles of American democracy are representative government, separation of powers and checks and balances. Underlying all of these principles is the need for civic virtue, or a commitment to public goals over private interests. The anti-Federalists warned that the Constitution placed too much trust in elected officials to be motivated by civic virtue, saying “a general presumption that rulers will govern well is not a sufficient security.” But the Federalists declared that “safety” from an overly powerful chief executive depends on regular elections and “a due responsibility.” We require rules for everyone, including elected officials, but we depend on those officials to hold themselves accountable as well.”

If history has taught us anything, the confluence of money and politics is a friction point where the spark of corruption often begins.  Nowhere is that more prevalent than when developers decide to “do what they do” in a small town.

In my experience, land developers are like modern-day wildcatters – they make very risky, often speculative investments in projects which have the potential for enormous financial success – or crippling failure.

To mitigate the risk, developers employ shiny, well-dressed and well-spoken hucksters who work the angles and prepare the playing field by encouraging elected officials in an area targeted for development to provide economic incentives and stipulations that will allow the investors to wring the most dollars out of a given project.

This can take the form of tax abatement, changes to zoning and density regulations, building infrastructure, privatizing public amenities and access, and in some cases indirectly investing public funds and creating attractive taxing schemes to help fund and promote the project.

Sometimes these shameless double-dealers are actually able to get their heads inside the public tent – and their snout in the public trough – by simply changing hats.

They temporarily leave the private sector for government positions with lofty titles like, “Economic Development Coordinator,” or “Transit Oriented Development Director,” etc. – with job descriptions that by their very nature create competing loyalties.

Typically, these economic development types come almost exclusively from the real estate and property development industries.

For instance, DeBary’s transit-oriented development marketing director Roger Van Auker worked for ten years as development coordinator and project manager for The Vernon Group, developers of the DeBary Golf & Country Club, then later went to work as a development project manager and vice president of site development for IPI of Central Florida, the developer of the Riviera Bella community west of the SunRail station.  Most recently, he served as vice president of the Henin Group – perhaps the largest developer in DeBary’s history.

Where do you think Roger’s true loyalties are?  With the citizens of DeBary?

Does anyone else see the possibility for a conflict of interest?

I think the potential for disaster was apparent to everyone except the now disgraced Dan Parrott who personally appointed Van Auker to the catbird’s seat.

Make no mistake, a shill for a big time developer is extremely good at what he or she does – a master salesman with great hair, fine Gucci loafers and a Black American Express card, all carefully designed to make a quick impression on the rubes and bumpkins in Tiny Town.

Normally, it doesn’t take long before the elected and appointed officials begin to buy the pap and fluff – especially if private incentives or oblique inducements are offered by the developer.  That’s the moment government’s oversight role and due diligence obligations to the citizens they serve become blunted and dull.

This problem is exacerbated when the ruling class confuse arrogance with intelligence and begin to believe they know exactly what’s best for the rest of us.

The self-justification phase can be hard to watch.

In my experience, public corruption is relatively easy to spot once you have the right eye for it.  Like a malignant cancer, these affairs tend to all be variations on the same theme – from sordid sexual peccadilloes, to something-for-something transactional corruption – and the evolution of these violations of the public trust has been the same for over two hundred years.

They typically begin with the shock of recognition by those on the “inside” that someone from the “outside” realizes that something doesn’t smell right.

Generally, this happens when a phone call or visit from a reporter, regulator or law enforcement officer telegraphs to the participants that uncomfortable questions and unwanted scrutiny is looming on the horizon.

In an attempt to deflect attention, the second step usually involves denials, angry counter-accusations and incredulous posturing (“How could anyone think that what we’re doing is somehow unethical?”).

When that fails, the conspirators attempt to marginalize the opposition and engage in smoke-and-mirror distractions (such as attempting to oust the mayor).  As options dwindle, the wagons are circled and the bunker mentality of extreme defensiveness and instinctual self-preservation sets in.

When elected and appointed officials stop answering questions from journalists and regulators – it’s the beginning of the end.  Sound familiar?

Trust me – where there is smoke, there’s fire.

Now that Dirty Dan Parrott has fled city hall, it won’t be long until those who are left behind start spraying the blame on him like one of those high pressure manure spreaders on a commercial hog farm.

There is a traditional Bedouin proverb that says, “As the camel falls to its knees, more knives are drawn. . .”

Indeed.

Kudos to Dinah Pulver and her colleagues at the News-Journal for their collective and individual courage in bringing this story to light.  I hope, as Mr. Rice promised, they will keep digging and pounding the pavement.  Nothing works better than good old fashioned gumshoe journalism, and you never know where the evidence will take you.

I was also pleased to see that the Sierra Club is actively calling for a federal investigation into Mr. Miklos’ bald-faced conflict of interest on the SJRWMD Governing Board.  In my experience, it takes a while to get the federal government’s investigative apparatus spooled up – but once they get speed and momentum, you would rather have a rabid Pitbull latch his vice-like jaws onto your fleshy parts than face a full-blown public integrity inquest.

The relentless interviews, subpoenas, depositions and pre-trial motions bankrupt most people early on; and it’s a queasy feeling when your attorney stops returning your phone calls when your hip deep in a federal prosecution.

Even if you survive 36-months at the Federal Penitentiary at Coleman, I guarantee you’ll walk with a permanent limp and sleep with the lights on for the rest of your life.

I’ll just bet Dan Parrott, Roger Van Auker, John Miklos and a few others are asking themselves some dark questions this morning.  Who will be the first to break ranks and provide “substantial assistance” while there is still time to be named an “unindicted co-conspirator”?

The Department of Justice has no sense of humor about these things, and neither do the good people of DeBary.  Soon, they both are going to want answers.

Let’s stay tuned to Dinah Pulver’s outstanding coverage of this developing story.  You can bet it’s about to get interesting.

Now, I’m going to sit in front of the television, sip strong black coffee, and be whipped into a frenzy of fear over the wall-to-wall media hype of something called Tropical Storm Colin.

Stay dry, kids. . .

 

 

(Photo Credit: City of DeBary, Florida)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

7 thoughts on “The Debacle in DeBary: In Politics, Self-Regulation is rarely effective…

  1. I enjoyed reading your post. Thanks for taking the time to share your perspective. God bless you and your family.

    Like

  2. Mark, Love your writing and analysis. Like, you’re becoming the Carl Hiassen of Volusia County. Makes my heart happy!

    Like

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