Kudos to those who seek the truth – and report it

Shortly after I founded this opinion blog, I realized that I had become everything I once hated.

And that was a good thing.

During my many years of municipal government service, I was often taken to task by those we insiders euphemistically referred to as Cave People – Citizens Against Virtually Everything.

The open criticism infuriated me, mostly because it challenged and humbled my over-sized ego.

Then, when I retired and began writing my opinions on the issues of the day, it dawned on me how important working journalists – and independent bloggers who opine on the issues they uncover – are to the process of keeping government honest.

Trust me – anything that makes our elected and appointed government officials uncomfortable and keeps them on-their-toes is a positive.

It lets them know someone is watching.

Much of what I write on Barker’s View is a riff on the news and civic issues published by the Daytona Beach News-Journal.  They do the heavy lifting – then guys like me have the luxury of sitting back and tut-tutting about those who Roosevelt described as, “actually in the arena.”

Earlier this year I had the pleasure of serving on editor Pat Rice’s readers panel, a group assembled to provide feedback during the revamp of the News-Journal’s hard copy and on-line products.

I’m not sure I provided any actionable suggestions, but I did learn quite a bit about the mechanics of putting out a daily newspaper – including the competition of ideas on everything from the front-page layout to editorial content.

I think everyone would agree, like newspapers all over the country, the News-Journal has faced some serious challenges – and the corporate outsourcing of key printing, proofing and publishing services, along with “downsizing” efforts in the newsroom – has not gone unnoticed by those of us who consume the final product.

In my view, the consistent bright spot down on 6th Street is the quality of work produced by the reporters down in the trenches, working hard to bring us the news of the day.

I can tell you from personal experience that police reporter Lyda Longa is the hardest working journalist in the industry.

In addition to being incredibly bright and intuitive, she practices an old-fashioned shoe leather reporting style that goes beyond the canned press releases and spin of government information specialists to get to the meat-and-potatoes of any story she covers.

And she’s a nice person, too.

If anyone has seen it all, it’s Lyda Longa. Yet, somehow, she maintains compassion and respect for the subjects and system she covers.

And if you’re not reading Patricio Balona’s excellent reporting on Wild West Volusia, you’re doing it wrong.

I am also convinced that Dinah Voyles-Pulver’s outstanding coverage of what I politely call the ‘Debacle in DeBary’ is Pulitzer worthy.

Imagine if Ms. Pulver had not doggedly followed the money trail to uncover the critical link between John Miklos and city officials – or been stymied by now disgraced former city manager Dan Parrott’s ham-handed attempts to deny her public information?

She has discovered so many smoking guns in one story that I’m convinced all a prosecutor would need to indict the entire DeBary City Commission is to allow a grand jury to read Ms. Pulver’s articles in order of publication.

Powerful stuff.

Recently, Eileen Zaffiro-Kean wrote an excellent series on the City of Daytona Beach’s shocking plan to pay seven times the just value for two small beachside parking lots.

Rarely am I struck completely dumb, but the barefaced nature of this burgeoning scandal took even a grizzled old government hack like me by surprise.

Thanks to what Eileen so deftly described as the deafening “public outcry” spurred by her reportage, Daytona Beach City Manager Jim Chisholm was forced to pull the item from the commission agenda, literally at the eleventh hour.

Just remember – there is a reason why government officials made a very real attempt to pay some $862,000 for private property valued at a fraction of that.  The “rest of the story” is out there, and I have no doubt that we will learn more about the who, what, why and how of this mushrooming mess in coming days and weeks.

Kudos to these intrepid reporters – and the editors and staff of the Daytona Beach News-Journal.

I understand that the news business is a hard dollar, even on a good day.  But on those occasions when the News-Journal allows their best horses to have their head and run free, We, the People, are well-served by the critical information they provide.

At the end of the day, it’s up to us – the silent majority of weary taxpayers – to take that information and let those who accept public funds for service in the public interest know that there is some shit we won’t tolerate – ever.

I’m pretty sure this is how the system is supposed to work.

 

Volusia Politics: To laugh or cry?

I had to laugh.

It was either that or throw myself on the floor and have a good cry.

Earlier this week, I saw an urgent social media post by outgoing Volusia County councilman Josh Wagner.  He was all whippy over a proposed action coming before the council later this week.

Councilman Wagner was screaming like Paul Revere, sounding the Klaxon and imploring people to pack the chambers wearing uniformed white shirts to ram home the point that Volusia County residents can raise a strong and united front when the chips are down.

What was this momentous act of governance that warranted our collective march on Deland?

Finally! A compassionate resolution to the homeless problem?

Or how about a reduction in government spending?  A pay increase for deputies?  Allocations for infrastructure repair and replacement?  An end to county corporate welfare schemes?  Securing beach access?  A limitation on insider influence in county government?  A motion to terminate County Manager Jim Dinneen and his $325,000+ annual salary?  A pledge to work collaboratively with the municipalities for the common good?  A strategic plan to revitalize our core tourist district?  A long-term solution to regional water issues?  Movement on the extension of SunRail service?

No.

Reducing the current buffer zone for surfers at area fishing piers.

Look, I don’t sit here and make this shit up, folks.

Frankly, I couldn’t if I tried.

Councilman Wagner, the mealy-mouthed backstabber who masqueraded as a beach driving advocate to get elected – then turned-tail when it mattered most – wants to divert our attention to some non-issue as he creeps out of office to chase ambulances for a living?

No.  I don’t think so.

If Josh Wagner proposed a resolution endorsing chocolate cake – I wouldn’t support it, and neither should you.

Why?  Because he can’t be trusted.

The fact that Josh Wagner is what passes for political “leadership” is indicative of all that’s wrong with Volusia County.

He’s the poster boy for mediocrity.

In my opinion, Josh Wagner remains the only person in Volusia County politics who thinks his opinion still matters, and the only legacy of his worthless political career will be the cheap, mean-spirited divisiveness he brought to any issue at hand.

I look like an elephant – and I’ve got a memory like one.

Others may have forgotten Mr. Wagner’s slimy and embarrassing involvement in the Waverly Media fiasco – or his close, personal relationship with Jimmy Sotolongo, the convicted grifter and criminal manipulator who is currently fashioning anal bungs out of apple cores in federal prison.

Or his obstructionist name-calling during the stand-off with the City of Daytona Beach over encamped homeless at the administration building.

But I haven’t.

If he accomplished anything, Josh Wagner set a new low for political bait-and-switch, and his complete lack of concern for the needs and wants of his constituents will remain the stuff of legend.

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Joshua Wagner

He wasn’t just wrong.  He was malicious – as half-bright, self important politicians often are.

If there is one bright spot on the horizon, it is that Mr. Wagner’s reign of arrogance is rapidly coming to an unceremonious close.  Soon, all we – the long-suffering taxpayers – must endure is his endless tacky television spots.

He will not be missed.

Meanwhile, back in Daytona Beach, the city commission is set to spend $826,000 in taxpayer funds for two beachside parking lots with a combined assessed value of just $125,000.

You read that right – and I have nothing more to ad.

It is what it is.

If I seem hyper-sensitive to the machinations of what passes for government in Volusia County, it is this level of mind-boggling idiocy that keeps me on edge.

How can people who have been elected and appointed to high public office have the audacity to look their constituents in the eye and attempt to convince them that using public funds to grossly overpay for private property is in their best interest?

Who are these people?

Clearly, Daytona Beach Redevelopment Director Reed Berger is delusional – and an abject failure at anything close to “redevelopment” or revitalization.  Frankly, in most places he would be institutionalized for even suggesting to a newspaper reporter that the assessed value of a property under consideration for purchase with public funds, “doesn’t mean anything.”

Not when your spending other people’s money, I suppose.

As a Volusia County taxpayer, I’ve reached the point of critical concern.

There is no denying the fact that huge sums of public funds are being funneled to a precious few well-connected individuals while the rest of us suffer in stunned silence.

And absolutely nothing is going to change.

The deck is stacked – not that it matters – because you and I aren’t even in the game.

We live in an environment where we pay exorbitant taxes for substandard or non-existent public services (don’t take my word for it, take a drive on the beachside, or mid-town, or Ridgewood Avenue, etc.).  Only to see our hard-earned dollars skimmed off or openly given away to insiders and power brokers who could care less about you, your family, or the community we call home.

The ‘system’ has become horribly addicted to our money.  And like any junkie I ever knew, the only thing it truly gives a shit about is the habit.  Tax, spend with the right people, repeat.

If we are to be brutally robbed by the same treacherous scum day-after-day, year-after-year, whose fault is it?

The thieves who prey on us?

Or ours, for tolerating it?

Florida Politics: Corruption, Cronyism and Corporate Welfare

I was speaking to a veteran economic development director the other day.  Just shooting the breeze, really.

As we spoke, I took the opportunity to congratulate the success of places like Deland, New Smyrna Beach, and Flagler Beach – communities that have identified their unique assets and developed them to full potential.

That doesn’t happen by accident.

It takes visionary elected and appointed officials, supported by talented professionals with the skill to craft a Mainstreet Deland, Flagler Avenue or the look and feel of a quaint beach town.

During our chat, my friend lamented how many business interests relocating to Florida – or even transferring operations from one city to another – instinctively begin negotiations with a prospective community by asking how much “incentive” money is on the table.

Regardless of their longevity, or past track record, those doing business here are conditioned to expect lucrative tax breaks, redevelopment incentives, infrastructure improvements and actual cash infusions from government with little, if any, performance metrics or expectations.

Why shouldn’t they?

Florida has become the poster child for corporate welfare – and it’s becoming a bidding war between communities seeking to attract new businesses and the jobs they bring.

Let’s face it – once they’ve seen the piles of public money dumped in places like Tanger Outlets, One Daytona, or the increasingly rag-tag Oceanwalk Shoppes – wild horses couldn’t keep their hands out of our collective pocket.

Clearly, Economic Development professionals have an interesting job attracting business and industry to the mosaic of municipalities that make up Volusia County.

When done properly, a community’s economic development department will take a holistic approach – working with planners to carefully select, recruit and position businesses in a way that provides the company with the best opportunity for commercial success, while enhancing quality of life and building a distinctive civic brand.

In short, they carefully shape an environment where people and businesses want to be.

Under Florida’s current economic development strategy, local and state governments are quickly becoming community banks – offering huge sums of public money to private interests – and whenever you are playing fast-and-loose with other people’s money, the risk for favoritism and corruption is high.

Trust me.  I’ve worked with some of the best economic development types – and some of the worst.

Here on the Fun Coast, Volusia County and the City of Daytona Beach have set a high mark when it comes to pissing away our hard-earned tax dollars to satiate the personal wants and professional needs of entrenched power brokers and political insiders.

Always cloaked in the dubious guise of “economic incentives.”

There was a time when government assisted the development of a strong commercial tax base by identifying and reducing expensive permitting, onerous regulations, and promoting fair practices for the benefit of consumers.

Local, state and federal government ensured that the playing field was level –  then allowed the natural competition of the free market to work without unnatural stimuli.

It meant that only the best ideas survived, and that prices for goods and services were controlled by marketplace factors, such as quality of service and the law of supply and demand.

Look, I don’t have an MBA – I can barely balance a checkbook – but it doesn’t take a Harvard Business School graduate to understand that the artificial infusion of public funds, tax breaks and other government incentives (read: giveaways) to a well-connected few undermines the very foundation of fair trade.

In a recent piece by Jim Turner of the Florida News Service, we learned that Enterprise Florida – perhaps the most grotesque facilitator of corporate welfare in these United States – has hired a new Chief Operating Officer in former lawmaker, Chris Hart.

Hart’s appointment comes after former Enterprise Florida chief Bill Johnson quit after Governor “Slick Rick” Scott’s request for some $250 million in “economic development incentives” (our tax dollars) was soundly rejected during the 2016 legislative session.

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Gov. Rick Scott

When the legislature gave their collective middle finger to the Governor’s corporate welfare scheme, some suspicious spending came to light.  That’s when Slick Rick – who serves as EFI’s chairman – commissioned an investigation of the agency’s operations and activities.

The final report determined that Wild Bill Johnson treated himself to expensive dinners, luxury hotel rooms and lavish renovations to his Miami office, among other atrocities.

In one instance, Johnson enjoyed a $359 seafood dinner with his assistant, Max Stuart, at a Tampa area restaurant.  He justified the credit card expenditure as “discussion of area politics and strategy.”

They could have done that over a $2.00 Happy Hour Bud Light.  My treat.

EFI responded that none of the over-the-top personal expenses accumulated by Johnson were paid for with “public funds.”

That claim was later proven to be utter bullshit.

In most places, Johnson would be idling away the hours in state prison.  But this is Florida, the “rules are different here.”

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Bill Johnson

Rather than being prosecuted for converting public funds to private use, Johnson was handed a $132,000 severance check after serving little more than one year in the position which paid $265,000 annually.

Initially, Enterprise Florida was designed to receive funding from both government sources and the private sector – but you know how that goes.  At the end of the day, some 90% of EFI’s incentive funds came from tax money.

Even then, a sizable portion of the few private dollars in the mix went to staff members and administrators in the form of lavish bonuses from something called, well, the “staff bonus pool.”

Hell, Johnson received a $50,000 spiff after just six months on the job.

All this on top of the $25 million the state of Florida kicks in to cover EFI’s operating expenses.

Look, I could write a book on the financial abuses and abject corruption at Enterprise Florida – but you get the drift.

During my working life, I witnessed a similar scenario play out with a former area City Manager, and career “economic development” shill, who never seemed to grasp that “spending money to make money” didn’t necessarily include extravagant dinners, complete with expensive scotch, at restaurants in Atlanta’s tony Buckhead neighborhood.

The point is – this disgusting misappropriation of public funds isn’t limited to state and federal government – and our current system clearly encourages the practice.

In my view, it’s time we demand an end to corporate welfare and cronyism, and allow the natural principles of fair and competitive trade to build a thriving, and sustainable, marketplace.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ERAU: When it rains it pours

For months, I’ve railed against the series of misfortunes and administrative missteps plaguing the beleaguered students, alumni and faculty of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

For those of you with insufficient airspeed – earlier this year, current and former student government members going back 15-years issued an open letter to the university’s board of trustees challenging perceived mismanagement and the outsized influence of Supreme Chairman Mori Hosseini.

This was followed by a vote of no confidence by the faculty senate – the strongest censure available to the disenfranchised professors and associates who develop and present the gold standard in aerospace and engineering curricula.

Stories of extravagant spending by the board – to include a $1 million-dollar chateau at the Paris Air Show, and luxury accommodations during out-of-state meetings – along with questionable travel and expenditures by highly compensated administrators foster the sense that all is not as it seems at our own Harvard of the Sky.

Of course, ERAU “leadership” immediately pooh-poohed the notion that this collective cry for help had any legitimacy, spinning that the measures taken by students and faculty were, “largely symbolic with no legal consequences.”

Well, let me tell you what does have significant consequences.

Earlier this year, a government watchdog blog – John Q. Public – which is authored by a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, obtained an internal Air Force document indicating that a retired General has been accused of sexual assault by a female active duty colonel formerly under his command.

As I understand it, the report refers to three incidents which allegedly occurred between 2007 and 2009, in which the male General is accused of using the power of his position to coerce the complainant into sexual activity.

Why is this important to Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University?

In September, Military.com identified Retired Air Force General – and current ERAU Trustee – Arthur J. Lichte as the subject of the criminal investigation.

Since his retirement in 2010, General Lichte has been a busy man.

In addition to his service at Embry-Riddle, he has also been appointed to the board of directors of European aerospace giant Airbus Group; and Air Transport Services Group, a leading provider of air cargo and logistical services for domestic and international carriers.

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Gen. Arthur Lichte

During his military service, General Lichte once commanded the Air Mobility Command.

As a Volusia County taxpayer (and unofficial member of the Jack L. Hunt Society) who contributed to our recent endowment of $1.5 million dollars in public funds to the university, I have concerns about the optics of allowing General Lichte to remain a voting member of the board while he is under active criminal investigation by the Air Force Office of Special Investigations.

Trust me – I’m not making light of this matter.

I still hold to the old fashioned belief that public funds should be used in the public interest.  And I am highly suspicious whenever our hard-earned tax dollars are appropriated for dubious “economic development” fairy tales.

Once the elected officials have given our money away, no one – and I mean no one – bothers to ensure that our substantial investment is protected.

It just vaporizes.

I also believe that people are innocent until proven guilty, entitled to due process, and the right to confront their accuser in a court of law.  And General Lichte’s 38-years of honorable service to our nation is deserving of our respect and admiration.

My sincere hope is that justice prevails.

But given the sensitivities, and obvious implications for a private university already reeling from internal turmoil, dysfunction and questionable leadership, not to mention the recent arrest of a civil engineering professor on alleged child sex abuse charges, wouldn’t it be in everyone’s best interest – including General Lichte’s – to simply call for his departure from the board until the matter has been decided by military authorities?

As reported by the John Q. Public blog, “Whoever ends up in the cross-hairs of this nascent scandal, it underscores that the high-paid help are no less susceptible to moral, ethical, and indeed criminal fallibility than those who fall under their command.  It’s one of the reasons it’s so important to choose with the utmost care those who will wield massive military authority.  It’s also a reason to responsibly curtail that authority.”

In my view, the same can be said for those appointed to leadership positions in the cloistered confines of a private university in acute crisis, where the enormous influence of one man is being openly and courageously challenged by those who matter most.