I have a suspicion that most people are only interested in government during an election year – or when the wheel comes off the cart. Once the whole “thrill of victory, agony of defeat” of the election cycle wanes, government is about as interesting to most people as watching paint dry.
I also suspect that those who govern us – the politicians we elect every two or four years – know this, and use it to their full advantage.
Let’s face it, attending a local government meeting is like getting a root canal – most people only find themselves in the seat when it’s absolutely necessary to their immediate health and welfare.
In my experience, the gallery of a typical municipal meeting is populated by a handful of political gadflies, disinterested staff members, and one or two bored real estate attorneys catching up on paperwork while waiting to speak on behalf of a client.
Most agendas are pretty benign stuff to sit through after the uproar of the election season – clamor that always seems to settle into more of the same despite the fiery campaign rhetoric promising “change.”
Things generally move too slow to generate much real interest.
I think Max Weber said it best in his 1919 lecture, Politik als Beruf, when he described politics as the “slow boring of hard boards.”
When done well, the process of municipal governance is symbiotic – functioning as a deliberative and collaborative arrangement that results in both organizational stability and quality services at affordable prices. But like most interdependent systems, when things are mismanaged – or the written or unwritten rules are ignored – the entire structure of government comes apart like a bad flywheel.
That’s when things get interesting.
If there is a strong city manager in place, the ship can often be righted and the wild oscillations of discord stopped through effective leadership, the constructive input of concerned citizens, or even force of personality.
But in the absence of a steady hand, it can quickly become a rudderless vessel looking for a place to sink.
It also helps to have lucid, smart and functional adults occupying key roles – elected officials who have the instinctive ability to collectively put the needs of the community ahead of their own self-interests.
Unfortunately, the City of DeBary has neither.
As often happens in weakly led organizations, cliques and factions can also form in government.
When one member of the elected body sets themselves apart and openly criticizes their colleagues, or critiques the system, the others naturally feel threatened and unjustly ridiculed. That’s human nature, and you don’t need a PhD in organizational management to understand the systemic problems it can create.
At issue for the citizens of DeBary is that their mayor, Clint Johnson – a self-described contrarian who bucks the system like a Brahma bull on acid – went completely off the reservation and began brazenly mocking and deriding his fellow council members, political detractors and city administrators – texting, tweeting and posting on social media like a deranged teenaged girl.
In the process, he pissed off a lot of people – for good and for ill.
Perhaps Mayor Johnson accomplished what he set out to do.
Sometimes shaking up the process from the inside out and stimulating good old fashioned upheaval in tired and ineffective systems can be a good thing. Especially in situations where utter corruption and gross mismanagement are running rampant – and that was certainly the case in DeBary City Hall.
But when the ceremonial head of the municipality wages personal attacks on his colleagues and staffers – then stands behind the free speech provisions of the First Amendment – he must expect an equal and opposite reaction from his contemporaries on the dais, in the halls of power, and from the community at large.
Besides, the Mayor’s conduct was self-indulgent and beneath the dignity of his high office. He has some weird situational ethics – but no one can argue that he’s doing the job as he sees it. Right or wrong.
Clint Johnson should be ashamed of his strange conduct – and, truth be told – I think he is.
Unfortunately, the patently corrupt and insufferably incompetent former city manager, Dan Parrott, fell victim to the herd mentality that the remainder of the council used as a weird coping mechanism to protect themselves – and their egos – from the Gemini Springs media onslaught and Mayor Johnson’s incessant clowning.
In what I’m sure he thought was his last, best opportunity, Parrott trotted out the DeBary City Charter and began cobbling together a laundry list of “violations” – cut from whole cloth – which he would ultimately use to neuter Mayor Johnson and appease the bloodlust of those on the council that had been likewise humiliated.
These ridiculous “charges” are the most convoluted mishmash of overblown and nonsensical bullshit that I – or anyone in my sphere – have ever seen. And when it comes to small town politics, I’ve seen some supernaturally strange things. Trust me.
To make matters worse, the klutzy city attorney, Kurt Ardaman, put on his lawyerin’ cap (the one with the propeller on top) and rubber stamped Parrott’s silly allegations – and a few more they concocted before the hearing – like the good little sycophantically inept brownnoser he is.
But before Parrott could take his revenge, he was exposed as a congenitally greedy shit-toad and run out of town with a poke chockfull of taxpayer money under his arm.
Of course, Parrott’s departure didn’t discourage the council members from wielding his goofy indictment like a club. For months they have used it to keep Clint Johnson treed until they can stage a kangaroo court – one where they serve as judge, jury and executioner – to publicly shame then jettison his ass.
All this despite the fact Mayor Johnson was duly elected by majority vote of the citizens of DeBary – just like they were.
And that’s what separates a representative democracy from a Wednesday night popularity contest at a sorority house.
Men and women have fought and died to protect and preserve our inalienable right to cast our sacred vote in the most effective democratic process in the history of the world. In fact, our military is forward deployed in harm’s way right now doing just that.
And no one – not Dan Parrott, Kurt Ardaman, Ron McLemore or the feckless DeBary City Council – have the right to reverse the will of the people on dubious accusations incubated in the heat of political animus and grown from paranoid bickering.
Ignoring the will of the electorate is not being true to the vocation of politics. That’s a lynch mob.
Another thing ol’ Max Weber said way back in 1919 that I believe still holds a kernel of wisdom for today’s elected officials:
“(Politics) requires passion as well as perspective. Certainly all historical experience confirms – that man would not have achieved the possible unless time and again he had reached out for the impossible. But to do that, a man must be a leader, and more than a leader, he must be a hero as well, in a very sober sense of the word. And even those who are neither leaders nor heroes must arm themselves with that resolve of heart which can brave even the failing of all hopes. This is necessary right now, otherwise we shall fail to attain that which it is possible to achieve today. Only he who is certain not to destroy himself in the process should hear the call of politics; he must endure even though he finds the world too stupid or too petty for that which he would offer. In the face of that he must have the resolve to say ‘and yet,’—for only then does he hear the ‘call’ of politics.”
There is still time for the DeBary City Council to act like statesmen, restore trust, and achieve great things for the constituents they serve.
Time to act in the truest and highest spirit of the public service and put stupid and petty personal conflicts and political quarrels aside – begin living up to their oath of office – and stop this harmful, vengeful and counter-productive removal effort before any more damage is done.
Time to do the right thing, for the right reason – even though the alternative would bring the fleeting pleasure of vanquishing a political foe.
For once – act with integrity. Act with honor. Restore civic pride and confidence in your long-suffering community.
If you can’t do that – if you feel compelled to pursue this farcical charade – at least have the common decency to conduct this bogus hearing in compliance with Florida’s open meetings law.
Allow the citizens – the voters – their right to stare straight into the faces of these elected and appointed public officials as they perpetrate this sham against the time-honored principles of democracy, good governance and the electorate of the City of DeBary.
UPDATE: The Daytona Beach News-Journal and other media outlets are reporting that Interim City Manager Ron McLemore has reversed course and agreed that his original memorandum limiting access to Wednesday night’s “forfeiture hearing” was wrong-headed and contrary to Florida law.
I suspect that a telephone call from the Attorney General’s Office explaining the ramifications of closing the meeting on dubious “security concerns” was a bad idea.
Now, I wonder if the AG asked Kurt Ardaman – you know, DeBary’s city attorney who keeps approving these harebrained ideas – to bring his law degree to Tallahassee so they can look at it under a light?