Volusia Politics: Cautious Optimism

To say that I am suspicious of Volusia County politicians is an understatement.

I’ve been burned before.  So have you.

Let’s face it, few things in life are more fragile than trust.

Officials and government organizations can spend years developing relationships, establishing confidence and expectations, and providing efficient services in the public interest – only to see it all destroyed by a single lie or act of irresponsibility.

Or, like in Volusia County, it can be one deceitful kick in the head after another – a situation where governance takes the form and appearance of a Turkish bazaar.

A strange, dark place where access is bartered and sold to the highest bidder.

Regardless, once lost, the public trust is nearly impossible to recover.

This morning I read with interest Daytona Beach News-Journal reporter Dustin Wyatt’s excellent interview with incoming county council Chair Ed Kelley.

To his credit, Mr. Wyatt didn’t serve up softballs, he asked the tough questions that we need hard answers to.

To his credit, Mr. Kelley gave some unexpected – but encouraging – answers.

Specifically, Chairman-elect Kelley articulated some very convincing solutions for making council meetings more efficient by curbing the carnival atmosphere and increasing the number of workshops.

He also showed some much-needed leadership in speaking out against the utterly insane practice of providing County Manager Jim Dinneen – perhaps the most grossly overpaid and ineffectual appointed official in the state – with automatic annual pay increases.

In a blatant ‘fuck you’ to their constituents, the former council’s final insult came when they voted unanimously to give Mr. Dinneen a 3% pay raise, bringing his already obscene annual income to $241,000 (estimated at $375,000 with benefits).

“Is he going to leave if he doesn’t get a 3% raise?  No,” said Kelley.

Is he worth ($7,000) more?  He had a list of accomplishments and things he’s done for the past year, but that’s his job.” 

 Well said, Mr. Kelley.   

 The fact is, Jim Dinneen should be fired – not rewarded.

Little Jimmy is considered an autocratic shit by those who work for him – and he has been the single most divisive force ever to disgrace county government.

The Dinneen strategy of ensuring that uber-wealthy political insiders have unfettered access to the public trough, while alienating and insulating elected officials from the true needs of their constituents, has resulted in an unprecedented level of distrust and weary cynicism.

We also learned that Councilman Pat Patterson is seriously out-of-touch with reality.

Delusional, really.

Per the News-Journal interview, Patterson “totally disagrees” with Mr. Kelley’s spot-on assessment of the county manager’s most recent bonus, claiming against all credibility, “I’ve been around Dinneen a lot longer than he has and I’ve witnessed what he’s done.”

We’ve also witnessed what you have done, Mr. Patterson.

At a recent meeting, Councilman Patterson all but prostrated himself before the High Panjandrum of Volusia Politics – Mortenza “Mori” Hosseini – when he stopped by the council chambers to make good on his demand for $1.5 million taxpayer dollars, ostensibly to benefit Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

There was a mawkish familiarity about Patterson’s over-the-top idolization of all Mr. Hosseini represents that nauseated me – and exposed all one needs to know about his true allegiance.

“Sleepy Pat” Patterson is a perennial politician who has been around since the mid-90’s – demonstrably ineffective, but beholden to just the right people.

So, Mr. Patterson, don’t presume to tell your long-suffering constituents that Mr. Dinneen’s annual salary increase is something other than an open gratuity for facilitating the obvious.

Mr. Kelley also gave us his thoughts on reining-in the farcical gatherings that have become what passes for bi-monthly county council meetings.

According to Mr. Kelley, these ineffective and God-awfully long gettogethers have dissolved into something more akin to a ‘social hour’ than a business meeting.

He’s right.

The circus-like atmosphere hit its geophysical nadir during the final meeting of 2016, when former councilman Josh Wagner literally strummed a guitar and performed his worst Weird Al Yankovic impression before a thunderstruck audience.

Seriously, it was bizarre.

When I worked in government, we had an insider phrase for lengthy staff presentations.

We called them “Dog and Pony Shows.”  And make no mistake, they serve a strategic purpose.

They take the emotional energy out of the room.

They cause the elected body, and the public, to lose focus and become apathetic to the issue being discussed.

They limit the amount of time available for critical discussion and citizen participation.

Most important, when performed correctly, these presentations subliminally telegraph the city/county managers preferred outcome (which has normally been set in stone during individual manager/council member discussions well prior to the actual meeting.)

I equate long-winded staff presentations to ‘verbal anesthesia’ – and Jim Dinneen uses this established practice to full-effect.

Trust me.  I’m a past-master at the art.  Ask me to give a budget presentation and I’ll turn even the most ferocious political gadfly into a sleepy-eyed kitten, purring unconscious in their seat in the gallery.

As a veteran politician, I suspect Mr. Kelley is well acquainted with the procedure as well.

“I just don’t think (County Council meetings) are efficient and productive,” Kelley said. “I don’t think you need to have a presentation where someone tells me ‘How very good’ something is three times. That’s for me to decide if it’s very good. You sit there and you listen and you think, ‘Come on, get on with it, wrap it up.’”

Indeed.

I suspect we will see some form of push-back from the county manager’s office.

Workshops are an effective way of allowing elected officials to discuss important issues between themselves before they take definitive action, all without violating the Sunshine law.

This level of open communication and collaboration is anathema to Dinneen’s management style.

In fact, Mr. Dinneen knows that his ability to effectively control information, and shape policy outside the confines of a public meeting, is critical to maintaining control and covering the mistakes and omissions of his administration.

I’m incredibly pleased by what Mr. Kelley said.

But he also told us during the campaign that he was a beach driving supporter – when his actions proved him to be anything but.

Hence, my skepticism.

Unfortunately, I’ve been around long enough to know that the proof is exposed in the actual arena, where business as usual is always the preferred course of small-minded bureaucrats.

Clearly, our new council will be shaped by Mr. Kelley’s political acumen – but only time will tell if he has the strength of character to fundamentally change the current path of county government and restore the public’s trust.

5 thoughts on “Volusia Politics: Cautious Optimism

  1. I am from Jacksonville FL recently. I was a citizen proactivist up there suggesting and volunteering to help government be more effective. I attended my first county council meeting here in Volusia literally 5 months ago. I could not take the meetings, the meetings go on for hours. The participants literally pat each other on their backs the entire time. On recent meeting, the meeting was started and literally 4 minutes later they paused the meeting for 20 minutes to do something un related. The meetings need to be shortened by 75%. Public comment should be a part of the meeting early on and all council members should be required to remain in their seats and listen to us.
    I understand the County has at least $400,000,000. in reserves. With this huge reserve account, why am high paying such massive property taxes on my home? We are the second highest property taxed county in Florida.

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  2. Thank You…Always on point and always a voice for the rest of us…I hope Chairman Kelly will also be a voice for the people and not the rich and connected…

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  3. Sadly, this seems to be another method for eliminating the public from participating in their governments decision. Not purposely (or maybe so) but these meetings will be difficult for the public to attend.
    Decisions will be made in those meetings and when presented at council meetings it seems as though any objections raised by the citizens can easily be ignored. Our only hope, it would seem, is for the News-Journal to provide indepth coverage of these meetings in their reporting. Unfortunately, not many folks are aware of your effort to expose the under belly of our local politics

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