Last year, Barker’s View cut its teeth as an opinion blog on what would become known as “The Debacle in DeBary” – a squalid tale of treachery, abject greed and the base arrogance of political power run amok in Tiny Town.
As I came to understand it, over the course of months, the City of DeBary devolved into a crystal example of what can happen when a small-town government becomes hopelessly enmeshed in the intrigues of property developers and those who – for a healthy fee – navigate the fast and loose Turkish bazaar that passes for environmental protection and permitting in the Sunshine State.
The city’s surreptitious scheme to develop some 102-acres of environmentally sensitive land adjacent to the DeBary SunRail station was first exposed by the incredible investigative journalism of the Daytona Beach News-Journal’s Dinah Voyles Pulver.
Her outstanding reportage peeled the onion on the St. John’s River Water Management District governing board’s permitting process – to include the fact public officials transferred public funds to Chairman John Miklos and his Orlando-based “environmental consultancy” for his personal assistance in securing SJRWMD permissions for the transit oriented development.
For those joining the fun late – you read that right: The Chairman of the SJRWMD Governing Board received money from public and private clients to lobby for their interests in front of the very state regulatory board he oversees.
Perhaps more disturbing, in Florida – arguably the most openly corrupt state in the union – that level of quid pro quo sleaze is perfectly acceptable – even encouraged by our reptilian governor.
Yep. When pressed, the Florida Commission on Ethics – you know, the people who are charged with protecting the public’s trust in government – called no harm, no foul.
It got better.
We later learned that DeBary’s city attorney, A. Kurt Ardaman, had a business relationship with Chairman Miklos – something he conveniently failed to disclose to his clients.
Then – as if things couldn’t get more bizarre – last summer, disgraced former City Manager Dan Parrott fled the building with a sack full of “severance” money just ahead of gross sexual discrimination allegations – but not before he and Ardaman cobbled together some curious “charter violations” against the community’s chief whistleblower, and duly elected mayor, Clint Johnson.
The charges essentially involved a series of goofy tweets and opinionated social media posts Mayor Johnson made voicing his frustrations with an increasingly out-of-control municipal government.
Once everything was in place, a Kangaroo Court was convened and the will of the people – the sacred majority vote of DeBary residents – was arbitrarily overturned by the city’s four remaining thin-skinned, mean-spirited elected officials in the most blatant act of political vengeance ever witnessed in the history of local governance.
They were embarrassed. They didn’t like him. So, they took him out with extreme prejudice.
Somewhere along the line a local residential developer took heavy equipment and brazenly churned acres of sensitive natural lands near Konomac Lake into a primordial ooze of black muck – right under the nose of seemingly clueless municipal regulators.
Locals reported observing endangered tortoises and other creatures fleeing for their lives – but state officials were later unable to confirm the presence of protected wildlife on the parcel.
A bulldozer blade can have that effect.
Add to that the fact the Office of the State Attorney and Florida Department of Law Enforcement developed probable cause that a public records crime had been committed and obtained a search warrant which was served during a highly-publicized law enforcement raid on City Hall.
The story goes on-and-on – you can read all about it in the News-Journal archives – or review my convoluted views on the sordid mess elsewhere on this site.
For a while, it was fascinating to watch. I mean, it had all the elements of a good Carl Hiaasen novel.
Then, things just turned sad. For me, anyway.
It was like watching the hapless victim of a strongarm robbery being pummeled into submission while thugs in expensive suits rummaged through the wounded dupe’s pockets.
Frankly, I quit opining on the fiasco when the current city commission agreed to provide interim City Manager Ron McLemore – a veteran bureaucrat with an incredibly checkered past – an open-ended contract paying full-time wages for part-time service.
(I wasn’t surprised. In my view, the consistent characteristics of McLemore’s career involve negotiating maximum compensation for half-assed performance, documented instances of conducting personal business while receiving public funds, unresolved allegations of sexual harassment and preternaturally creepy personal conduct in the workplace. Those types always seem to land on their feet in places in crisis – especially when the options are limited.)
In truth, what turned me off was the fact that, during each phase of this unfolding Greek tragedy, city officials – those who were elected and appointed to protect the public’s interest – kept hiring a long parade of highly-paid Winter Park lawyers to explain and aggressively defend the increasingly over-the-top shenanigans at City Hall.
Everyone who was anyone in the politically entrenched ivy-covered law firms near Park Avenue got a piece of the public pie – served up a la mode by A. Kurt Ardaman, Esquire. The legal fees foisted on DeBary taxpayers piled up so fast and furious that even seasoned local attorneys – real sharks accustomed to fleecing the lame and the stupid – became outright queasy.
Look, I’ve seen a lot of brutal shit in my day, but can anyone with a conscience not avert their eyes from the metaphorical scene of a baby seal being repeatedly bludgeoned with a spiked mattock?
So, eventually, I took the cowards way out and simply ignored it all.
Not my monkeys. Not my circus.
This week we learned that the Office of the State Attorney concluded their investigation of the City of DeBary when prosecutors publicly announced they were unable to develop sufficient evidence of civil or criminal violations of Florida’s public records law.
Perhaps by design, too much time has passed for anyone other than those directly affected to have any real emotional response to the news. It is what it is.
Naturally, the subjects of the inquiry were “tickled and thrilled” by the outcome.
Something else we learned was that DeBary taxpayers once again picked up the bill – nearly $14,000 – for an extremely skillful defense attorney who was hired to represent the personal interests of elected and appointed officials who were under criminal investigation.
Those same public officials refused to sit for interviews with investigators on the good advice of their tax-funded attorney after he reviewed the search warrant affidavit – then made an unsuccessful attempt to obtain “use immunity” for his clients, a legal procedure which protects a witness against the governments use of his or her immunized testimony in the prosecution of a criminal act.
When asked by the Daytona Beach News-Journal if the inability to formally interview council members and staff impacted the outcome of the investigation, a state attorney spokesperson cryptically responded, “Obviously we made our decision on the evidence available.”
So, another chapter in this sordid story ends.
Hopefully, the final chapter.
While those who wandered off into the festering quagmire of the Gemini Springs Annex deal may consider this some weird victory, I can’t help but feel that the true victims of this shit-storm of mismanagement, ineptitude, and petty political arrogance – the long-suffering citizens of DeBary – have been left holding the bag that was once a quaint riverside community of great promise.
Oddly, at the end of the day, I feel terribly sorry for everyone involved.
Perhaps now those members of the community who still care will see the benefit of strong, ethical management and representation to the future fiscal, social and civic health of DeBary.
It’s not too late to change course, clean house and start fresh.
Correct the sins of the past and learn from painful mistakes.
Please don’t let the tragedy of the “Debacle in DeBary” be the legacy of this beautiful, but horribly tarnished, community.