The Lessons of DeBary: Has Florida finally become a Kleptocracy?

Sit down and buckle-up, kids.  This one’s gonna bounce around a bit. . .

It’s been just over six years since a statewide grand jury investigating public corruption alerted Florida residents to the hundreds of millions of dollars in “corruption tax” we pay annually in the form of fraud, graft, bid-rigging, quid pro quo deals and outright theft by government officials and contractors.

Needless to say, ethics and anti-corruption reform is long overdue in the Sunshine State, but for some reason we treat it like a prostate exam – we know it’s necessary, even beneficial in the long-run, but not right now, Doc. . .

Stories of public officials using their position of trust for private gain are legendary here, and we have all experienced the frustration of watching these cases go unprosecuted due, in part, to the double-standard which previously existed in Florida’s public integrity statutes.

You know the old adage, “If I did that, they’d put me under the jail”?  Well, it’s true.  They would.  But only because the rules for public officials have always been very different than those for everyone else.

Earlier this year – after a very tumultuous path – Governor Rick Scott signed a bill ordering changes to statutory definitions which lowered unusually high burdens of proof for Florida prosecutors in public corruption cases.

For instance, prior to the change, the state was required to enter the defendant’s mind and prove beyond any reasonable doubt that the individual acted with “corrupt intent.”

Now, the law more closely aligns with other criminal statutes by requiring prosecutors prove that the accused “knowingly and willingly” engaged in the criminal act charged.

The bill also expanded the scope of who may be prosecuted under Florida’s public integrity statutes to include contractors and consultants doing business with public entities.

Now, a full six years after the statewide grand jury sounded the klaxon – and three years after a study published by Integrity Florida, a government ethics watchdog group, determined that for the decade 2000 to 2010, the State of Florida ranked first in the United States in federal corruption convictions – we get a few watery amendments to corruption statutes.

That’s like throwing a deck chair off the Queen Mary and everyone knows it.

Hell, if the situation in the City of DeBary has proven anything it’s that quid pro quo corruption by certain gubernatorial appointees and others with a sworn duty to act in the public interest has become so brazen and bald-assed that the practice is now the accepted norm.

The bastards don’t even try to hide it anymore.

In my view, an opportunity for the proliferation of public corruption opened in the aftermath of 9-11 with the reorganization of federal law enforcement agencies.

At that time, the focus – especially for the Federal Bureau of Investigation – turned from white collar crime, bank robbery, violent drug crimes and public corruption investigations almost exclusively to counter-terrorism activities.

In 2002, former FBI Director Robert Mueller restructured agency assets and changed priorities from solving crimes to preventing domestic terrorist attacks.  This saw the advent of very effective tools such as Joint Terrorism Task Forces and intelligence fusion centers – essentially local, state and federal law enforcement agencies working cooperatively to exchange information and actionable intelligence on potential domestic and international terror threats.

There is no doubt that this change of emphasis was – and continues to be – both necessary and very effective in protecting our homeland from the clear and present danger of the active global jihad being waged by radical Islam.

However, like an egg-sucking dog, once some politicians get the taste for easy money it’s a hard habit to break.

Those with a criminal bent will always find a way to exploit weaknesses in the system, and corrupt politicians and public officials learned quickly – like titmice in a corn crib – that they were free to dance whenever the barn cat gets distracted by the bigger rats.

When they realized the shift in law enforcement’s focus, it’s apparent many Florida politicians didn’t just dance – they held a Mardi Gras Ball.

Still, in the 10-year period reviewed by Integrity Florida, 781 elected and appointed government officials were convicted of corruption crimes.

In my experience, rarely is a criminal apprehended on his first offense – and on a good day about one in four crimes are ever solved.  Imagine the number of violations that went undetected?

In a 2013 New York Times article, reporter Nick Madigan wrote:

Florida, and especially Miami and its environs, has long had a reputation as a place where the odd and the eccentric mix with the furtive and the felonious. Last century, organized crime figures from Chicago and New York set up lucrative gambling, extortion and loan-sharking endeavors in Miami Beach and elsewhere, and beginning in the 1980s, South Florida’s economy, culture and reputation were transformed by drug trafficking.”

“With so much money sloshing about, it was perhaps inevitable that a parade of officials would enrich themselves illicitly at the public trough.”

Has Florida finally become a Kleptocracy?

In a recent bombshell media investigation involving the leak of 11.5 million documents, euphemistically known as the “Panama Papers,” we got a glimpse at how the uber-rich use offshore banking, tax havens and hard-to-track corporation to their advantage.

When the report hit, the world learned of a secretive shadow economy involving high-ranking foreign government officials – including 12 current or former world leaders –  Russian oligarchs, international criminals, celebrities, sports figures and more than a few United States citizens who systematically exploit the secrecy and tax advantages of offshore banking and foreign corporate regulations to hide often ill-gotten personal wealth.

(As I write this it sounds like some weird Tom Clancy novel, right?)

Naturally, Florida plays a prominent role in all this – primarily in the form of “cash” purchases of real estate here in the Sunshine State.

The scheme is perpetrated when a foreign “investor” wants to purchase Florida real estate with cash.  The “investor” goes to a Florida law firm who in turn works through a Panama-based firm to establish an offshore company in the British Virgin Islands, where the owners of the new corporation are not required to reveal their identity.

In turn, the domestic law firm sets up a Florida-based company – which is wholly owned by the offshore entity – and the real estate then is purchased for cash through the domestic corporation.

The “investor” has effectively parked his cash in Florida real estate through an offshore company, owned by a Florida company.

According to the Miami Association of Realtors, these cash deals accounted for 53% of all Miami-Dade home sales in 2015 – and 90% of new construction sales.  It has been suggested that this huge influx of foreign money is a big reason the Florida real estate market has seen such a strong and sustained resurgence since the Great Recession.

And new construction seems to be very popular right now. . .

Given the fact that buyers can conceal themselves with shell corporations – and the cash transaction circumvents banking regulations designed to detect money laundering activities – if this isn’t criminal, it ought to be.

While there may be reasons for non-transparency in these transaction, for the life of me I can’t think of one. . .

You know, I’m not out to save the world – and my days of jousting with windmills are over.  But is it too much to ask that a public official – as a recipient of public funds – provide honorable, fair and effective service to their constituents?

I know in my heart from personal experience that the vast majority of elected and appointed public officials are honest, hard-working people who have a real desire to serve and make a positive difference, and the last thing I want to do is paint all government officials with the same brush – that would be unfair and wrong.

In fact, some of the finest people I have ever known were small town politicians and appointed officials with huge hearts and enormous civic pride who receive far less credit for effecting positive change than they should.

It’s a hard dollar even on a good day, and I have a tremendous amount of personal admiration for politicians who work hard to do the right thing.

Perhaps I have too much time to think, but when you consider the amount of funny money at play in Florida politics – much of it injected into the economy by speculative real estate development – you get the idea that maybe these things deserve a bit more scrutiny by state and federal regulators.

Especially when developers – in concert with local government – start moving on sensitive wetlands and conservation areas.

Governor Scott would pooh-pooh that radical thinking as an impediment to “economic development” and a bunch of dirt-worshiping tree-huggers standing in the way of progress.  (“I’m creating JOBS here!  And I don’t give two hoots if it paves over every gopher tortoise and “osprey” nest in the state!  Turtles don’t vote, dammit!)

Slick Rick never saw a development project he didn’t like – especially if his friends stand to make a butt-load of money off it.

Development isn’t just pouring concrete and hammering nails. There are a lot of other opportunities to make money on the periphery.  Like sutler’s following the troops, there are engineering consultants, environmental consultants, financial consultants, etc., etc.  – folks who help lay the ground work, obtain the permitting, provide site management, work the financing, amend the zoning, prepare the legal documents, distract advocacy groups, and generally ensure that the project meets the “regulatory requirements” needed to move the development forward.

You can’t swing a dead cat in this state without hitting a “consultancy” or “contractor” supporting real estate and property development interests.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not anti-business, I’m anti-crime.  Just give me a level playing field for everyone and I’ll shut the hell up and get hypnotized by daytime TV.

But, lets face it, some of this is getting too flagrant to ignore.  DeBary proved that.

Only in Florida would a sitting governor appoint an active consultant to chair the governing board of a regulatory agency that he actively represent clients in front of.

Read that sentence again.  (And, no, you’re not living in a parallel universe – this is Florida.  The rules are different here.)

It’s time we, the long-suffering people of Florida, begin the process of taking our municipal, county and state governments back from those who can’t grasp the concept that public service is a privilege – not a personal piggy bank.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Week that Was: A Glimmer of Hope in DeBary

In an age that is utterly corrupt, the best policy is to do as others do.

 Marquis de Sade, 1788

Whoa. That’s a heavy thought to ponder on this beautiful early summer day but somehow it serves as the perfect explanation for how a small West Volusia town became the poster child for all that’s wrong in government.

That said, I’m happy to report that things are looking up on the beautiful banks of the St. John’s River.

This week’s departure of DeBary City Manager Dan Parrott is welcome relief after months of controversy.

In the end, he ran like the self-serving rat he has always been.

I thought his classless exit was a fitting bow for his tumultuous career.  When it came right down to it – it was all about Dan.  From the eleventh-hour amendment to his employment contract which allowed him to skulk out the back door with nearly $90,000 in severance and buy-backs, to his unwillingness to accept personal responsibility for the devastation left in his wake, Dan Parrott proved he didn’t give a tinker’s damn about the citizens of DeBary.

You can tell a lot about a person’s character by the way they leave the field.

Dan would have us believe “It just wasn’t fun anymore.”

I guess not.

Being the subject of an active criminal investigation by two Florida law enforcement agencies, named in a federal gender discrimination lawsuit, and being exposed as a cockeyed fraud in front of your peers, friends and family is a tough nut.

I’m actually surprised he lasted as long as he did.

In a way I feel bad for Dan.  It is a damnable shame whenever anyone ends their career as a brutal public failure who brought shame to himself, his office and his family name; but he has no one to blame but himself.  The dangerous but attractive triad of hubris, arrogance and greed are a deadly combination for career civil servants – or anyone for that matter.

Unfortunately, Dan took his leave with many unanswered questions still swirling around this besieged community.  Since when do you receive severance for turning-tail and running away like a yellow dog?  Since when does the elected body – officials with a sworn fiduciary responsibility to serve as good stewards of public funds – permit someone to amend their own employment contract for maximum personal benefit on the way out the door?

Has Dan Parrott’s service to the good people of DeBary warranted the honor of being paid for sitting on his ass in St. Augustine for the next two months?

I’m still not clear whether or not the city council actually approved this “amendment” or if they just stood by while Dan helped himself to the last of the silverware on his way out the door?

I suspect in coming days we will get answers to these and other ugly questions as more than a few of his self-absorbed co-conspirators attempt to fix blame for the sleazy land deal firmly on ol’ Dan.

There will be finger-pointing, horrible accusations, deceit and human treachery at City Hall that will rival the last days of Gaius Caligula.

Now that Dan Parrott has fled like a diseased rat, he will be painted by the others as the mastermind of a cheap attempt to exploit over 100-acres of sensitive conservation land for private gain and in the process pissed away tens of thousands of tax payer dollars to prepare the playing field – including hiring the King Rat who arrogantly advertises his chairmanship of the St. John’s River Water Management District’s Governing Board as a goose that lays golden eggs for his clients at Bio Tech Consulting, Inc.

Although Dan Parrott may be gone, he should remember one thing: You can run, but you can’t hide.

In my view, he was an abject failure and a scandalous loser who fled in the night.  But the specter of his crimes will haunt the halls of city hall like Grendel for many years to come.

Dan Parrott will not be missed.

In other developments, this week DeBary City Councilman Rick Dwyer assumed the role of that creepy television hotel room huckster ‘Captain Obvious’ when he announced to the Daytona Beach News-Journal’s intrepid reporter Dinah Pulver, “I want to just pull the plug on all of it.”  “The city needs to abandon the plan to acquire the 102 acres and go back to the drawing board.”

Ya, think?

How prescient, Rick.  Are you clairvoyant like one of those eerie soothsayers from down the road in Cassadaga?  Are you channeling the ghost of Grover Ashcraft?

Where the hell have you been for the past year when we could have used your prophetic wisdom?

Even the elegant Maryam Ghyabi, a member of the SJRWMD Governing Board, changed her tune from supporting a cheap compromise that would have given the City of DeBary a small portion of the conservation lands for a “retention pond” (read “water feature” for the highly touted but patently corrupt Transit Oriented Development).

Now, Ms. Ghyabi thinks it’s best we just forget the whole thing and transfer the lands to Volusia County, you know, like it never even happened. . .

You gotta know when to hold ‘em, and more important, know when to fold ‘em.  Smart lady.

So at the end of the day, the Volusia County Council seized the second opportunity to get County Manager Jim Dinneen and his staff off their dead asses and actually accept the 102-acres in questions – a transfer the SJRWMD first suggested nearly four years ago.

On Thursday, the County Council passed a three-page resolution, which read, in part:

“Utilizing any portion of the Gemini Springs Addition to support development or redevelopment is contrary to the stated mitigation purpose of the property.”

Duh.

My question is who dropped the ball?  Why did it take Volusia County four years from the 2012 SJRWMD land holdings review to take ownership of the conservation lands?  Why didn’t Dinneen follow-up on this transfer well before this brutal mess in DeBary was even conceived?

Understand – these questions will never be answered.  Hell, they won’t even be asked – not by the right people anyway.  In Volusia County government the very thought of personal accountability or the concept of actually holding career bureaucrats responsible for their acts and omissions is anathema.

And in some weirdly tenacious allegiance to her master, John Miklos, SJRWMD executive director Anne Shortelle is still hoping for a meeting with county officials to discuss deeding some 20-acres of the disputed land to DeBary. (Sounds strangely like the original Ghyabi “compromise.”)

That’s sooooo last week, Anne.

Maybe she didn’t get the memo – or perhaps she’s just dumb-loyal to Miklos, who all but hand-selected her for the job – but regardless, Ms. Shortelle better get her head in the game, and I mean quick.

When the chum is in the water and the feeding frenzy begins, you enter the food chain like everyone else – even if you’re the executive director of a powerful state regulatory agency.

I strongly suggest that given the shit-storm of controversy and open deceit surrounding this plagued land deal, rather than keep these sensitive lands under government control, they be transferred to an independent private conservation entity such as the Nature Conservancy.  (www.nature.org)

Obviously, this won’t happen.  The Conservancy’s first core value is “Integrity above reproach” and that clearly has no correlation to Volusia County government.

While this transfer may resolve the matter for the immediate future, in my experience the word “perpetuity” means “about 10-years” in government parlance.  I guarantee you this will not be the last move to develop these lands if they are left in the care of elected officials who are bought and paid for by speculative developers.

Have a great weekend, kids!

 

 

 

 

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)