On Volusia: The Cost of Accountability

If you haven’t yet, it’s worth your while to read Daytona Beach News-Journal editor Pat Rice’s excellent essay in today’s paper, “Sorry to disappoint Daytona’s city manager, but. . .”

It’s a good point, well-made.

Regardless of jurisdiction, the one constant in local governance is that, for a variety of reasons, appointed senior officials, like city and county managers, enjoy an incredible level of professional protections that those in the private sector will never know – even when their decisions and behavior are far from professional.

From the vantage point of over 30-years in municipal government, I know a little bit about the perils of political instability, and the internal strife that comes from ideological clashes, and just good old-fashioned petty bickering between competing political factions.

As a result, I’ve seen good managers demonized and demoralized, pilloried for trying to do the right thing despite the prevailing political winds; left with no alternative but to move along and ply their often-itinerant trade elsewhere.

I understand the need for reasonable legal protections.

Conversely, as a resident of Volusia County, I’ve seen some of the most quisling, totally inept assholes ever to worm their way into public management, thrive – at least for a while – as they enjoyed the internal and external political protections that come with facilitating the flow of public funds to the private, for-profit interests of well-heeled campaign donors and political insiders.

Sound familiar?

In a Council/Manager form of government, the manager is given extraordinary powers over every aspect of government services.  For instance, the executive has complete autonomy to hire and fire employees, set internal policies, personally direct the operations of all departments, agencies and services of the government and administrate all financial and budgetary processes.

As I’ve said before, We, The People elect the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker to serve on a council or commission – similar to a corporate board of directors – who appoint a manager with ostensibly strong managerial and organizational skills to run the day-to-day operations of the government, make public policy recommendations and provide information to assist the legislative function.

Most do a fine job – and some do an exceptional job – serving multiple masters while bringing economic and civic progress to their communities.

The ‘system’ also insulates career civil servants, the professionals who provide essential governmental services to the community, from the often politically motivated nature of elected officials who are normally prohibited by charter from directing or interfering with operations.

That’s important.

Perhaps the one aspect of the system that gives the manager ultimate power is the fact that he or she personally controls the flow of information to the members of the elected body.

That can be dangerous.

Florida’s open government laws specifically prohibit two or more elected officials from discussing matters coming before the collective body in private.  As a result, the only conduit they have to the “real story” – the nuts and bolts of the issues – is through individual meetings with the manager.

While individual commissioners have some leeway to conduct independent fact-finding – some charters and transparent managers allow commissioners to speak with department heads – but most rely solely on what they are told by the executive.

As a result, many times the legislative process dissolves into little more than a rubber-stamp of the manager’s prerogative.

In our representative democracy, the only thing standing in the way of a government executive transmogrifying into a tyrannical despot is the elected body – politically accountable policymakers charged with the direct oversight of an extremely powerful individual.

But what happens when that executive enjoys the external protections of our “Rich & Powerful” – those who directly control the campaign purse strings and possess the political clout to make or break the ‘Kings and Queens’ who reside on the dais of power in local government’s large and small?

In Volusia County, a big factor is the enormous sums of cash which are infused into local political campaigns by those special interests seeking continued access to the public trough.

Another issue is the incredibly lopsided “Golden Parachutes” that have become de rigueur in City Halls and County Administrative offices everywhere.  In 2011, the Florida legislature put limitations on public employee severance pay – providing that payouts may not exceed an amount greater than 20 weeks of compensation – and  a prohibition on severance pay when the employee has been terminated for misconduct as defined in Florida Statutes.

Anyone else enjoy that kind of safety net?

In June, when former County Manger Jim Dinneen fled the building amongst growing questions over everything from the condition of publicly-owned properties to the state of our Medical Examiners function, he received a lump sum payment equal to his base salary for twelve months: $249,046.

During his tenure, I often thought that Jim Dinneen wouldn’t last 15-minutes in a meritocracy – such as any successful business owned by a member of the Volusia CEO Business Alliance – yet, for obvious reasons, Mr. Dinneen was the darling of this bastardized Oligarchy we find ourselves in.

In describing the difference between the public and private sector approaches to performance issues that have resulted in the First Step Homeless Shelter debacle, in his excellent piece, Mr. Rice opined”

“In private business, whoever was in charge of that project would be fired. Or, if they had a really nice boss, responsibility for the flailing project would be taken from them and they would be relegated to another — probably lower down the ladder — job they were deemed capable of doing. But that’s not how the city of Daytona Beach has approached construction of its over-budget, behind schedule, First Step Shelter for homeless adults.”

Isn’t that the damn truth?

Make no mistake, while the First Step Shelter catastrophe is a fine example of government ineptitude and mismanagement in action – these disasters are not limited to any one local government entity or department.

In fact, one need only look at the dismal state of our beach management, our emergency medical transport service, the revelatory exposures of whistle-blowers on everything from the “filtering” of information or withholding publicly-funded studies from decision-makers altogether – to the paralytic dysfunction that has hampered significant progress on the most intractable local problems of our time – and you get an idea of just how pervasive the problem is in the Halls of Power throughout Volusia County.

In my view, its time constituents begin holding senior public managers accountable for these continuing embarrassments by electing candidates who will.












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