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 Mark D. Barker
I’m an unabashed troublemaker.
An unrepentant sinner who heaps harsh criticism on those who accept public funds to serve in the public interest, yet consistently put their own self-interests – or those of their political benefactors – ahead of the wants and needs of their long-suffering constituents.
Certainly not an angel. And, let’s face it, the asshole moniker fits best. . .
If you’re a loyal reader of these screeds, my guess is you’ve figured that out by now.
The one thing I got right in life was a wonderful 31-year career in law enforcement. If someone had asked me to sit down and write out the perfect career track – I could not have imagined a more fulfilling or personally rewarding endeavor than my three-decades with the City of Holly Hill.
Was it perfect? No.
During a 31-year career in municipal government, I made my share of operational, administrative and personal mistakes. Misjudgments, omissions and strategic errors that cost taxpayer dollars, diminished service delivery and, I’m sure, confounded senior administrators, elected officials and my long-suffering constituents.
Fortunately, I worked for some truly remarkable servant-leaders along the way who allowed me to learn from my mistakes, took the time and effort to point out the error of my ways and ensure that I didn’t repeat the same blunder twice.
I worked hard every day to set a professional example by never compromising my personal or professional integrity, to always tell the truth to citizens, subordinates and superiors – even when it was unpopular – and, when it came to putting young men and women in harms way, I never asked anyone to do anything I wasn’t willing to do myself.
And I never shirked my sworn responsibility to uphold the law without fear or favor.
I’m proud of that.
Now, I don’t give a Tinker’s damn about any “legacy” of service – but my professional reputation remains important to me – that’s why what I have to tell you is so difficult for me.
This summer a complaint was brought against Holly Hill City Manager Joe Forte to the Florida Commission on Ethics by a long-time resident who, around 2007, embarked on something of a personal crusade to implement aggressive code enforcement.
Unfortunately, the accuser made up baseless allegations against me as a means to an end.
According to the complainant’s “Statement of Facts,” after making a personal “survey” of the city between 2007 and 2008:
“I began to notice that certain property owners, who I later determined to be longtime friends of former chief of police Mark Barker had major violations ignored by police officers.”
The complaint also alleged that when City Manager Forte returned to office in 2014 after a seven-year stint as Assistant County Manager in Seminole County:
“He immediately began adopting the same behaviors as former chief of police Mark Barker who retired just months earlier that same year. Property owners, known to be close friends with former chief Barker, continued to repeat violations at their properties as police officers and Joseph Forte refused to report those to the special master.”
The complaint contained a smattering of photographs and email exchanges between the complainant and city code enforcement officials regarding reports and enforcement actions dating to 2008.
While I was not formally named as a respondent in the complaint – the foundation of these spurious allegations was that, during my service as Chief of Police, I showed favoritism or gave preferential treatment to unidentified “longtime friends” who were also “major violators” of city codes – and follows with the ludicrous notion that Mr. Forte, after a seven-year absence from Holly Hill, carried on this preferential treatment for my unidentified “friends” after I retired.
The accusations also included an absurd assertion that my officers and I were untrained and incapable of conducting code enforcement activities.
On October 17, 2019, a preliminary investigation by the Commission on Ethics was completed and sent to the full commission for review and formal determination.
Earlier this week, the Commission issued a formal finding of “No Probable Cause” in the matter and dismissed the complaint against Mr. Forte – official action which exonerated him of all charges – while also making the original complaint and subsequent investigative report a matter of public record. . .
For the record, I was never interviewed – or even noticed – during the course of the Commission’s inquiry.
When I learned about the investigation following its conclusion, I reached out to the Commission’s investigator personally to ask how – in the absence of any opportunity to participate and provide sworn testimony or exculpatory evidence – would I be able to clear my name of these utterly baseless accusations?
I was told that the five-year statute of limitations on ethics violations had run since my retirement, and there was no evidence found to corroborate the complainant’s allegations, so, the Commission saw no need to interview me.
I also learned that the subject apparently became uncommunicative with investigators as the inquiry moved forward:
“The Complainant did not respond to telephone voice mail messages or an email message seeking further information relative to the complaint during the investigation of this matter. However, prior to the finalization of the Report of Investigation, he provided an email response referencing alleged code violations he had noted dating back to 2007, while acknowledging that the Respondent (Mr. Forte) who previously left the City’s employ in 2007, did not return as City Manager until late 2014.”
The investigator suggested I obtain a copy of the investigative report and use the findings as I saw fit to defend myself.
In other words, just deny it.
That should satisfy my detractor’s curiosity, right?
The fact is – I don’t have many friends – and none of them would ever compromise my professional ethics or personal integrity by asking me to intervene in a petty code enforcement matter.
And I have never insinuated myself into the code enforcement process, or the investigation and criminal prosecution of anyone, beyond what was necessary to provide supervision and oversight of an operation that was my legal responsibility.
In addition, I categorically reject the complainant’s notion that I, and the officers assigned to conduct code enforcement operations during my tenure, had “no certifications in code enforcement and routinely showed little knowledge of city codes/ordinances.”
The fact is, during my long career I conducted and supervised complex, long-term investigations of homicides (literally from crime scene to courtroom), narcotics trafficking operations, financial exploitation, and major criminal offenses – to include successful prosecutions under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act – and have partnered with federal, state and local law enforcement agencies on large scale investigations and long-term operations to uncover and prosecute criminal activity.
In addition, I authored the Volusia/Flagler Police Chief’s Association’s emergency management protocol for multi-jurisdictional incidents – held the Florida Professional Emergency Manager designation – and am a graduate of the 187th Session of the globally prestigious FBI National Academy.
And the sworn law enforcement officers I assigned to administrate the code enforcement function were also extremely well-trained and experienced professionals who worked diligently at a thankless job to make a positive difference in the community.
Look, I hate to congratulate my own accomplishments, but I think my training and experience qualifies me – or any other sworn law enforcement officer – to investigate The Great Garbage Can on City Right-of-Way Case of 2008. . .
The only cognitive recollection I have of the complainant is his incessant reports of residential garbage cans not being removed from curbside in a timely manner, junk cars in driveways, parking of RV’s, storage of goods in carports, etc., etc. – and I always considered him a frustrated, if somewhat overzealous, resident who wanted to better his community.
While a I bear no animosity toward my accuser, in my view, the lack of material evidence and extreme nature of this official action is over the top.
While I support the accuser’s right to complain about his government – perhaps the bar for destroying lives and careers with a frivolous public integrity complaint should be a tad higher?
Admittedly, code enforcement has never been a political priority in the City with a Heart – and most of our efforts during my time in command were complaint driven. Let’s face it, given the civic challenges facing a city approaching 120 years old, issues must be triaged, and limited resources expended judiciously.
Perhaps that doesn’t sit well with everyone – but it’s a fact of life in many small towns.
I have grown some hard bark over the years, and, in retirement, I really don’t give a rat’s ass what people think of me personally.
I am what I am – a washed-up hack, a warrior with no more battles to fight, a pathetic irrelevant who spends his time jousting with political windmills and sharing my jaded opinions with you.
But what’s left of my tattered reputation is still important to me – and I wanted you, my loyal readers, to know about these ugly allegations, as I suspect The Daytona Beach News-Journal will rightfully report on the matter soon enough.
I also want you to know that, regardless of what you think of me, Holly Hill City Manager Joe Forte is one of the most decent, honorable and values-oriented public servants I know.
His reputation speaks for itself – and it is above reproach.
Although Mr. Forte didn’t serve as city manager during my tenure as police chief, I had the pleasure of working with him for many years and in various capacities – literally from the time he was a firefighter with Holly Hill Fire/Rescue through his early service as the chief executive.
Through the years, Mr. Forte has demonstrated the strength of character and professional competence that has made him one of the most highly respected managers in Central Florida.
His vision, creativity and strict attention to stewarding public funds have set the City of Holly Hill on a path of restoration and renewal.
The fact his good name has been besmirched by these pernicious and wholly false allegations sickens me. My career is over – while his continues to blossom, and he will forever after have to answer ‘yes’ when asked if he has been investigated for an ethics complaint.
This wasn’t just some overbearing neighborhood snoop taking swipes at a public official for their failure to enforce municipal code – this was a formal sworn complaint alleging violations of Florida’s public integrity statute that resulted in official proceedings by the Commission on Ethics.
I’ve never been a fan of our state ethics apparatus – a weird process where the best the innocent can hope for is a finding of no probable cause – before being spit out the other side of the machine to rebuild their tarnished reputation.
And those who are found guilty of breaching the public trust often receive a slap on wrist.
When I complain about local government – or make snide remarks about sitting officials who I feel have sold us out – I try and explain the mini-moves and political machinations that led me to that opinion in my own off-color way.
I don’t make it personal because it isn’t to me.
And I can take it as good as I give it.
From that point of view, I have no idea why the person who submitted these demonstrably false allegations tried to personally and professionally destroy a good man like Mr. Forte – or why the individual chose to drag my washed-up ass through the fire five-years after my retirement from public service – but I have some damn fine attorneys who are champing at the bit to find out. . .
I didn’t quite know how to tell you about this – or how any subsequent media treatment will be received by my associates and political enemies – but we’ve been together too long for me to hide something from you.
Look, I’m not looking for sympathy – but I would have thought less of myself if you didn’t hear this from me.
As I ponder how best to proceed – how to restore my bruised reputation in this frightful era of guilt by accusation – I have come to the opinion that, if I am going to take an indignant public stand against perceived injustice, political malfeasance and the corruption of our democratic system – then I should work equally hard to protect myself, and those I respect, from bullies and cowards who use our public integrity law as a cudgel.
When I figure out how best to do that, you’ll be the first to know.
Thank you for your incredible support and friendship.