On Volusia: Keeping Secrets

Perhaps the most important contribution of this opinion blog in driving a larger discussion of the issues is my intimate familiarity with the inner-workings of municipal government.

I lived it my entire adult life.  The good, the bad and the ugly.

I’m not talking about the mechanics of essential service delivery, budgets, or the benefits and challenges of the Council/Manager form of government – I’m talking about the crap that binds-up the wheels, gears and pinions from time-to-time – the internecine wars, the personal vendettas, the backbiting, the political machinations, the petty power grabs and how some unscrupulous managers and elected officials use information rationing, fear and internal intimidation to control the political and legislative processes in the often cloistered environment of a City Hall.

I lived through some truly strange times during my career – and I’ve come within a hair’s breadth of being sacrificed on the altar of small-town, and small-minded, politics.

That’s why I wasn’t too surprised when I read of the intrigues that lead to the ham-handed coup d’état in the City of Edgewater last week.

The unceremonious firing of City Manager Tracy Barlow had everything a good political thriller should have, a surprise attack at a seemingly innocuous public meeting – a bold move either orchestrated in advance or the result of a mob mentality – the “blood in the water” syndrome that drives the sharks on the dais of power into a frenzy.

Before you know it – the voice of the people is silenced or ignored, angry motions are made, votes are taken, and the professional life-cycle of the City Manager comes full circle.

Then, like the song says, it’s all over but the crying.

Nothing left to do but write the massive severance check that normally stands as a deterrent to these knee-jerk reactions. . .

What followed was a hyper-dramatic threat by Mayor Mike Ignasiak to step-down – claiming that he would refuse to serve even if the citizens of Edgewater return him to office during the general election – a clearly emotional response that he walked back at warp speed.

It was all pretty standard political posturing.

However, what made the Edgewater bloodletting unique is that it exposed something truly disturbing – the all too frequent practice of a local government negotiating public/private partnerships in utter secrecy.

Using the cloak of “non-disclosure agreements” to thwart transparency, and the quaint notion of “open government,” elected and appointed officials hammer out lucrative incentive packages to feather the nests of corporations who blow into town with the promise of “jobs” and leave with wheelbarrows full of tax abatements, infrastructure and financial subsidies.

Clearly, this spurious strategy is alive and well in the City of Edgewater.

According to The Daytona Beach News-Journal, “Now, some leaders say the mystery project known only as “Project Palm” — which people close to the project say would be “worth hundreds of millions of dollars” to the local economy — seems to be in peril because of the recent upheaval at City Hall. Meanwhile, others say there is still hope for the deal that could bring more than 500 jobs to the city.”

From the little we can glean; the project involves a massive automated distribution center for an unnamed retailer which would be built on 300-acres owned by the Miami Corporation just west of Interstate 95 off State Road 442.

According to Mayor Ignasiak, following the council’s tumultuous meeting, he received a message from the Memphis-based site selection firm who has been helping the mysterious company evaluate the Edgewater location – and others – announcing that the deal was off and that the distribution center would be moving “outside of Gainesville.”

Oddly, when the News-Journal reached the always arrogant Volusia County Councilwoman Deb Denys for comment – she contradicted Mayor Ignasiak – claiming “we are still in play, the deal is still very much alive.” 

Apparently, Councilwoman Denys, who is currently in a political knife fight with challenger Michael Arminio for the District 3 seat representing Southeast Volusia – has also been muzzled by “privacy agreements” – but that didn’t stop her from blathering about this deteriorating situation:

“We think this is just a political posturing thing by the site selector to get into a better position,” Denys said. “We don’t want to say it’s dead because it’s not.”

Whoever “We” is apparently includes our own Camera Stellata, known colloquially as the Volusia CEO Business Alliance, who is elbow deep in yet another burgeoning fiasco.

Speaking in the News-Journal, president of the CEO Business Alliance, Dr. Kent Sharples (who’s “leadership” has brought us the American Music Festival debacle and assisted in the unraveling of Bethune-Cookman University) told reporters Casmira Harrison and Clayton Park:

“Tracey Barlow was instrumental as a member of our collaborative team,” said Sharples, adding that the team includes the city, county, Team Volusia, CEO Business Alliance and Enterprise Florida, the state’s economic development arm. “Taking him out of the equation on Friday didn’t help but Mayor Ignasiak (in a conference call on Saturday) agreed to stay the course. We were able to reassure the client (Project Palm) that the city would fulfill its obligations,” Sharples said.

And herein lies the rub – it seems everyone who is anyone in the Fun Coast Economic Development apparatus is “on the team” – except the long-suffering taxpayers of Edgewater and Volusia County?

Why is it that only those who stand to make a quick buck through the liberal application of public funds to underwrite a for-profit private project are privy to watching the sausage being made?

What about us?  The hapless rubes who pay the bills?

Well, we’re apparently prohibited from participating in the super-secret negotiations – or even being made aware of the existence of this surreptitious $300 million game changer until some small-town political shit show exposed it – under the guise of compromising some competitive advantage.

Bullshit.

Exactly what “obligations” are We, the People required to fulfill?

How will Volusia County ultimately sweeten the deal?

How many tax dollars is a warehouse job worth?

And who the hell is Kent Sharples to speak for the City of Edgewater? 

Trust me – we will never know the answers to these questions until the “deal” appears as a foregone conclusion on the consent agenda of an Edgewater City Council meeting – followed by an off-the-agenda ambush by the Volusia County Council.

Something doesn’t smell right about this. . .

Why is Ms. Denys wasting time in sketchy negotiations with a private company while the citizens of District 3 are repeatedly treated like the red-headed stepchildren of Volusia County?

Her constituents have been repeatedly ignored while more-and-more essential government services are ripped away from them – from the New Smyrna Courthouse to much-needed drug treatment services – all while their inept representative, Councilwoman Denys, is busy championing the cause of her “Rich & Powerful” political benefactors in Daytona Beach.

Or helping to negotiate secret deals for Edgewater warehouse jobs. . .

Perhaps most disturbing, last week, President Trump signed a package of bills to help communities deal with the raging opioid epidemic which provides significant funding for improving access to addiction treatment programs and other community-based interventions.

Our former federal lobbyist, James Pericola, had been begging anyone in Volusia County government who would listen to get serious and participate in this important program for the past year.

Unfortunately, Councilwoman Denys joined with the super-majority of her “colleagues” in firing and marginalizing Mr. Pericola after he brought allegations of almost criminal neglect in Volusia County’s failure to secure federal funding and loan opportunities to help address serious social and environmental issues.

Then, on Friday, the chickens came home to roost when Stewart-Marchman announced that, due to state funding cuts, it would be forced to “consolidate” some Southeast Volusia services with its outpatient clinic in Daytona Beach.

This change forces some 400 of Denys’ suffering constituents to make their way to Daytona Beach or DeLand for treatment.

My God.

When is Councilwoman Denys going to explain why those who accept public funds to serve in the public interest failed to engage?

Why hasn’t anyone been held responsible for failing to secure our fair share of the $500 million just released by the federal government, particularly when places like Stewart-Marchman were being cut and our bloated bureaucracy in DeLand did absolutely nothing to help them?

I suppose the tragic issue of the ongoing civic abandonment of the good citizens of Southeast Volusia is up to them to decide at the polls tomorrow – but, eventually, Ms. Denys’ reign of incompetence must end.

Hey, Deb – trust me on this:  The mystery company our ‘movers & shakers’ are fawning over will eventually build their distribution center exactly where they believe it will best serve their order-fulfillment needs in the most economically efficient manner possible – and they don’t need your goofy input – or our dollars – to do it.

In my view, local governments have no business insinuating themselves into the private marketplace – picking winners and losers and skewing the playing field by negotiating bullshit “job growing” subsidies and incentives  behind the backs of their constituents in secretive bartering sessions – then writing checks that you and I will ultimately be forced to cash.

It’s also time that political hacks like Dr. Kent Sharples and Councilwoman Deb Denys were put out to pasture.

I’m not sure how much more of their unique brand of “leadership” we can stand.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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