The Debacle in DeBary: Important Answers to Difficult Questions

I have no formal education.

I like to say that the only thing that kept me out of college was high school – and that joke’s not far from the truth.  But the fact is, I had every opportunity to pursue higher education and, against the advice of literally everyone important in my life, I denied myself that important benefit.

My failure to complete a degree diminished my self-confidence and made me feel inferior to college educated peers my entire professional life.  I was a fool.

My father told me that the true benefit of a college education is in broadening your perspective and demonstrating to potential employers that you have the mental perseverance to finish what you started.

He was right.

Education imparts so many intrinsically important traits – the ability to read critically, a foundation upon which to form sound opinions and a healthy world view, and the capacity for logical, independent thought.

It also provides the recipient with self-confidence while leveling the playing field.  A degree is also a prerequisite to virtually all executive-level positions and provides a competitive edge for promotional opportunities.

After graduating from Seabreeze Senior High School, my best friend and I had a few fits and starts at Daytona Beach Community College – he even got to spend a few semesters at Florida State University (they didn’t ask me to come along).

Just as well.  It was immediately apparent I wasn’t cut out for higher education.

During the few classes I actually attended, it seemed to me that they spent a lot of time teaching answers to questions no one asked in the real world – and in the late 1970’s the liberal views of the lecturers and tenured teachers I was subjected to were often very different than my own.

Rather than embrace this diversity of opinion, I railed against it (as 19-year old dummies often do) and ultimately disappointed my parents by failing virtually every class I signed up for.

At the end of the day, my friend and I found ourselves throwing a Frisbee on the beach, skipping the few classes we were enrolled in at DBCC, and generally floating through life as rudderless beer drunks.  Not a bad way to go, really.

I’ve actually returned to that lifestyle in retirement. . .  Weird how things come full circle, right?

Fortunately, the United States Army offered something called the “buddy plan” and a few weeks later a gentleman known as Senior Drill Sergeant Ainsworth and his competent staff of life takers and heart breakers snatched both of us into the harsh reality of life in a hot and humid place called Ft. McClellan, Alabama.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

Although I do not have an advanced degree, I did, however, graduate Summa Cum Laude from the School of Hard Knocks.

Trust me, it’s the most expensive education you can ever earn.

Obviously, I’m not that smart.  But out of necessity I have become an excellent experiential learner – I read voraciously, write extensively on issues that are important to me, and I try to maintain situational and social awareness on the critical topics of the day.

For instance, I learned aerodynamics and meteorology by earning a Commercial pilot certificate – and the mathematical intricacies of trigonometry by obtaining an instrument rating – where determining wind correction angles and time, speed and distance calculations can mean the difference between life and death.  There is no letter grade, you either land the airplane or it lands you, and survival is determined by the angle and velocity at which you return to earth.

Trust me, there is a big difference between learning the nuances of geometric theories in a classroom and being bounced around in the confines of an aircraft flying under instrument meteorological conditions.

Perhaps most important, by necessity, I have developed into an extremely good mimic.

I watch, read and listen to people that I admire – and I rob their ideas, mannerisms, methods and opinions.  I absorb the positive qualities of others and learn from their negative attributes and mistakes.

My favorite author, Dr. Hunter S. Thompson – a true American genius and someone I regularly steal thoughts, words and brilliant phrases from, said: “I’ve been plagiarizing my whole life.  It’s called learning.”

As a young law enforcement officer I identified people – both inside and outside my organization – who possessed the advanced skills, talents and expertise I needed, then I learned literally everything I could from them.

Like a leech sucking the blood of its host – I was determined to take and emulate their superior knowledge and skills as a means to make me better at my chosen profession.

Trust me when I say, I have been incredibly fortunate to have some wonderfully talented and extremely patient people put in my path of life – each of which helped me become a better person and police officer.

As an example, I learned to write from a career advertising executive who was awarded perhaps more American Advertising Awards that anyone in the industry.

A wonderfully unconventional, terribly flawed, chain-smoking genius of a man.

His name was C. Elliott Anderson, and he served as the Harvard educated creative director for the internationally acclaimed marketing firm J. Walter Thompson in New York.

He came to Florida as the advertising director for ITT’s Palm Coast project.

When Elliott finally came to the difficult realization that the dog-eat-dog corporate experience was crushing his highly developed sense of personal creativity and self-worth, he had a meltdown that resulted in a mid-life career change.  Then well into his 40’s, he left advertising and became a police officer in small town Florida.

He was the first person I knew whose prose was more akin to musical lyrics.  The style of his writing was melodic, almost poetic.  The words blended effortlessly and harmoniously, and it was a pure and high pleasure to read.

Elliott Anderson was a true man of letters.

We worked together as patrol officers, and during the long overnight hours when things were quiet, Elliott would help me write police reports.  At first, he would literally tear the pages up in front of me without criticism or comment, visibly disgusted by my lack of preparation and effort.

Begin again, Barker.

Then, he gradually began to use a thick red grease pencil to highlight my errors in sentence construction, grammatical oversights and word selection – slowly coaxing the flow of ideas into logical sequence and developing the ability to take a collection of cold, even random facts and use them to tell a story.

Elliott retired long before I did, and he later died of lung cancer well into his 70’s while living comfortably as an expat in the Philippines.  I still keep the correspondence we exchanged in my desk drawer and from time-to-time I re-read them, just to conjure the memory and guiding spirit of an eccentric genius who left me such a wonderful gift.

Every letter he wrote to me ends with this important, hand-scrawled guidance: “Read, Learn, Grow.”

Words to live by, my friends.

As a new and inexperienced patrolman I was fortunate to have the very generous tutelage and coaching of several veteran police officers, men and women who took me under their wing and showed me the lifesaving skills, tactics, tricks and techniques that they don’t teach impressionable young recruits in rookie school.

Things like, always “watch the hands” – and when you are engaged in a physical brawl, if you control your adversary’s ability to breathe – you take the fight out of them rather quickly.

It sounds brutal, and it is.

But if you’re struggling for control of your duty weapon in a dark alley, trust me, you’ll gladly – almost instinctively – choke the shit out of someone.

I was also taught that if you draw your firearm without intending to use it, it was best to file down the front sight first as it would make it easier when the person you pointed it at shoved it up your ass. . .

But most important, these veteran officers taught me the importance of asking questions – the right questions.  That not only included the art and science of interviewing witnesses and interrogating criminal suspects, but the ability to ask yourself important internal questions as well.

Personal questions you need to ask periodically to remain balanced, objective, and ethical in the pursuit of facts, evidence and the truth.

Self-examination helps keep you grounded, humble and personally aware while engaged in the practice of seeking the truth.

Am I working in the best interests of those I serve?

Am I acting objectively or am I allowing emotions and personal biases to affect my judgment?

Am I doing the right thing for the right reasons?

Important questions, indeed.

Last Wednesday evening I watched the DeBary City Council interview Ronald McLemore, their top candidate for interim City Manager.

An interesting process which, at the end of the day, told us far more about the elected officials than Mr. McLemore.

I am happy to report that the council members conducted themselves in a professional, controlled, even collegial manner.  However, some of the questions were clearly more digs and swipes directed at Mayor Johnson that fact-finding tools – specifically when it came to social media.

However, I thought Mr. McLemore acquitted himself quite well.  I was proud of him.

He told the truth, answered questions thoughtfully and thoroughly, and even took the occasion to teach and guide the council on some important issues – such as the ethical obligations of elected and appointed officials, the importance of listening to your constituents, and the benefits of professional development to staff effectiveness.

Now, I thought Mr. McLemore’s self-conceptualization of his management philosophy as, “I’m here to facilitate your success” was a bit contrived.  I thought we needed more substance in that answer.

After all, he has made his living in a profession where most practitioners are more focused on assisting their own success and playing elected officials against one another has become the accepted means of accomplishing that goal.

Dan Parrott was a master of the craft.

In addition, Mr. McLemore didn’t mince words when it came to discussing some of the barriers and issues facing the city council – and he even called out Mayor Johnson to a degree.

I found it refreshing, actually.

Is McLemore without blemishes – no.  Who among us are?

Mr. McLemore was right when he explained that career civil servants – especially those in leadership positions – will inevitably fall victim to unscrupulous poor performers and malcontent employees intent on receiving an undeserved payout.

For a period in the community I served, we called it the “supplemental retirement plan,” as seemingly everyone who was discharged – regardless of cause – would file a frivolous lawsuit on their way out the door just to squeeze a few thousand dollars from the city’s insurance carrier.

They knew – right or wrong – that the insurance company would deem it cheaper simply to settle the suit than to fight it.  It is the infinitely frustrating curse of government everywhere and there is no easy answer.

Perhaps most important, I felt the very process of interviewing Mr. McLemore was an extremely cathartic exercise for the members of the DeBary city council.

For once, they appeared unified in meeting an important goal, and kept their emotions and predilections to themselves.

If you watched the proceedings closely, you could hear the very real concern in their voices and see their collective desire to obtain strong and effective management for a community in distress.

While, at times, their efforts look pathetically like a coyote with its leg pinned in a trap, desperately trying to free itself from the inevitable – on Wednesday evening the council showed some true grit and collective leadership – for the first time in a long time.

For what it’s worth, I was impressed.

The Q&A with Mr. McLemore also exposed some serious problems in the community – many of which can be directly linked to the worthless former manager, Dan Parrott.

For instance, it is now July, and the City of DeBary has yet to produce the first draft of an operating budget for FY2016-17.  Given the fact that as interim Mr. McLemore has just 90-days to serve – he has the enormous task of formulating a multi-million-dollar budget (with lots of moving parts) in a very short period of time.

Is that doable?  Sure.

But it’s going to take a lot of collective hard work and cooperation to accomplish, and that’s not a bad thing.

If the City of DeBary can benefit from anything – it’s the exercise of working hard together to accomplish important goals in a collegial, ethical and supportive environment.

I think Ron McLemore is up to that task.

At least, like Mayor Johnson said, “I hope so.”

Admittedly, I’m just an uneducated bumpkin – but I’m smart enough to believe in the enduring words of a young Anne Frank who said, “Where there is hope, there’s life.  It fills us with fresh courage and makes us strong again.”

Words to live by, my friends.

Have a happy and safe Independence Day, everyone.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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