On Volusia: A Crisis of Conscience

One of the great passions of my life is aviation.

While other kids were interested in baseball cards and comic book heroes – I grew up, looking up – scanning the skies for airplanes and dreaming of the thrill and freedom of flight.

I remember as a young boy, sitting at the dining room table in my parent’s home, with a cut-down broom for a control stick and an open Encyclopedia Britannica – reading about aerodynamics and chair flying to exotic places in my imaginary Grumman Albatross.

One of the first books I ever read was Wind, Sand and Stars by the incomparable “winged poet,” Antoine de Saint-Exupery.  It kindled in me a love of flight and the sense of adventure that only rising from the earth, defying gravity, and returning when and where you want can bring.

It is written that flying changes your vantage point, literally and metaphorically.  As Amelia Earhart said, “You haven’t seen a tree until you’ve seen its shadow from the sky.”

It is also incredibly unforgiving of errors in judgement.

While training for my commercial pilot’s license, and later the certificated flight instructor rating, I learned many interesting things that have carried over into my personal life, like the process of analytical thinking – the discipline to use a systematic mental process to determine the best course of action in response to a given set of circumstances.

It is what pilots call “aeronautical decision-making.”

While many systems exist, the one I learned in flight school is the DECIDE model – Detect, Estimate, Choose, Identify, Do and Evaluate.

Detection of a problem begins with recognizing that a change has occurred, first perceived by the senses – perhaps no more than a “feeling” that something isn’t right – then using experience, training, skill and insight to identify the nature and severity of the issue.

When a problem has been properly identified, the pilot must evaluate the need to react to it and determine what, if any, actions are required to resolve the situation in the time available – then assess the risks and choose the best course of action by identifying solutions that will lead to a successful outcome.

Then, do something – perform the most suitable action – and evaluate the decision to see if it was correct.

Sometimes the pilot has the time, altitude and airspeed to think analytically and work through a problem – and sometimes this decision-making process must come almost instinctively to affect a desirable outcome.

Proper decision-making is important because it defines our options for the next choice we make – good decisions give us greater options later, while bad choices limit alternatives – and, with practice, analytical thinking becomes second nature.

For months I have brooded about how Volusia County government arrived at this dismal place in our history – a time marked by a complete dearth of ethical leadership and fiscal stewardship by our elected and appointed officials.

We are trapped in a repugnant system that exists solely to transmit tax dollars to the private profit motives of uber-wealthy political insiders through a well-orchestrated scheme cloaked as “economic development incentives” – a shadowy process that serves only those who can “pay to play” in the form of hundreds of thousands in campaign contributions to hand-select candidates for local public offices.

Perhaps it’s my intellectual limitations – I’m not the brightest bulb in the box, really – but I’ll be damned if I can come up with a logical explanation for how this happens.

However, I’m pretty sure I have a handle on why it happens.

Almost daily, we open the newspaper and read yet another horrible story of mismanagement, negligence and ineptitude in county government that continues to baffle anyone who understands the relationship between responsibility and accountability – the onus that comes when one accepts huge sums of public funds in salary and benefits – and is given extraordinary latitude and power to manage the affairs of government in the public interest.

Look, I understand mistakes – the human factor.

I’ve made a million of them.

Given my experience, I also understand that most people can forgive honest errors – but what they will never excuse is an abject refusal to learn from mistakes.

This is different.

From the unfolding debacle at the medical examiner’s office, unchecked sexual harassment and hostile workplace issues in the Beach Safety Department, unaddressed growth management and infrastructure needs, to the expanding life-or-death crisis in our county’s emergency medical transport system – we see real problems that are invariably dismissed by our elected officials as the ravings of naysayers, misguided stoolpigeons or some mean-spirited social media critic with an axe to grind.

On Saturday, we saw the beginning of something I find chilling – and dangerous to the legitimacy and processes of our system of governance.

In an article entitled, “New ME eager to end ‘bad luck,’ The Daytona Beach News-Journal reported on Sheriff Mike Chitwood’s questioning of County Manager Jim Dinneen’s “shady” process for hiring Dr. Jon Thogmartin to serve as interim medical examiner after Dr. Sara Zydowicz blew the whistle on years of budgetary neglect, overcrowding and substandard facilities which compromised the integrity of this vital public service.

Just as they did for Dr. Z – now, it appears our ‘powers that be’ have set their sights on discrediting Sheriff Chitwood and marginalizing his efforts to shine a very bright light on the machinations on a county government run wild – a clearly concerted and truly disturbing effort to protect the one who facilitates access to the public spigot at all costs.

No one disputes the fact that Dr. Thogmartin is a highly qualified pathologist with a positive track record of correcting administrative and operational issues in offices statewide.

But neither can anyone dispute the fact that the manner in which Thogmartin was brought on-board as interim ME – immediately after his out-of-hand dismissal of the issues brought by Dr. Zydowicz and complete exoneration of Jim Dinneen – followed by his near instantaneous confirmation by the Volusia County Council without so much as a written contract in place – smells a lot like payback.

When Sheriff Chitwood publicly questioned the timing of Dr. Thogmartin’s hiring – and provided documentary evidence showing that it could not have happened in the manner Dinneen described to the county council – he was set upon by Dr. Stephen Nelson, chairman of the Florida Medical Examiner’s Association, who called the Sheriff’s criticism “counter-productive.”

“Nobody is going to want to come to an office that is in constant turmoil, that has stakeholders throwing constant barbs on social media,” said Dr. Stephen Nelson, chairman of the commission. “This is not part of what a search should be for a professional. We are not talking about a dog catcher; we are talking about a pathologist and there’s only about 400 in the country.”

 Look, I don’t care if pathologists are scarce as hen’s teeth – with $780,000 of the people’s money at stake – we have a right to expect a proper vetting, to include in-depth questioning by our elected representatives – before a rush to hire.

Call me apprehensive, but this isn’t the first time Jim Dinneen has created a pseudo-emergency to facilitate a very expensive solution. . .

 In his interminable defense of Mr. Dinneen, Dr. Nelson droned on, “There’s nothing nefarious here,” Nelson said. “He (Thogmartin) spent all day at the morgue, watched people conduct autopsies and was looking at policies at the morgue and procedures. On the way out of the door, he talks to the county manager and told him that this isn’t as bad as everyone says it is.”

All day?  Really?

If I understand this, Dr. Thogmartin was able to determine that Dr. Z’s allegations – and those of the National Association of Medical Examiner’s who yanked the office’s professional accreditation in 2015, issues which were confirmed in correspondence from former ME Dr. Marie Herrmann, or the horror story brought by the family of a dead child whose misidentified body lay in the morgue for days – are complete falsehoods; the maniacal ravings of an inexperienced chief in just one day? 

Then, in lock step support of the one common denominator in all of these debacles – our own Rip Van Winkle of local politics, “Sleepy” Pat Patterson – sounding for all the world like he just awoke from another long nap – piled on Dr. Zydowicz, further ostracizing her concerns with the asinine remark, “A lot of this has been ginned up that I think is undeserved.”

But WHY? 

Why would a professional – a trained physician in perhaps the most in-demand segment of her field – jeopardize a hard-earned professional reputation and standing in the medical community by fabricating or “ginning up” serious allegations of administrative negligence and mismanagement at the morgue she was responsible for?


Why would Sheriff Chitwood – a politically accountable elected official and highly respected law enforcement professional with a pristine reputation – suddenly transform into the Boy Who Cried Wolf?  


And why would Dr. Stephen Nelson viciously turn on a colleague – then question the motives of Volusia County’s chief law enforcement officer as he openly calls bullshit on a clearly compromised process – one that reeks of remuneration for a favorable evaluation?

Even if that isn’t the case – one simply cannot dismiss the optics of it.

In my view, the craven method of self-preservation that Jim Dinneen and his cronies on the dais of power used to openly destroy the good reputation of Dr. Zydowicz is certainly more prohibitive to attracting quality candidates than a duly elected sheriff attempting to protect, serve and educate his long-suffering constituents.

After all, what professional in his or her right mind would take a job knowing that if they bring serious concerns regarding this essential medicolegal service to the attention of elected officials – or the state’s regulatory commission – they face the very real possibility of personal and professional destruction?

I’m asking.  Because none of this makes sense.

Given all that has occurred – and the stench of lies and corruption that continue to ooze out of the impenetrable information lock-down in DeLand – perhaps it is time for State Attorney R. J. Larizza to join Sheriff Chitwood’s call for an independent investigation of these serious and growing issues by an outside law enforcement authority.

Anyone with the ability to think critically can see that what we are witnessing is not normal.

It is not legitimate.

It bears no semblance to good governance.

It is wrong.

The time has come for someone – anyone – with a sworn responsibility to protect the public’s trust and interests to step up and put an end to this deepening crisis of leadership and conscience.

Remember when I said that good decision making gives us more and better options down the line?

I hope you will use that knowledge to our collective advantage in the voting booth this fall.




3 thoughts on “On Volusia: A Crisis of Conscience

  1. Without hesitation, the candidates who publicly announce their support for replacing our current County Manager will get first consideration for my vote. Thanks Mark for keeping the truth first and foremost.


  2. Thank you for a very well written account of what has been happening and by whom. I whole heartedly support Sheriff Mike Chitwood and those committed to clearing the smoke which has been covering (not even very well), the good ole boys mentality that Jim Dineen is the head. May the new regime do the right thing. Thank you. I await the continuing saga of misrepresentation of the people of Volusia County being corrected once and for all. D. Williams


  3. The FBI Anti-Corruption Unit would be my recommendation. However, in the grand scheme of things, Volusia County FL is a po-dunk player admits the 5000 counties in the US. This kind of shit is probably more prevalent than we think.


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