The Debacle in DeBary: The Kangaroo Court Will Come to Order

August is a miserable month.

It’s hot, humid, and always marks another trip around the sun for this crusty old bastard.

As I prepare to turn 56 years old this weekend, I have been in a foul and stupid mood for the past several days as I take stock of where I’ve been – and God willing – where I’ll end up.

Memento mori, I suppose.

Since I retired, I try not to make too many plans.

One day can quickly blend into another and the lack of time pressure provides plenty of opportunities to brood, bitch and ruminate on the theme that life truly is what happens when your making other plans.

Now there is a kernel of sound advice for any twenty-something out there who is still trying to figure it all out.

Don’t get me wrong.  I have lived a supremely blessed life – full of all anyone could ever want – and I’ve been incredibly graced to have had so many wonderful people put in my path; people that have done so much for me personally and professionally.

So much that I can never adequately repay.

For instance, I once worked for a very wise old police chief who took me under his wing and probably did more to shape my early professional life than anyone.  He had very black-and-white views about the virtues of accountability and responsibility, and woe be unto anyone who failed to meet his lofty standards of professional conduct and leadership.

I don’t mean to imply that he was unforgiving of mistakes.  To the contrary.

He allowed me to make more mistakes than anyone I ever worked for.

The Chief allowed me to fall short and keep trying, to press beyond my skills and abilities and to employ untested methods and tactics.  He then used the results – good and bad – as a teaching tool.  That type of experiential learning can be terribly expensive – and sometimes hard on the body and mind – but it’s the most effective teaching tool around.

So long as my mistakes were honest – and made in the process of truly trying to better myself, a system or a process – he was accepting and supportive.

However, the one thing he would never tolerate is explanations or apologies.

In the Chief’s view, you either accepted responsibility for your actions, or you didn’t.  The Who, What, Where, and How didn’t matter – only the heartfelt acknowledgement, “I’ve made a mistake, and I’ll make it right again.”

As he explained, “That’s what people respect.”

He was right.

Many years ago I was a newly promoted line supervisor assigned to the Criminal Investigations Division.  In that role, I was responsible for the personnel and case management of a very busy group of police detectives.

In addition, my division had responsibility for the Evidence/Property Section – essentially the ultra-secure repository for all items of physical evidence and property coming into the police department.

By agency policy, as commander of the detective bureau, I was also named the department’s evidence custodian – making me personally responsible for everything from a rock used to break a window, to tens of thousands of dollars in illicit drugs, cash, guns, jewelry and other valuables held in evidence.

Periodically, I was required to conduct a complete audit of the facility and purge items that were no longer needed by the courts, etc.

Pursuant to the law, dangerous drugs were destroyed in a prescribed manner, and other items – tools, skateboards, baseball bats, bicycles – you name it – were sold at auction.

I established what I thought was a foolproof process whereby each item of purged evidence was confirmed to have been released by the court, removed from the computer inventory system, paperwork was routed to the Records Division, then the items were personally inspected by two independent detectives, and myself, to ensure that each item was suitable for sale to the public at auction.

Hundreds of items were meticulously processed in this manner.

On the day of the auction, everything went smoothly and I was quite proud of myself, and my team, for our hard work in preparing for the purge and sale.

That afternoon, while I was home relaxing, the telephone rang.

It was a news reporter asking me – pointblank – why my police department sold drugs from our evidence room to a local family?

From the reporter I learned that a gentleman had purchased a small duffel bag at the police auction for his son to carry his books to school in.

When they got the duffel home, they found a small glassine baggie – pressed completely flat – in a hidden zippered compartment at the bottom of the bag (perhaps where you would store your wallet at the gym or beach).

The baggie contained a small amount of marijuana.

We had missed it during our inspection process.

The reporter was preparing the story for the six o’clock news.

I was horrified.

My career was over.

I immediately sent a police officer to collect the baggie from the family’s home, apologized to them for my embarrassing error, then telephoned the Chief and advised him of my colossal screw-up.

I ended the conversation with the words, “I’ve made a terrible mistake, and I’ll make it right again.”

As I recall, his reaction was, “Damn right you did.”

At the time, we worked for one of the most incompetent and ineffectual city managers I’ve ever had the displeasure of knowing.  Trust me, that’s saying something – because I worked for some real winners over the years.

This particular individual is dead now, so I won’t speak ill of him – only to say that he was a sorry human being and an even worse public servant.

The next day, the manager summoned me to his office and actually asked me if the “crime lab” could run a test to determine how long the baggie of pot had been inside the small zippered compartment of the duffel.

You read that right.

The old “how long has one bag been inside of another bag test.”  Now, the forensic scientists at FDLE and the FBI are pretty damn good – I’ve seen them work miracles – but they’re not that good.

I’m not positive, but I believe our city manager wanted to make the lame excuse to the media that the person who bought the bag could have easily put the marijuana inside after he made the purchase.

The manager then contacted the Chief and summoned him to the office.

“Here it comes,” I thought.  “I’m done.”

I’m not exactly sure what happened in that meeting, but at the end of the day, I kept my job, but received a written reprimand in my personnel file for my gross negligence in allowing contraband to leave the evidence facility.

More important, the Chief told me that he was proud of the way I handled the matter.

That meant the world to me.

Ultimately, the error went all the way back to the initial officer who submitted the duffel bag without thoroughly searching the bottom compartment.  Then, the evidence technician failed to catch the baggie when the item was logged in to secure storage – and eventually, my detectives and I failed to find it during our pre-auction inspection.

I could have blamed the mistake on any of those individuals and simply stepped aside.

But that wasn’t the culture of our organization – and I could never have reconciled it with myself – or my boss.

As a result, I learned a valuable lesson about the importance of being accountable for your area of responsibility – and for accepting criticism for the acts and omissions of others on your team.

In the aftermath, the reprimand stung for a while, but with the knowledge of how the mistake occurred, we were able to improve our system for disposing of purged property, and in the process, strengthened our culture of accountability – and our unit cohesion – in immeasurable ways.

My wise old chief did not suffer fools.  And neither do I.

Now, I may not have been the best police administrator or civic leader ever to come down the pike, but I recognize those who are by their actions – particularly when under stress.

In my view, people in high positions who make the same mistakes and errors in judgment again-and-again, then make excuses and dodge responsibility, are the antithesis of leaders.  In fact, they are a cancer on the organization or constituency that they are responsible for and accountable to.

Apparently the current DeBary City Council missed this important lesson in government accountability somewhere along the way.

Despite his best efforts, Mayor Johnson has been simply unable to sway his fellow elected officials into dropping the pending “forfeiture hearing” – a meeting where the Mayor is to stand trial in a kangaroo court of his fellow council members on ridiculous charges of charter violations brought by disgraced former City Manager – and forth stooge – Dan Parrott.

To his credit, Clint Johnson has apologized.

He was man enough to accept personal responsibility for his weird conduct and, even though he remains crazy as a barn owl, the Mayor has repeatedly extended an olive branch and vowed to attempt positive personal and professional change.

That’s more than I’ve seen from his judge, jury and executioners on the City Council.

Clearly, the members of the council want to keep their collective boot on Johnson’s throat for as long as possible, lest he dive off into the deep end again with his goofy shenanigans that have brought embarrassment to himself, his office and the City of DeBary.

Now, in my view, certain members of this city council – in conspiracy with certain key staff members and “consultants” – have been responsible for more crimes against the people of DeBary than any other entity in modern times.

Conduct that makes the Mayor’s goofy tweets and Facebook posts pale in comparison.

Their personal and professional conduct in misrepresenting their constituency has been reprehensible – and I am confident that they will ultimately be held accountable.

They are shameless and almost criminally stupid.

Let’s take, for example, the curious case of Vice Mayor Lisa Handy-Peters.

The animus between Ms. Handy-Peters and Mayor Johnson is palpable – even to the most casual observer.  Now, Johnson is alleging that he overheard the Vice Mayor telling someone at City Hall that she has already made up her mind about his fate at the hearing.

When confronted, Handy-Peters advised that she had just returned from her father’s funeral and blamed her statement convicting the Mayor before hearing the first shred of evidence on “all kinds of emotions.”

I’m sorry for her loss – but given their personal history –  I seriously doubt it was a sudden onset of emotions that prompted her private condemnation of Mayor Johnson.

Then, in the worst case of quibbling the facts in this entire sordid affair, Vice Mayor Handy-Peters tells the Daytona Beach News-Journal she didn’t “want to say that I didn’t say them, but what was the prompt to them?  What was the context?”

This clumsy excuse from the same pillar of character that has attempted, time-and-again, to deflect her responsibility in the on-going criminal allegations surrounding the Gemini Springs Annex debacle (“I only looked at pretty pictures!!”  “I didn’t vote on anything!!”).

I’m going to say this in the kindest way possible:  Ms. Handy-Peters – resign.

Get the hell out.

Your refusal to take responsibility for your actions, and those of your hired hands, are a direct reflection on your professional ethics and abysmal lack of leadership.

You are rapidly becoming the poster child for this steaming crock of shit.

Despicable.  Really.

In my view, it’s high time that the citizens of DeBary consider dis-incorporation of this unfortunate city – returning governance to Volusia County – and shutting down this ill-fated three ring circus once and for all.

Preferably before the lawyers and leeches peck away what remains of their hard-earned tax dollars.

As screwed up as county government is, in my view, it’s a damn sight better than the open corruption and disastrous lack of leadership that has preyed upon the good citizens and stigmatized the City of DeBary for far too long.

Breaking down the tent would be a fitting monument to a group of incompetent and incapable losers who cozied up to half-bright human jackals in an overweening fit of greed and put their own arrogant self-importance before the needs of those they were elected to serve.

Yes, if these depraved village idiots had any sense of decency left they would call an emergency session and turn out the lights on this foul experiment once and for all.

But they won’t.

Stay tuned, kids.

The Mayor’s fate will be decided in special session on August 24 – or, if history repeats, maybe it won’t.  Regardless, it’s going to be an interesting (and incredibly expensive) night for the good citizens of DeBary. . .

(Art Credit: Original Illustration of John Tenniel from “Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland”)

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