I’m back from a glorious week in the mountains of east Tennessee – the place where I was born and where I return when I need time to check-in with myself, clear my mind, focus on the frivolous and daydream.
These hills and valleys are among the oldest in the world and have a restorative vibration that resonates inside me – the ability to improve concentration, relieve stress, improve the immune system and, in my case, heal a tattered soul.
A place to feel whole. To feel focused. To be free.
I happen to believe that there is a healing power in nature that is amplified and concentrated in places like the mountains – or where the water meets land – environments where beneficial negatively charged ions revitalize our bodies and minds at the molecular level.
In olden times, doctors would often prescribe a change of place and climate to treat various maladies. Despite quantum advances in modern medicine, I think there is more benefit to that age-old therapy than we might realize.
In fact, I once heard that the reason John D. Rockefeller – the richest man in American history – came to Ormond Beach was his belief that the salty air had intrinsic health benefits that would help him live to 100.
He made it to 97. . .
One of my favorite places in this world is a little stand of maple trees near Jonesborough – known affectionately as “Tennessee’s oldest town” – a beautiful community nestled in the Tri-Cities region where the Watauga watershed meets the Nolichucky River.
A quintessential small-town, rich in history, the arts and Americana, once the capitol of the State of Franklin, which was never formally recognized by Congress, and reclaimed by North Carolina in the late 1700’s then, somehow, transferred to Tennessee.
I like to take a folding chair, and a handle of good local whiskey, then get comfortable in my special spot just before dusk.
From the side of a gently sloping hill overlooking a small brook, I can watch a mother Mallard teaching her rambunctious ducklings to swim in a calm pool, listen to the cardinals and blue jays flitter in the gloaming, and anxiously await the nightly emergence of the lightning bugs – who appear punctually at exactly 8:42pm – rising from the tall grass into the dark green trees, hovering and twinkling by the hundreds as the sky grows dark and a cool breeze rustles the Rhododendron.
It’s a special place.
Now, any self-respecting Son of the South, at least once in his charmed life, knew where to find the best local “Moonshine” – usually a sketchy friend or errant family member who knew someone who knew someone – which, with a clandestine exchange, resulted in a couple of quarts of harsh-tasting, high-proof clear whisky (known as “white liquor” where I’m from) whose wholly unique corn-forward flavor and lingering burn is something you will never forget once experienced.
Today, every liquor store in Appalachia has a wide variety of now commercially produced Moonshine – most mellowed with fruit and other natural flavorings – all perfectly legal to make, market and sell now that applicable taxes have been paid and all state and federal regulations met.
In my view, one of the best is the product of Tennessee Hills Distillery (www.tnhillsdistillery.com) in Jonesborough.
Using “age-old recipes and distillation methods” this small local still is producing some of the finest of the genre – from traditional mountain whiskey to their wonderful Pineapple Upside Down Cake rum – all in an old “salt house” which stands so close to the Clinchfield rail tracks that you can feel the earth rumble beneath your boots when the train cars trundle by.
Last week, I also had the pleasure of spending a few minutes in the engaging company of Emmy winning storyteller Jim May following his Friday matinee performance at Jonesborough’s renowned International Storytelling Center.
We discussed the life and times of his good friend – and our areas preeminent tradition-bearer and songwriter – the late, great Gamble Rogers – and Jim was so kind to sign his soul-satisfying book, Trail Guide for a Crooked Heart: Stories and Reflections for Life’s Journey, and pen a generous personal note for me that I will treasure.
Restorative indeed. . .
I hope you have a place like this in your life.
If not, find your own verdant hillside this evening and sit a spell. It’s important.
Be it the mountains, the beach or your own back porch – take a break – relax, recharge, revive.
Trust me. You’ll be glad you did.
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:
Asshole Volusia County Council
Our perennial favorite is back in the news this week – once again, for all the wrong reasons. . .
Sometimes I wonder if our elected and appointed officials in DeLand have simply given up on the whole concept of truth, transparency and honor in public service in favor of some free-wheeling, increasingly chaotic exercise that bears no resemblance to a representative democracy – a weird pastiche of a Three Stooges slapstick wrapped in a gut-wrenching Greek tragedy.
Don’t believe me?
Just take a quick gander at how this confederacy of dunces handled their open promise to civic activist Greg Gimbert that they would issue a simple letter of support for opening a portion of the Tiger Bay state forest to off-road vehicles. . .
Regardless of whether you support the measure or not – I think everyone can agree this latest five-alarm fiasco is indicative of the utter ineptitude we suffer here on Florida’s Fun Coast.
Last week, what passes for our elected “leadership” told us with a straight face that the entire bloated bureaucracy that comprises the width and breadth of our massive county government was completely unaware that the City of Daytona Beach has been working overtime to see deed restrictions on City Island lifted and the most scenic location in the Halifax area handed to ravenous speculative developers.
An incredibly disturbing article by reporter Eileen Zaffiro-Kean in The Daytona Beach News-Journal entitled, “Volusia County says Daytona left it out of City Island plans,” found our elected and appointed officials in DeLand whining over the fact that Daytona Beach City Manager Jim Chisholm apparently kept them out-of-the-loop on his grand plans. . .
Like every other community in the area – the City of Daytona Beach learned a long time ago that Volusia County officials cannot be trusted – and this latest move in the internecine battle has overtones of old-fashioned tit-for-tat politics. . .
Anyone remember the March 2017 sneak attack when former County Manager Jim Dinneen waited until the very morning of the County Council’s vote to spend some $970,000 on a parking lot fronting Main Street to let Mr. Chisholm know their plans?
Even after voicing concerns about the appropriateness of a removing this valuable property from the tax rolls in the city’s “Entertainment Zone” – Mr. Dinneen failed to advise county council members that Daytona Beach had questions until after the vote had been taken.
At the time, Mr. Dinneen summed up the county’s commitment to collaborative planning efforts:
“There’s no obligation to call (Chisholm) at all.”
It should be clear to anyone paying attention just how little substantive interaction there is between Volusia County and, well, any other entity in the region on the important issues of the day.
At the June 4 county council meeting, Councilwoman Billie Wheeler exclaimed, “I’m really, really, really concerned about this. The county did not give the city the authority to petition on its behalf.”
Now, We, The People, are supposed to believe that no one in DeLand had any inkling that Daytona Beach officials – in concert with state Rep. Elizabeth Fetterhoff – were actively attempting to have the Florida legislature remove deed restrictions which maintained the property for ‘public purposes forever’?
As Mr. Chisholm essentially said: Doesn’t anyone over there read the paper?
Not surprising, our doddering fool of a County Chair, Ed Kelley, was recently quoted admitting his abject ignorance of this important civic issue that has been well-publicized since at least February.
According to the News-Journal’s report, “I don’t know that any of us were aware that was going on,” said Kelley, who’s been the county’s top elected official for two and a half years.”
Because that’s not what Old Ed said previously. . .
In late 2017, Chairman Kelley boldly announced at a goofy Chamber of Commerce “Eggs and Issues” breakfast:
The time is right to relocate the City Island Library and free the land for commercial development.
Naturally, Mr. Kelley’s bombshell resulted in a strong response from anyone and everyone who cares about the future of the Halifax area – something Mr. Dinneen immediately attempted to walk-back. . .
Chairman Kelley’s monstrously stupid idea resulted in a landslide of angry questions – and fueled speculation that Volusia County was planning to remove established public amenities from City Island to make way for private development.
Later, Kelley went so far as to describe the land’s potential use to a reporter, “It could be a private use that could generate jobs or provide residences, but it’s not up to me to say what should go there. … We (the council) should evaluate the situation.”
Now, this doddering asshole has no recollection that Daytona Beach was attempting to have deed restrictions removed?
Gentle readers, in my view, this latest kerfuffle between the City of Daytona Beach and Volusia County government is far more disturbing than it may initially appear.
If proven true – and our elected and appointed leadership in DeLand were really caught totally flatfooted by the city’s efforts to open City Island to private development – then this foundering ship of fools truly has no rudder – and this level of abject ignorance and lack of even a cursory understanding of the important civic issues facing our region should frighten us all.
Because the grim alternative is that we have once again been blatantly and spuriously lied to by senior county officials as they attempt to control the narrative and seek standing in any lucrative future plans for the commercial development of City Island.
Neither scenario is acceptable – and, like the always naive Billie Wheeler – I’m really, really, really concerned about it.
You should be too. Because the hits just keep on coming. . .
During a raucous three-hour “workshop” (?) on Tuesday, our elected officials discussed a wide-range of issues – from the mundane to the ridiculous – some of which are guaranteed to have a negative impact on our quality of life.
For instance, our half-bright County Chair, Ed Kelley, made the disastrous suggestion that Volusia County begin charging beach-goers for parking in the “off beach” lots that you and I have already paid for – and been forced into – by the county’s shameless giveaway of our century-old tradition of beach access and driving.
It’s the natural progression of a shockingly failed public policy that uses our most precious natural resource as a cheap bargaining chip for speculative developers and campaign donors (usually one in the same) – and leaves you and I in the untenable position of paying Volusia County twice for the same “amenity.”
And make no mistake, despite the fact our ‘powers that be’ promise that paid parking won’t apply to Volusia County residents – ultimately, it will – in one form or another – no doubt as a “low cost permit” or goofy window sticker to differentiate residents from visitors.
As it stands, those of us who live here are forced to pay for an annual “beach pass” that permits us to enjoy the unique convenience that brought many of us here in the first place – the ability to drive and park on increasingly limited sections of our beach.
This is on top of the extortionate taxes we pay to feed a swollen, unnecessary and wholly ineffective beach management organization whose dreadful, uninspired rules and regulations have left our beloved shoreline looking like a forest of poison-laden wooden poles and ‘do this, don’t do that’ sign pollution that is quickly ruining the experience for residents and visitors alike.
Clearly, Old Ed never met a fee or insidious tax he didn’t wholeheartedly endorse – regardless of the long-term impact to already strapped residents and increasingly set upon tourists who are quickly learning that their disposable income and leisure time spend anywhere other than this down-at-the-heels money pit – a place clearly more focused on shearing the sheep than providing a quality experience that will sustain our most important economic engine.
Stay tuned, friends: Paid parking on what passes for our already calamitously expensive “beach access” lots is in your near future. . .
Angel City of Holly Hill
Kudos to the City of Holly Hill for showing its residents what true ingenuity looks like.
In the aftermath of the failed half-cent sales tax referendum – rather than squat like pouting gargoyles on the dais of power and lambaste their constituents for having the temerity to reject this shameless money grab – Holly Hill officials went back to the drawing board to find innovative ways to pay for the small community’s 17 most pressing transportation infrastructure needs.
According to the News-Journal, “The plan, in its most recent iteration, calls for borrowing $1 million from the city’s solid waste fund, $137,000 in gas tax revenue, and $276,000 in funds carried forward from the gas tax to repair the city roads over the next two years, Via said, adding that the details could change when the project’s finalized at the city’s June budget workshop.”
I may well be biased – but that’s what good governance looks like.
A tip o’ the Barker’s View cap to Mayor Chris Via and the Holly Hill City Commission for their nimbleness, strategic vision and financial flexibility in finding unique solutions to entrenched problems with existing resources.
Asshole City of Deltona
Anarchy: A state of lawlessness or political disorder due to the absence of governmental authority.
Forget the Merriam-Webster definition. . .
If you want to know the true meaning of the word, please send any children and fragile adults out of the room, turn up the volume, and watch a recording of the unmitigated shit-show that was Monday’s free-for-all Deltona City Commission meeting.
Normally, I like to joke about these things – embroider the stories of the day with some funny aside or silly name-calling that exemplifies the often-comedic nature of local government (and exposes my own limitations as a dilettante opinionist) – but this is different, something more ominous and deeply concerning to anyone who cares about good governance.
In the aftermath of the utter chaos that passed for a public meeting, I’ve had several readers reach out to me for reassurance – to commiserate over the seemingly unrecoverable dysfunction that has gripped the Deltona City Commission – and to vent their growing fears and frustrations now that long-time community activists are being replaced by militant outside protesters, professional shit-stirrers and veteran radicals from across the nation – many with extremist views and coarse (but effective) methods for forcing change.
Unfortunately, it appears these external influences have already fractured grassroots efforts to restore sanity to Deltona City Hall – and that’s disheartening to watch.
I fear it’s going to get worse – and the Deltona City Commission bears sole responsibility for this building maelstrom.
On Monday evening, things came to a festering head following an impassioned presentation by Commissioner Loren King – a straightforward and heartfelt review of the criminal investigation that has left embattled City Manager Jane Shang in a pre-trail diversion program as she seeks to avoid prosecution on multiple felony crimes related to voter registration fraud.
Mr. King’s analysis of this incredibly embarrassing chapter in the city’s history ended with a motion to rightfully terminate Shang’s employment for cause – which was courageously seconded by Commissioner Anita Bradford.
What followed will be recorded in Deltona’s short history as one of the worst examples of what happens when the people are ignored and ostracized by those they have elected to high office.
Inexplicably, the subsequent vote was 5-2 to keep City Manager Shang in office – even as she completes the requisite steps of what is, in essence, a supervised criminal probation.
As one would expect, complete pandemonium ensued.
In an excellent article, the News-Journal’s intrepid Wild West Volusia reporter Katie Kustura did a good job describing the rebellious scene:
“Explicit language from residents at the lectern addressing city commissioners was frequent, though sometimes hard to hear over occasional chants of ‘lock her up’ and other similar demands. There was even a profanity-laced tirade by phone from someone out of state made during the raucous proceedings for which at least one child was present.”
There is legitimate fear in the air.
Many long-time citizens – including Commissioner Bradford – have openly discussed their very real concerns of retaliation by Shang and others in positions of power in city government – while some are legitimately afraid to attend public meetings due to escalating tensions in the commission chambers.
That is unacceptable.
Others have told me they fear because the Volusia County Sheriff’s Office is contractually obligated to the city, the agency will side with elected and appointed officials over citizens – I don’t believe that to be true for one minute – but it is clearly something Sheriff Mike Chitwood will need to address as this war of wills intensifies. . .
In my view, no one – including the clearly unaffected Ms. Shang – should be permitted to bring this frightening level of polarization, distrust and growing trepidation to Deltona City Hall – and the fact she is so tenacious in hanging onto this important position with her fingernails despite the building public outcry and utter distraction speaks to her true character.
For months, Deltona residents have consistently asked pointed questions of their elected representatives, seeking answers on everything from the city’s often murky financial practices to the repetitive instances of gross mismanagement and apparent criminal conduct by Jane Shang – only to be stonewalled – or met with provocation and ridiculous measures designed to quash dissent and limit public involvement – including Shang’s pernicious attempts to employ the Volusia County Sheriff’s Office as her personal Tonton Macoute to silence her most strident critics.
Now, it appears those cowardly political avoidance measures have finally come home to roost.
In my view, it is time for Governor Ron DeSantis to intervene and request an external review of Ms. Shang’s continued fitness to serve as Deltona’s chief executive.
It is also high time for the hapless Mayor Heidi Herzberg to do some serious soul-searching and come to grips with her apparent inability to maintain any semblance of order during the pursuit of what passes for the people’s business – then consider stepping down for the good of her community.
Regardless, the Deltona City Commission has clearly and irretrievably lost control – and those who continue to stand in the way of ridding the community of Shang’s corrosive and disruptive influence should also consider removing themselves from this horrific equation and allow dignity and decorum to return to the municipal government.
Asshole Daytona “International” Airport
I mentioned this a few weeks ago – but the plot of this farcical comedy thickens. . .
Earlier this month, we learned the disheartening news that our most recent beneficiary of public funds – something called Silver Airways – announced it will be stopping scheduled service from DAB effective July 1. That comes on the heels of the abrupt departure of Jet-Blue – who blasted off into the wild blue leaving Daytona Beach in a haze of jet exhaust and hurt feelings. . .
“Hey, Barker – we’ve been over this, you insufferable crank!”
“Who gives a damn if some regional commuter pulled their single route to Ft. Lauderdale? I mean, it’s a three-hour jaunt down I-95 – and who in their right mind wants to be stuck at the corner of walk and don’t walk on Las Olas Boulevard without their car?”
Well, smart ass: Because you and I ponied up an incredibly lucrative incentive package to lure Silver Airways to Daytona Beach – that’s why.
This publicly-funded goody bag of expensive inducements included some $100,000 to market the Daytona Beach-Ft. Lauderdale flights, a partnership agreement with the Daytona Tortugas organization, waiving landing fees and “facilities costs” (read: rent and utilities), a year of free ground handling services (according to reports, estimated at $91,250) and a quarterly payment of $25,000 for one year to help “offset some of the airlines startup costs.”
In my warped view, most responsible airport executives would use this latest departure as a time for reflection and contraction – an opportunity to demonstrate that frugality and effective physical and financial management can result in profitability when it is apparent that small air carriers have determined that “fare levels are not sustainable” in this feeder market.
But not here.
In Volusia County, our airport “leadership” believes that now is the time to undertake a multi-million-dollar renovation of the domestic terminal. . .
Following a typically ham-handed attempt at a simple public hearing – repeatedly mucked up by the yammering and painfully confused Chairman Ed Kelley – the Volusia County Council unanimously approved a $12 million loan to refurbish the terminal under the dubious guise of “recruiting new airlines.”
According to DIA’s own hyper-optimistic executive director Rick Karl, who – with a straight face – stood before the county council earlier this week and confirmed that the complete renovation of a domestic airport terminal built in 1992 is “badly needed.”
Airlines, large and small, are in business to generate revenue in a highly regulated and competitive industry. This is a major reason why DIA repeatedly agrees to absorb startup and overhead costs – even going so far as to guarantee ticket sales – only to have them (literally) fly the coop when the financial reality hits.
Throwing $12 million around the airport isn’t going to change that dynamic.
Trust me. Most air carriers would operate out of a thatched hut if it meant increasing their profit margin, but – unlike our airport officials and their rubber stamps on the Volusia County Council – they have the ability to learn from the mistakes and experience of others.
In my view, there is nothing substantially wrong or outdated with our current facility – don’t take my word for it, go out there and have a look for yourself – then, you tell me – if it were your facility, would you borrow $12 million to fix something that isn’t broken?
In this economic environment?
But it doesn’t matter what you and I think – the “experts” say taking on this massive debt is necessary for us to remain “competitive” in an place where we’re told our very quality of life is threatened by transportation infrastructure and utilities shortfalls which will require upwards of a billion dollars to address.
Apples and oranges?
Bullshit. It’s indicative of a mindset.
Let’s face it – renovating a place that looks like a ghost town most of the day is a “nice to have” – not a “must have.”
So, why is it so hard for anyone in county government to simply tell us the unvarnished truth?
Quote of the Week
“If we’re not past that now in 2019 and you have fear of us reverting back to that, we have bigger issues to deal with.”
–Volusia County Councilwoman Barb Girtman, responding to a point made by Council member Ben Johnson, that if voters were to abolish the County Charter we would return to a day when the county was run by “non-professionals” – and the measure would see Volusia “turned upside down.”
I agree with Ms. Girtman’s spot-on assessment – and if the current state of affairs in DeLand is the anyone’s idea of a “professional” administration – then I must be living in an alternate universe. . .
(Hey, I admit, that’s infinitely possible. . .no one ever accused me of being wrapped too tight.)
During the June 18 Volusia County Council meeting, Councilwoman Heather Post broached the clearly unpopular topic of placing the charter on the 2020 ballot.
Her thinking is that if the county should fail in its on-going legal challenge to the voter-approved Amendment 10 – the charter will directly contradict Florida’s constitution.
“I think change isn’t always bad,” Post said.
Of course, her “colleagues” on the dais of power disagreed. . .
Considering it would take a two-thirds vote of the council to repeal the charter – I think its safe to say that this sacrosanct governing document that keeps power vested in all the right circles isn’t going anywhere soon. . .
And Another Thing!
Among the various boards, committees and consortiums that administrate and ostensibly safeguard public funds in the maze of Volusia County’s byzantine governmental infrastructure there appears to be an unwritten rule:
Don’t question the status quo.
So long as elected and appointed officials agree to toe the line and work politely within the long-established framework they will be exalted as “statesmen” and “servant-leaders,” praised and rewarded for their good work on behalf of a clueless constituency.
But the minute a member of a board or committee begins to ask the difficult questions – to peel back the layers of the onion and expose the rotten core that our ‘powers that be’ have worked so hard to conceal, they are vilified as a rogue – a disrespectful rabble rouser – and summarily dismissed, marginalized then personally and professionally destroyed.
These pernicious “go along and get along” expectations were most prominently revealed when Volusia County Councilwoman Heather Post was repeatedly hauled over the coals when she first took office – or when former Volusia County lobbyist James Pericola valiantly attempted to expose the abject dysfunction inside the Thomas C. Kelly Administration Building – and most recently when the intrepid Brian Soukup was summarily dismissed from the West Volusia Hospital Authority’s Citizen Advisory Committee.
For the uninitiated (like me), the WVHA serves as a weird governmental vetting and billing service – administrating a massive publicly-funded budget which serves some 1,608 indigents enrolled in something called the “Health Card” program.
According to reports, the WVHA distributes a portion of these tax dollars to “…20 different health care agencies” which ostensibly serve those in the program. “Each organization is paid monthly after providing proof that the patients for whom they are claiming money have health cards.”
What I found most interesting is the fact that some $2 million of the WVHA’s budget is allocated for internal overhead – to include advertising (?), legal counsel, applicant screening and other “operational expenses” – with $18 million actually distributed to the various healthcare providers – which, according to the News-Journal’s calculations, equates to $11,286 per cardholder.
When Mr. Soukup ran unsuccessfully for the WVHA in 2018, he campaigned on a pledge to bring “transparency and accountability” to the board – a government authority with the highest tax rate of all three health-related special taxing districts in Volusia County.
Later, Soukup was appointed to the WVHA Citizen Advisory Committee by board member Dr. John Hill, and began making good on his promise to ask the hard questions and shine a bright light on how some $20 million taxpayer dollars are being spent.
Naturally, that didn’t go over well at the murky intersection of public funds and private interests.
In fact, in a mealy-mouthed letter to the Board of Commissioners, Citizen Advisory Committee Chair Elmer Holt went so far as to “sincerely apologize” to recipients of our tax dollars who may have felt uncomfortable during Mr. Soukup’s attempt at accountability. . .
For his trouble, Soukup was openly accused of violating Florida’s Sunshine Law and drummed off the committee on a 5-1 vote. . .
I found it interesting that the WVHA later walked-back the Board’s attorney, Theodore Small’s, rather serious accusation against Soukup in an “Errata Sheet For WVHA Meeting Minutes of May 16, 2019” – changing the record from “Mr. Small confirmed that Member Soukup is in violation of the Sunshine Law,” to the more legally ambiguous, “Mr. Small reviewed the circumstances that would suggest a potential violation of the Sunshine Law.”
The damage was done – Soukup will forever carry the ugly brand of a Sunshine Law violator – and the label of a disrespectful troublemaker intent on “destroying” the WVHA.
In the end, another inquisitive watchdog will have been publicly disemboweled on the altar of political conformity as an example of the fate that awaits those who dare step outside the bounds of obedience – or serve the highest and best interests of their constituents.
That’s all for me. Have a great weekend, everyone!