The results of a recent nationwide study found that more than half of all American’s no longer trust their government.
Interestingly, this widespread suspicion that those we elect to high office no longer have our best interests at heart spans all political ideologies and demographics.
If you live anywhere near Volusia County, I realize this doesn’t come as a surprise – after all, our confidence in governance here on Florida’s Fun Coast has scored just south of whale turds on the “faith and hope” scale for over a decade.
As government at all levels does everything in its considerable power to disenfranchise citizens – from discouraging public participation to the very real perception that special interests and campaign contributors receive the full attention of our elected officials while ignoring the needs of constituents – the more those of us who pay the bills simply disengage from the process.
Recently, the City of Daytona Beach changed its format for hearing public comment – limiting citizen participation to a half-hour period after the city commission meeting. Following a short break at the close of business, residents are given just 2.5 minutes to speak on “any topic of concern,” so long as those remarks don’t include “personal attacks” on the “City Commission, City Staff or members of the public.”
The Volusia County Council “welcomes” public input thirty-minutes before their meeting even starts – and maybe our elected officials are present – or maybe they aren’t.
As a result, most citizens I’ve spoken to feel that their elected representatives no longer care what they have to say.
These overly formal processes that stifle open communication and make it increasingly difficult to present our grievances to those in a position of power further alienate us from our representatives – slowly eroding the public’s fragile trust.
In turn, we stand by and watch while our local ‘Rich & Powerful’ influence public policy simply by their mere presence in council chambers and it becomes crystal clear where We, The People stand in the political pecking order.
Somewhere along the way, our local political system in Volusia County has changed from a government of the people, by the people and for the people to a bastardized oligarchy – a shadowy means to an end wherein a few wealthy political insiders are given near carte blanche access to our elected and appointed officials who have become totally beholden to every whim of their campaign sugar daddies.
Unfortunately, as the election season begins to simmer, this greasy process of “pay to play” is ramping up with all the right last names pouring thousands of dollars into the campaign coffers of their hand-select candidates.
In a recent article by Mark Harper, writing in the Daytona Beach News-Journal entitled, “Place Your Bets – Donations give insights into Volusia/Flagler campaigns,” we learned that former Sheriff Ben Johnson has amassed a war chest totaling over $171,700 (through March 1st).
“Johnson, elected to four consecutive terms as sheriff before retiring after 2016, has a list of more than 400 donors, with 83 percent of his donations from Volusia. Insurance magnates Hyatt Brown, Powell Brown, their wives and nine Brown & Brown Insurance Co. affiliates each contributed the max $1,000, for a total of $13,000 to Johnson’s campaign. Developer Mori Hosseini has also gone in big supporting Johnson, using 16 of his ICI Homes’ subsidiaries to make $8,000 worth of contributions.”
By contrast, Johnson’s opponent – Rev. L. Ron Durham – has garnered just $14K over the same period.
Look, I happen to like Ben Johnson.
We were colleagues for many years, and I always found him to be extremely generous with his time and agency assets, tirelessly supporting the municipalities and working hard to serve the needs of his constituents with an easy-going, very personable and approachable style.
Incumbent District 1 Councilman “Sleepy” Pat Patterson, has collected some $29,440 – more than double his nearest competitor. According to the report, “$5,000 of that came from Mori Hosseini affiliates,” with another $2,500 from entities associated with Daytona business owner Theresa Doan.
Interestingly, only about one-quarter of Sleepy Pat’s contributions originated in West Volusia – his area of representation.
Even more disturbing is the curious campaign of The Very Reverend Dr. Fred Lowery – West Volusia’s District 5 incumbent – who reports just 9% of his $20,700 in campaign contributions coming from his district.
According to the News-Journal, “By contrast, Daytona Beach-based Brown & Brown Insurance and related entities gave him $7,000 and Hosseini’s companies donated $5,500 to the Enterprise pastor.”
Look, it doesn’t take a rocket surgeon to see that the Big Money Machine is kicking on all cylinders early in this election season.
But is that necessarily a good thing for those benefiting from our High Panjandrums of Political Power?
In my view, how Ben Johnson and the others rationalize the obvious to concerned voters is going to be a very difficult task this fall.
I have a suspicion that the worm is beginning to turn.
Smart people are beginning to question how much longer a system that seemingly exists to turn public funds into private profits is sustainable.
Most recently, even those who stood to benefit the most came to the sobering realization that Jane and John Q. Public are concerned about the basic fairness of asking every man, woman, child and visitor to pay for unchecked growth while prolific campaign donors in the real estate development community continue to cash checks.
And the questions don’t stop there.
I’ve said it before – what we are seeing is the time-honored principle of Return on Investment at work.
Let’s face facts: The local donor class make massive campaign contributions with the full knowledge that their personal, civic and professional interests will outweigh those of the “Average Joe” every time.
In the end, that is what they consider an appropriate return on their investment – and given the astronomical “economic incentives” that our elected officials have showered on this exclusive group in recent years – I would say they have done extremely well on the risk/reward scale.
Is what we experience in Volusia County a form of quid pro quo corruption – campaign dollars for political favors?
I don’t know. But it has a whiff of the shit about it.
What I do know is that this open financial manipulation of the system – which scares off some candidates altogether and ensures that a select few have the wherewithal to get elected and defend the status quo – is destroying the public’s trust in their government.
In my view, we are beginning to see the very real manifestations of this genuine lack of confidence in things like the recent sales tax referendum debacle, and the growing gulf between those who pay the bills – and those who reap the benefits of our hard-earned tax dollars.
I think this is going to be a very interesting part of the political equation come this fall.