James M. Pericola is a hero.
He may never have stormed a hostile beach under fire – or hit the game-winning home run to clench the World Series – but, in my eyes, he is a hometown hero nonetheless.
That may sound strange coming from me – your always cantankerous scribe siding with a K Street insider?
But, if heroism is defined as a person of courage, who stands tall and does the right thing for the right reasons, despite the very real possibility of personal or professional harm – then I believe Mr. Pericola meets that high standard.
During my long career in municipal government, I witnessed, time and again, instances where good and inherently honest colleagues throughout the Halifax area remained silent or turned a blind eye in the face of inefficiency, corruption and ineptitude because they were seized by fear.
The fear of being ostracized and marginalized; of having their personal and professional reputation sacrificed on the altar of bureaucratic conformance.
The fear of being labeled “not a team player” – then watch as opportunities pass to those who are.
The fear of losing one’s livelihood and becoming collateral damage in petty political skirmishes between small-minded people intent on benefiting themselves and their friends, rather than serving the higher, greater needs of the community.
I was guilty of it myself – and the base cowardice I exhibited during some dark periods through the years when my beloved community was seized by a few unscrupulous assholes masquerading as public executives – ‘managers’ in title only – continues to be a source of great personal shame.
Only after my retirement was in reach, and my family’s financial future secure, did I develop a reputation for having ‘sharp elbows’ – for speaking truth to power – and calling bullshit whenever I suspected that someone in a position of trust was taking personal advantage of those they were sworn to serve and protect.
Not so much a whistle blower as a very vocal witness with an explosive temper and many friends in the working press. . .
I was certainly no hero. Not by any stretch.
The fact is, many elected bodies will intuitively ignore internal issues in government operations – go out of their way to keep things ‘under the rug’ as long as possible – rather than face the often-painful and politically embarrassing process of admitting a mistake, or, God forbid, actually hold appointed leaders accountable for internal dysfunction, waste and good old-fashioned incompetence.
As a result, conditions are allowed to fester until the situation reaches a crisis point – or the avoidance of responsibility and accountability becomes institutionalized – embraced by elected and appointed officials throughout the organization as a means of political self-preservation.
It becomes a dull, ineffective place where symbolism and posturing become more important than accomplishment, lockstep conformity takes the place of innovation, transparency is replaced by the internal manipulation and hording of information, power is consolidated and, over time, local government dissolves into the exclusivity of a private club for those who can pay to play.
Fortunately, that shabby strategy only works until someone inside the tent breaks the culture of silence and obfuscation.
In Sunday’s Daytona Beach News-Journal, Mr. Pericola – who served as Volusia County’s federal lobbyist in Washington, D.C. until his firm was unceremoniously ousted on a 5-2 vote of the County Council earlier this month – took the opportunity to defend his honor and reputation in an essay entitled, “Lobbying inaction is costing Volusia County millions.”
For anyone paying attention, it was a scathing indictment of what Volusia County government has become under the utter mismanagement and dreadful idiocy of those we have elected and appointed to represent our interests.
After months of paralytic inaction by county officials that resulted in a host of lost federal funding opportunities for citizens of Volusia County, in August, Mr. Pericola did what any ethical recipient of public funds should do and penned a confidential letter to our elected dullards in DeLand exposing the systemic dysfunction and complete lack of transparency that became the hallmark of former County Manager Jim Dinneen’s administration.
Apparently, Mr. Pericola’s letter memorialized an earlier telephone conversation he initiated with each member of the County Council wherein he provided a clear explanation as to why he would not be submitting a bid to renew his firms lobbying contract in 2019.
According to Mr. Pericola, during the calls, “I articulated many of the same issues related to his (Dinneen’s) departure, including the lack of transparency, openness, limits on collaboration and communication and how the overall culture was limiting our ability to communicate with and assist our client.”
On September 14, the intrepid News-Journal reporter Dustin Wyatt published an explosive exposé detailing the contents of Pericola’s memo – a document that exposed the depth and complexity of the internal issues and bureaucratic negligence that has brought us to this dismal place in history.
In my view, the most substantive allegations brought by Mr. Pericola, based upon his direct experience with the Dinneen administration, revealed that senior officials with absolutely no political accountability were “filtering” information to elected policymakers.
In my view, manipulating information and withholding the results of publicly-funded studies as a means of directing public policy is dangerous – and counter to our democratic principles.
It’s just one of many reasons why I strongly support Sheriff Mike Chitwood in his valiant fight to return constitutional sovereignty to his important elective office – and distance his department from the pernicious actions of entrenched bureaucrats and their lackeys on the dais of power in DeLand.
Unfortunately, in this illegitimate Oligarchy that exists to protect and sustain itself from all external oversight, the response to Mr. Pericola’s letter was predictable.
Rather than take swift and decisive action to investigate Mr. Pericola’s claims and hold anyone responsible accountable for their acts and omissions, our Volusia County Council did what they receive massive campaign contributions to do: Protect the system at all costs.
I disagree with Mr. Pericola on one point. His pleas didn’t fall on deaf ears.
They were heard loud and clear in the halls of the Thomas C. Kelly Administration building – and the coordinated response by those with much to lose was swift.
In perfect form, our doddering fool of a County Chair, Ed Kelley, ordered the wagons circled and immediately went on the offensive – belittling Pericola’s service and dismissing him as a “one-man band” – the tried and true tactic of marginalizing the message by destroying the credibility of the messenger.
In turn, the always arrogant Councilwoman Deb Denys played her defensive role on cue – calling Pericola’s concerns a “misrepresentation” that was “blown out of proportion.”
My God. How do these shit-heels sleep at night?
In perhaps the most cogent paragraph ever written concerning the current sorry state of affairs in Volusia County government, Mr. Pericola wrote:
“What I did not fully appreciate was how dangerously uninformed, incurious and uninterested in solving complex problems so many of the council members were. For far too long they not only operated exactly in the system I warned against, but through years of conditioning have become dangerously subservient to it.”
That’s a powerful statement – and infinitely true.
In most places, any elected public official with a modicum of self-respect, or sense of personal accountability, would immediately resign and slither-off to wherever ineffectual political hacks go when they are exposed – but not here.
Now, let’s honor Mr. Pericola’s courage – and that of other Volusia County whistle blowers who have bravely come before him – and use their keen insight to our civic advantage at the ballot box.
Volusia County truly does deserve better.
Photo Credit: The Daytona Beach News-Journal