The Times They Are a-Changin’

I recently saw a guy on television who carries around a bull alligator like a toddler, attending to his needs as one would a beloved dog, and, for the most part, they seem to be the best of friends – an odd little man and his domesticated reptile keeping each other company.   

That is an illusion, of course, because the relationship is not reciprocal. 

So long as the man feeds the alligator – he will postpone eating the man for another day – and that is the only thing the gator brings to the “friendship.”

An alligator – like many politicians – have very primitive brains. 

As an apex predator, the alligator processes only the instinctual impulses of eating and making little alligators, while politicians focus solely on obsequiously scrambling for the campaign donations that will help them get reelected. 

Oh, and it helps if they look marginally effective to their constituents. . . 

That’s where their relationship with the city or county manager comes into play – and it is important that elected officials understand the nature of that unique association upfront.

I’ve mentioned this before, regardless of jurisdiction, the one constant in local governance is that city and county managers enjoy an incredible level of professional protections that those in the private sector will never know – even when their decisions and behavior are far from professional.

From the vantage point of over 30-years in municipal government, I know a little bit about the perils of political instability.

I have seen good managers demonized and pilloried for trying to do the right thing despite the prevailing political winds – left with no alternative but to resign and ply their often-itinerant trade elsewhere.

Conversely, I have seen some of the most quisling, totally inept assholes ever to worm their way into public management, thrive – at least for a while – as they insulate themselves with the internal and external political protections that come with facilitating the flow of public funds to the private, for-profit interests of well-heeled campaign donors and political insiders.

In a Council/Manager form of government, the manager is given extraordinary powers over every aspect of government services.  For instance, the executive has complete autonomy to hire and fire employees, set internal policies, personally direct the operations of all departments, and administrate the budgetary processes.

The manager also sets the agenda, briefs the elected officials in advance of public meetings, and controls the flow of information and organizational effort that can make or break public policy – and facilitates the individual projects and collective requests of council members or commissioners.   

In turn, We, The People elect the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker to serve on a representative body that appoints a manager with (hopefully) strong, ethical, managerial and organizational skills to oversee the day-to-day operations of the government, make public policy recommendations, and assist the legislative function.

Most do an exceptional job – serving multiple masters while bringing economic and civic progress to their communities.

Others, not so much. . . 

Several communities in Volusia County are preparing for the incredibly difficult and destabilizing task of finding a new chief executive, to include Lake Helen, Port Orange, Deltona, and Daytona Beach.

Did I miss anyone?

In Lake Helen, City Administrator Becky Witte has announced her resignation following a deteriorating relationship with Mayor Daisy Raisler, a near-constant beatdown that left Witte feeling like a “political volleyball.” 

The mess in the quaint community reached its nadir in September when the City Commission agreed to hire a private detective who insinuated himself in the process after reading about the internal strife. 

After meeting with Raisler and Witte, the investigator reported, “there were some technical violations of the city charter and some actions of questionable judgement,” but stopped short of claiming any criminal conduct, or that either party acted in bad faith. 

According to a report in The Daytona Beach News-Journal, the good citizens of Lake Helen paid the private investigator some $950 “…for additional services including: preparing an analysis of charter violations and errors in judgment, outlining steps to correct managerial issues and preparing “recommendations that will ensure a good working relationship between the legislative branch of government (the Commission) and the executive branch (City Administrator).”

I am clearly doing it wrong – because that sounds an awful lot like what I do on these pages for free. . .

Whatever.

Last week, the most recent iteration of the Deltona City Commission unceremoniously demoted Interim City Manager Dr. Marc-Antonie Cooper – who took the helm of that leaky vessel when the disastrous reign of Jane Shang compassionately came to an end last January. 

With a trained eye, one could tell all was not well at City Hall – and no one seemed interested in exposing the wounds left by Shang to the cleansing light of day – allowing time for the community to heal in the aftermath of a very contentious period in the city’s relatively short history. 

In March, Cooper asked for a whopping $175,000 annually to provide interim managerial services – an amount which matched what Shang was commanding when she oversaw the shit show that is Deltona governance.   

Instead, the elected officials agreed on $150,000 – with a clause in the contract that provides Cooper a bump to $135,000 should he return to his enviable position as Deputy City Manager. . .

Your guess is as good as mine how that will work out, now that Dr. Cooper has been relieved of duty for performance issues.

Last spring, during a weird telephone interview with the intrepid Wild West Volusia News-Journal reporter, Katie Kustura, “Cooper said he hasn’t yet decided whether or not he’ll apply for the city manager position.”

I found that odd, especially at a time when the long-suffering community was begging for stability – and was willing to pay Cooper $150,000 a year to make it happen. . . 

In short, Cooper blew it.

Hell, Genghis Khan would have been embraced as a positive change-agent by the good people of Deltona in the wreckage of the Shang Dictatorship – and all he really had to do was right the ship and be approachable and responsive to the needs of his bosses on the dais of power.

In my view, if a city manager doesn’t have a burning desire to fill the role, lead boldly, enhance service delivery, be part of the solution and move the community that employs him or her forward with a strong personal commitment – a drive that extends beyond the mercenary goal of self-enrichment and advantageous employment agreements – then, perhaps the Deltona City Commission knew all they needed to know about Mr. Cooper’s motivations in March.   

In my view, the future of the Halifax area is dependent upon who the Daytona Beach City Commission selects to replace retiring City Manager Jim Chisholm early next year.

Like it or not, Mr. Chisholm is the embodiment of near-autonomous political power as he ramrods the wants and whims of King J. Hyatt Brown and other shadowy players – while enjoying the political insulation those powerful forces provide – for a cool $307,000 a year with perks, an annual salary that outpaces any sitting governor in the United States. . .    

I suspect our oligarchical insiders will be working overtime to find a suitable replacement – a real card mechanic with just the right amount of malleability, and the peripheral vision to see which projects are important to the future of the community – and which are best allowed to wither and die. 

Times they are a changing. 

Trust me – the next chief executives in Port Orange, Deltona and Daytona Beach will have more of an impact on our quality of life than anyone we have elected to represent our interests.

In my view, every citizen and business owner has a vested interest in ensuing that their elected officials demand a trustworthy, ethical, and respectful city manager – one who possesses the vision, critical thinking, and proven planning skills necessary for true civic transformation – not another cheap facilitator for the wants and whims of special interests.

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