Angels & Assholes for May 17, 2019

Hi, kids!

I like to tell tall tales – and I enjoy listening to a good yarn, well told.

Storytelling is an art that dates to our earliest times when the news of the day traveled by word-of-mouth.

In fact, I was born just a few miles west of Jonesborough, a quaint community in east Tennessee, home to the International Storytelling Center – a beautiful campus which includes the historic Chester Inn and Mary B. Martin Hall and each October hosts the National Storytelling Festival.

I come from a long line of hillbilly raconteurs.

One of the funniest people I ever knew was my maternal grandmother.  I have watched in pure amazement as this diminutive lady, who stood four-foot-nothing, held the rapt attention of friends and neighbors who gathered among the fireflies in her back yard on Appalachian summer evenings as she told old-timey ghost stories or wove some circuitous joke that involved four or five side stories. . .

Author Edward Miller once said, “Stories are our primary tools of learning and teaching, the repositories of our lore and legends. They bring order into our confusing world. Think about how many times a day you use stories to pass along data, insights, memories or common-sense advice.”

 Because I lack a “formal education,” listening to the anecdotes and concerns of my neighbors and friends is how I learn – from bar stool chats and social media posts, to reading local stories in The Daytona Beach News-Journal or listening to Big John’s “snippets” on the radio – I keep abreast of daily happenings through the stories we share.

You must admit, these unfolding sagas we collectively follow here on Florida’s Fun Coast are rarely dull.

For instance, the narratives coming out of DeLand this week caused me more mood swings than my hops and barley-based “medication” could keep up with. . .

Like many of you, I was disappointed to see our incredibly popular Sheriff Mike Chitwood – who, to this point, has been a staunch advocate for changing the status quo and returning sanity and a sense of accountability to what passes for government in Volusia County – change tack and encourage voters to approve the proposed sales tax increase – a ravenous pass-through scheme that more efficiently transfers our hard-earned money to the groaning wallets of political insiders.

Considering Sheriff Chitwood’s open warfare with the Volusia County Council over allegations of quid pro quo corruption, pay-to-play politics, dishonesty and abject ineptitude – it was one of those Et tu, Brute? moments that left many sad and confused. . .

Then, my spirits were buoyed by the news that the Volusia County School Board has finally had their fill of beleaguered Superintendent Tom Russell amid an active federal investigation of the district and on-going “communications” issues between Russell and the intrepid freshman Ruben Colon.

Trust me.  That’s the least of it. . .

I’ve got a few other burrs under my saddle I’d like to tell you about – so draw close with the beverage of your choice and let’s try to bring some ‘order into our confusing world,’ shall we?

It’s time once again to turn a jaundiced eye toward the newsmakers of the day – the winners and losers – who, in my cynical opinion, either contributed to our quality of life, or detracted from it, in some significant way.

Let’s look at who tried to screw us – and who tried to save us – during the week that was:

Angel               Volusia County School Board Member Ruben Colon  

 Someone once said, “Sometimes the hardest thing and the right thing are the same.”

It’s easy for mealy-mouthed critics like me to snipe from the cheap seats – to point out “how the doer of deeds could have done them better” – it’s something else to stand for high office and shoulder the mantle of responsibility for representing the best interests of your neighbors, often in the face of withering blame and condemnation.

That’s especially true for those who choose to serve our children and steward our schools.

Earlier this week, I was proud of freshman school board member Ruben Colon who made a motion to terminate the services of embattled Superintendent Tom Russell.

A subsequent 4-1 vote began the process. . .

I have a working theory that somewhere along the way Volusia County government services surrendered, en masse, to the forces of mediocrity.

When the people you serve stop expecting anything of substance from you – and your elected “leadership” embrace poor performance as public policy – then underachievement and shoddy standards become ingrained in the culture of the organization.

Let’s face it, it’s easier that way.

But the issues facing our school district represent something more disturbing.

When one considers the near-constant roil that defined the administration of Superintendent Russell and his clown troupe “Cabinet” – many of whom currently occupy roles they are wholly unqualified for and others who have created what some staff members have described to me as a “do as I say, not as I do” environment – those of us paying attention wonder what took so long?

As I’ve previously written, by any metric, Volusia County Schools are failing miserably – and for a long time our school board members couldn’t seem to grasp that ineffective leadership just might have something to do with that.

According to reports, last year 72% of the district’s elementary schools were ranked as C or D schools – trapped in a cycle of ‘averageness’ that is destroying the morale of our long-suffering teachers and robbing our children of the educational opportunities they deserve.

Add to that the fact Volusia County suffers one of the lowest graduation rates of any similar sized district in Florida, a cockamamie hiring process and an unstaunched hemorrhage of talent – made worse by an inexplicable refusal to listen to the needs of classroom teachers or pay a competitive wage – and you begin to see the true depth of the problem.

All on top of a $900 million annual budget that we are now being led to believe will see a nearly $10 million shortfall next year – resulting in vague, cowardly threats by some bureaucrats and school board members to eliminate positions and previously promised pay raises.

Now, we learn that the union and district have yet to finalize the hard-won salary plan that would have made Volusia more competitive and help retain teachers – and it appears the two sides are headed back to the bargaining table (?).

Perhaps most egregious, Superintendent Russell kept the School Board in the dark about an active United States Department of Justice investigation into the district’s treatment of student’s living with Autism Spectrum Disorder – all while some educators are set to be interrogated by DOJ investigators.

Jesus.  What a shit show. . .

In an explosive article by Cassidy Alexander writing in the News-Journal, we learned that Russell told board members earlier this week that he was clueless about the scope of the DOJ investigation – when, in fact, he had been briefed on the matter a year ago. . .

Hell, I learned about the problem last month at the F.A.I.T.H Action Assembly, when the father of a first grade student at Tomoka Elementary School told horror stories of the discrimination and humiliation his autistic son has endured – while Superintendent Russell stood slack-jawed just feet away from him.

Who does that? 

This latest series of blunders simply underscores the abject ineptitude that has permeated Russell’s administration – making victims of those unfortunate young people who rely on Volusia County Schools for their primary education.

Unfortunately, there were several key points when Russell’s reign could have been cut short before the train left the tracks.

Last October – following a long hot summer of intense negotiations – the leadership of Volusia United Educators called for Russell’s head, citing an “unsupportive” atmosphere that was failing teachers.

At the time, then Chairwoman Linda Cuthbert attacked her former classroom colleagues, calling the teachers reasonable demand to oust Russell “unprofessional.”

Cuthbert crowed, “They have every right to express their opinion, but they have absolutely no right to tell any School Board who they can hire and fire,” Cuthbert said. “We most certainly do not tell the union who they can elect as their president.  We have to be responsible to the entire school district and to the taxpayer.”

Yes, you do Ms. Cuthbert.

So, when do you plan to live up to that weighty responsibility?

I found it incredibly disturbing that – despite mounting evidence – Ms. Cuthbert was the lone vote this week to keep Superintendent Russell at the helm of this foundering ship. . .

In my view, its high time the Volusia County School Board acted to jettison Superintendent Russell and launch an inquiry to determine the true depth of issues facing our children’s education.

With luck, Russell will take a few other senior administrators with him who continue to prove the Peter Principle is alive and well in District offices – dullards who are actively killing ingenuity, morale and organizational effectiveness in this all-important public service.

Thank you, Mr. Colon.

You have proven a true commitment to your oath – and the best interests of Volusia County’s children.

Angel              City of Holly Hill and “Pictona”

Kudos to the City of Holly Hill on what is being hailed as the “Wimbledon of Pickleball” at beautiful Hollyland Park!

Groundbreaking ceremonies were held earlier this week – festivities I’m told drew nearly two hundred of the sports faithful.

In December, city officials made the visionary commitment to contribute $1 million in Community Redevelopment Funds to see the project become a reality.  The state-of-the-art sports complex is also being underwritten by the $3 million private investment of Rainer and Julie Martens of Ormond Beach.

Now that’s my kind of “public/private partnership”!

Once the facility is complete next spring, pickleball enthusiasts will have access to 24 open and covered courts – along with space for bocce ball and shuffleboard.

The facility’s clubhouse will include a pro shop, players lounge with video replay technology, training space, a fully appointed locker room and a restaurant, known as “The Kitchen,” which will offer skybox-style viewing of six covered pickleball courts.

I like the fact city officials were respectful of the park’s storied history as a place for youth and community sports activities.  In keeping with that tradition, at least one large baseball field will remain in place.

According to reports, Hollyland Park will also host a community garden and senior activity center offered as a free public resource to area residents!

After establishing itself as one of the most business-friendly locations in Volusia County – a hub of light industry and small manufacturing – “The City with a Heart” is working hard to show its larger neighbors what a true active lifestyle community can be.

With its quaint, tree lined streets, advanced wellness equipment at Sunrise Park and enduring community spirit, Holly Hill is coming into its own.

Now, we learn of an investment consortium who recently purchased some 150 vacant condominium units at Marine Grande – to include the long-dormant 11,000 square foot upscale retail center which fronts Riverside Drive.

Sales of the condo units and accompanying boat slips at the posh, resort-style marina will be conducted by Re/Max Signature, who will soon open an office in the Shops at Marine Grande.

In my view, this news adds fuel to a small community that is already on fire – actively reinventing itself – a second act that proves Holly Hill is ready to compete with any community in the Halifax area.

Congratulations to Nick Conte – one of the finest economic development directors in that difficult game – and the outstanding team at the City of Holly Hill!

Angel             New B-CU President E. LaBrent Chrite

They say anyone can hold the wheel when the sea is calm – but it takes real courage to leave the safety of shore and take the helm in the midst of a storm.

That’s true.

With remaining options to ensure the viability of Bethune-Cookman University quickly waning, we recently learned that what’s left of the historic institution’s beleaguered Board of Trustees has selected E. LaBrent Chrite to lead the university beginning July 1, 2019.

According to a release by B-CU, “I am tremendously honored to assume the presidency at Bethune-Cookman University, an academic institution with a storied history; great faculty, staff, students, alumni and friends; and a bright future,” Chrite said.

“We face some serious challenges, but we have so much that’s outstanding in our community and traditions—and I have every confidence that together we will make exciting things happen. I am passionate about Bethune-Cookman and am thrilled to be a part of its community.”

Hailed as a “truly exceptional and rare leader” by former colleagues, in my view, it appears Dr. Chrite has the preparation and business experience necessary to change tack and return financial viability and a sense of stability to the troubled school.

God, I hope so.

I’m not sure interim president Judge Hubert Grimes did himself – or the University – any favors when he recently launched a hyper-critical screed indicting The Daytona Beach News-Journal’s revealing coverage of this unfolding debacle – including a recent report on the school’s $17.5 million technical default on bonds the school borrowed on in 2010 to pay off old debts on campus buildings.

Citing “erroneous comments from local press,” Judge Grimes claimed that the newspapers “half-truths and negative spin” have resulted in a dramatic reduction in student applications and damaged the school’s reputation and brand.

Hardly. . .

Judge Grimes simply cannot blame The Daytona Beach News-Journal for this atrocity.

In my view, the blame for this unfolding outrage lies with a previous administration that, by all accounts, used university resources like a personal piggy bank, while an asleep-at-the-wheel board comprised of local ‘movers & shakers’ stood around with a thumb wedged firmly in their ass, lauding each other with honorary degrees and looking the other way while sneak thieves looted the place. . .

My hope is that federal authorities are actively investigating why ostensibly bright people – a Board of Trustees in name only with a sacred fiduciary responsibility to students, parents and staff – consciously abdicated their duty and stood idle while the very institution they were responsible for protecting was exsanguinated.

Asshole           Volusia County Tax Grabbers 

A version of this screed appeared earlier this week, but given the lingering questions of pay-to-play politics and the insidious influence of cronyism and corporate giveaways on Volusia’s artificial economy at a time when our ‘powers that be’ are actively flogging a sales tax increase, it bears repeating. . .

In his well-researched article in The Daytona Beach News-Journal, “Will past deals hurt?” reporter Dustin Wyatt asked the important question:

“Will Volusia County’s insidious cronyism and malignant corporate welfare system play a role in the sales tax vote?”

 Now, I took some editorial liberty with the phrasing – but make no mistake – that is the question.

For years, the dirty little secret that has stifled true economic development – and created an artificial economy through unfair advantage in Volusia County – is that here, uber-wealthy political insiders truly can keep their cake and eat it too.

Don’t take my word for it.

Ask any of the countless small businesses that have withered on the vine of local government over-regulation, been asked to jump through onerous hoops by the very officials who are paid to foster entrepreneurial investment, fell victim to bait and switch promises, endured the insidious problems of blight, homelessness and hopelessness, or simply faded out of existence due to the economic realities of Main Street, Downtrodden Downtown Daytona or in our traditional tourist areas along Atlantic Avenue from Ormond Beach south.

Take a drive, see the sights, then consider where the tens-of-millions in redevelopment funds earmarked for these critical commercial areas ultimately ended up?

Speak to those who own restaurants, operate movie theaters, retail shops and other enterprises that don’t enjoy the buoyant effect of having their start-up costs, overhead and financial risk mitigated by massive infusions of public funds – or given the unfair advantage of charging “enhanced amenity fees” – a sales tax by another name – to cover maintenance, guest experience and marketing costs.

What? 

Your small business doesn’t enjoy the same infrastructure improvements, tax abatement, fee reductions and direct financial support from local government that, say, J. Hyatt Brown, the Forbes listed France family, or any number of real estate developers enjoy? 

Tough shit.  Here on Florida’s Fun Coast – you pay to play. . .

Despite what our “economic development” gurus over at Team Volusia tell themselves so they can sleep at night – a free market and strong local economy is not based upon which community can throw the most money and tax incentives at a corporation on the always flimsy, rarely fulfilled, promise of “high paying jobs.”

In my view, when done properly, visionary communities take a holistic approach – working with planners to carefully select, recruit and position businesses in a way that provides the company with the best opportunity for commercial success, while enhancing quality of life and building a distinctive civic brand by carefully shaping a physical and regulatory environment where people and businesses want to be.

Sound familiar?  I didn’t think so. . .

Here, our ‘powers that be’ simply turn a blind eye to the sins of the past – ignore long-neglected existing neighborhoods and dilapidated commercial corridors – then allow developers to build a sprawling “New Daytona” in the pine scrub west of town.

My God.   

There was a time when government assisted the development of a strong commercial tax base by identifying and reducing expensive permitting, onerous regulations and promoting fair practices for the benefit of consumers.

Local, state and federal government ensured that the playing field was level then allowed the natural competition of the free market to work without unnatural stimuli.  It meant that only the best ideas survived, and that prices for goods and services were controlled by marketplace factors, such as quality of service and the law of supply and demand.

Under Volusia County’s current economic development strategy, local governments have essentially become backhanded philanthropists – offering huge sums of public funds to private interests with a profit motive.

Whenever you are playing fast-and-loose with other people’s money, the risk for favoritism and corruption is high.

In my view, Volusia County has an abysmal track record of pissing away our hard-earned tax dollars to satiate the personal wants of entrenched power brokers which has perpetuated an out-of-control oligarchical system that no one trusts anymore.

Now – after lavishing millions of tax dollars on a few political insiders who fund the political campaigns of hand-select candidates for public office – their elected shills are asking every man, woman, child and visitor in Volusia County to self-inflect a sales tax increase – a move many are convinced is just another pass-through from our pockets to those of the wealthy government contractors and others who are pushing this shameless money grab.

Why?  Because Volusia County government – who will receive the bulk of funds generated – needs this tax increase like a parasitic insect needs the blood of its host.

All the right last names are working hard to see it pass – and even our daily newspaper has joined the bandwagon with not-so-subtle slants and editorial backing that have rubbed many loyal readers wrong.

For instance, supporters of this shameless money grab are glowingly described as “some of the largest, most influential countywide groups,” who make “surprise endorsements,” and care about our “quality of life” – while opponents of the scheme are painted as trolls out of some weird Norwegian fairy tale – “Citizens against virtually everything” who “. . .can largely be found leveling criticism against the county on social media or waving “Vote No” signs on some busy intersections.”

Friends and neighbors I speak with are tired of being marginalized and viewed as mere pawns in a darker game who exist for the sole purpose of generating tax dollars for an out-of-control bureaucracy.

I think Alycia Severson, a teacher and civic activist from Ormond Beach, said it best in last Sunday’s News-Journal, “Isn’t it strange to give away millions to friends and developers with one hand and extend the other (to residents) for a handout” in the form of a sales tax?

Trust me.  There is a reason why this tax increase is being ramrodded by that consortium of millionaires over at the Volusia CEO Business Alliance through their dubious Political Action Committee – Volusia Citizens for Better Roads and Clean Water.

If you haven’t already, I encourage you to VOTE NO! on the half-cent sales tax increase.

I assure you giving more of our hard-earned money to the same conniving assholes that got us into this festering quagmire in the first place is not the solution to Volusia County’s infrastructure and environmental needs.

Enough is enough.

In my view, it’s time we send a clear message to our elected officials and demand an end to these pernicious corporate giveaways, abject cronyism and unchecked growth that is replacing the stability of our long-term economic outlook with the constant expansion and contraction of the ‘boom/bust’ cycle.

It is time we demand that our elected and appointed officials get their fat hands out of our pockets – learn to live within their already sizable means – and work to build a sustainable tax base and thriving economy through a fair and competitive marketplace.

Angel              Nancy and Lowell Lohman

While many of our “Rich & Powerful” continue to belly up at the public trough – it’s refreshing to see successful local business owners giving back to the community in such a profound way.

Ormond Beach philanthropists Nancy and Lowell Lohman, former owners of Lohman Funeral Homes, recently gave a no-strings-attached check for $1 million to the Council on Aging to assist their good work in providing essential services to Volusia’s growing elderly population.

Once again, my hat’s off to Mr. & Mrs. Lohman for their kindness – and vision.

They simply saw a need in our community, engaged with those who are working hard in a good cause, then provided substantial, life-sustaining assistance where it is needed most.

A hearty Barker’s View “Thank You!” to the Lohman’s for their incredible generosity – and congratulations to the good folks at the Council on Aging for proving worthy of this very special gift – and for working hard to meet the needs of our most vulnerable population.

God’s work.

Quote of the Week

“Politicians leading the charge for development have proven they don’t have a clue. Rather than taxing new development in a thoughtful way, they have given free rein to explosive development and froth at their eagerness to provide tax dollars as incentives to developers eager to build. This is still a great place. Developers don’t need more incentive than that: “This is a great place to live”. And if withholding tax incentives slows development — well, I see that as a wonderful thing.”

 “More development and an increased sales tax is not the answer to our present infrastructure issues. Look to the politicians who brought us here to budget their spending and to control development in a way that will bring us out of this mess.”

–Mac Smith, Ormond Beach, writing in The Daytona Beach News-Journal, Letters to the Editor column, “Wrong people pay,” Wednesday, May 15, 2019

And Another Thing!

I want to say, ‘Thank You!’ to those wonderfully engaged citizens at the Bellaire Community Group for inviting me to speak with them last evening about local issues that affect our lives and livelihoods here in the Halifax area.

In my view, the essence of citizenship is coming together as neighbors in the common cause of making our community a better place to live, work and play.

In an era of decreasing participation in local elections, a gross lack of accountability by our elected officials, the marginalization of those with dissident viewpoints – and the personal destruction of whistle-blowers who attempt to expose corruption and inefficiencies in government – it is vitally important to have groups of well-meaning citizens who gather to observe, discuss and learn about the myriad issues we face.

In addition, in a place with troubling power relationships – where the needs, wants and whims of the donor class outweigh those of hard-working residents without a financial chip in the game every time – grassroots organizations like the Bellaire Community Group play an important social and political role in shaping change.

As author and anthropologist Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

If you aren’t already involved in a neighborhood organization, I encourage you to seek one out and get involved – none better than Bellaire Community Group.

Have a great weekend everyone!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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