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 Deltona’s Brandy Lee White
I have always viewed Deltona politics as a bad Twilight Zone episode, a weird theater of the absurd – a hyper-dramatic cautionary tale full of bizarre plot twists – a wholly dysfunctional spectacle that has drained any sense of civic trust or respectability from the local government and pitted citizens against their elected representatives.
When long-suffering taxpayers lose faith in their government, they have a right and obligation to speak out, to get involved, and work to return a sense of fairness and accountability to City Hall.
In fact, the rights of citizens to petition their government for redress of grievances is enshrined as a sacred element of our First Amendment – which also guarantees our essential right to free speech and peaceable assembly.
But what happens when elected and appointed officials use the full might of government to suppress free and open expression, intimidate whistleblowers, and seek to incarcerate law-abiding citizens as a means of political revenge?
I’m not talking about some oppressive regime in a backwater of the Pakistani tribal region – I’m talking about the City of Deltona. . .
In 2018, the Captain of the Deltona Hindenburg, former City Manager Jane Shang, ordered the city’s finance director, Tracy Hooper, to sign a formal affidavit charging Brandy Lee White, a civic activist who had worked tirelessly to expose the abject dysfunction and ineptitude of Shang’s administration with a serious crime.
According to reports, Ms. White went to City Hall to obtain the results of a public records request regarding the city’s controversial civic center, and to document the encounter with public officials, White used her cellular phone to record her interaction with Hooper in a public area of the building.
In turn, Shang – apparently with the full knowledge and acquiescence of Deltona’s then horribly broken City Commission – directed that Hooper provide a sworn complaint to the Volusia County Sheriff’s Office alleging intentional interception of oral communications.
That’s a felony in the State of Florida.
When this serious accusation had the desired effect of silencing Ms. White – Shang used the same appalling tactic against another critic – Patricia Gibson – when she rightfully pointed out state licensing issues with a caterer hired by the City of Deltona.
In the words of Rod Serling, “Imagine if you will” the horrific personal, psychological, and professional damage that results from being maliciously charged with a high crime – one punishable with heavy fines and long-term incarceration – and the detrimental impact of having a lifetime criminal record attached to your personal identifiers – merely for having the courage to seek public information and speak out on issues of civic concern.
Imagine what the next six-months would be like for your family as you wait to be swallowed whole by the “criminal justice system” for having the temerity to participate in your local government. . .
Ultimately, State Attorney R. J. Larizza – who is often called to sort the wheat from the chaff at the nexus of political vengeance and criminal allegations – rightfully put an end to what many felt was Ms. Shang’s gross misuse of law enforcement – and dismissed her mean-spirited, spurious, and retaliatory accusation – one clearly designed to suppress lawful citizen dissent.
In turn, Ms. White sought compensatory relief from the City of Deltona as a means of restoring her good name and ensuring that other citizens would be free from similar treatment.
But wringing a cash payment from the citizens of Deltona was not Ms. White’s goal – she wanted to return a semblance of good governance to her community.
In my view, under the circumstances, Brandy White deserves a monetary settlement – and I can assure you that had I been victimized in this manner my attorneys would be working overtime.
In the spirit of reconciling with the community she clearly loves, Ms. White showed the compassion, restraint, and maturity to enter good faith negotiations with Interim City Manager John Peters and City Attorney Skip Fowler to seek an amicable solution that would result in positive change within the municipal government.
Among other things, the agreement included a formal apology from the City of Deltona, acknowledging the mental and physical toll this outrage has taken on Ms. White and her family, a request that the city develop sound policies that provide a clear process for how complaints against charter officers are investigated – and a prohibition on criminal charges being levied against citizens without their knowledge – one year of mental health counseling for Ms. White’s family and assistance with having her record expunged of the felony charge.
Oddly, after Interim City Manager Peters and City Attorney Fowler placed an item on the City Commission’s agenda calling for discussion of a “settlement agreement” with Ms. White – one that was advertised as having been agreed to in principle – a mysterious item was shoehorned into the peace treaty which would effectively prevent Ms. White from filing a lawsuit against those in the halls of power that she feels violated her civil rights.
In my view, that’s not fair to Ms. White – or the City Commission.
Now, Mr. Peters may have taken the fall in the newspaper for the last-minute addition – but the responsibility for writing legally binding agreements between the City of Deltona and a third party – ensuring the document and all provisions are legally sufficient and understood by everyone involved – lies with the City Attorney.
At least it should.
In my view, Mr. Fowler embarrassed the Interim City Manager and elected officials – adding confusion, muddling the process, and prolonging a painful chapter in Deltona’s history – and that should be unacceptable to every conscientious representative of the people.
Any covenant not to sue – as thinly veiled as it may be – should have been presented well before the meeting to let the elected officials know where they stand with Ms. White.
After being blindsided, Deltona elected officials agreed to send the matter back to Peters and Fowler with direction to reopen negotiations with Ms. White.
In my view, that is going to be tough duty, considering the surprise addendum to Ms. White’s previous agreement with these gentlemen. Now, what reasonable assurance does she have that they will negotiate in good faith and comply with the spirit and letter of the agreement?
It is called a loss of trust – something almost impossible to overcome.
After having publicly admitted fault with an offered apology – how much longer will the City of Deltona continue to victimize Ms. White with these sneaky eleventh-hour maneuverings as those officials involved with Shang’s decision continue to cover their asses?
As I have said before, I write this blog to bring attention to shit like this – a wholly dysfunctional and completely compromised pseudo-government that was allowed to run roughshod over citizens – public officials (in the loosest sense of the term) who set upon an outspoken critic like a pack of rabid wolves to crush opposition under the iron boot of an incestuous system intent on preserving the status quo regardless of who or what they had to destroy in the process.
This one bears watching, folks.
Angel Ormond Beach Historical Society
My family moved to Ormond Beach when I was just two-years-old – when our community was a much different place than it is today.
It has been the only home I have ever known.
During my lifetime, I knew the original Ormond Garage – and saw the smoke from my backyard the day it went up in flames – I have sat on the veranda at the old Ormond Hotel and played in The Casements back when it was a damp and dilapidated haunted house, and I have camped along The Loop before it was reduced to an access road for a hodge-podge of subdivisions.
I attended elementary school at St. James Episcopal on Halifax Drive where our playground was an unimproved lot behind the historic Billy’s Tap Room – and when we kicked a ball onto the roof of the restaurant – we would stand at the fence and yell for Mr. McDonald, who would come out with his high-tied apron and hat to retrieve our ball and good-naturedly throw it back into play.
A different place indeed.
I do not always agree with our developer-friendly City Commission – an elected body that seems intent on churning every available slice of greenspace into another godawful strip center or stick-and-glue apartment complex – even as the specter of Avalon Park and unchecked development along the Daytona Beach border threatens to destroy our quality of life.
But sometimes they get it right.
This week, I was proud to see the Ormond Beach Historical Society reach their decadelong goal of restoring the McDonald House on Granada Boulevard.
After receiving some $100,000 in private donations, with the help of a Volusia ECHO grant and matching city funds, in December 2020 a Daytona Beach contractor was awarded $448,650 to restore the east and west side of the historic home – one of the oldest structures in Ormond Beach – which was purchased by the City of Ormond Beach in 1979.
If approved by the City Commission, the second phase of the renovation is expected to be completed by December.
In time, the Society hopes to place a state-of-the-art museum that uses advanced technology to tell the unique story of the “Birthplace of Speed.”
Kudos to the Ormond Beach Historical Society – and the City of Ormond Beach – for their good efforts to protect and preserve the heritage of our beautiful community.
Quote of the Week
“Derek Lamontagne, a Port Orange conservationist and chemist, said his passion for the environment led him to advocate for Volusia Forever and apply for the board.
“I realized that the biggest need we have as a planet is to protect more lands before they’re built on. Our planet is facing an extinction crisis,” Lamontagne said. “Habitat loss caused by humans is the main driver of that.”
Lamontagne said he’s excited to listen to residents and experts in the coming weeks and months.
“What they want is what I want,” he said. “We’re facing a lot of rapid development in the area so time is of the essence.”
–Derek Lamontagne, Port Orange, a newly appointed member of the Volusia Forever advisory committee, as quoted in a piece by reporter Mary Helen Moore writing in The Daytona Beach News-Journal, “Volusia Forever panel talks priorities,” Thursday, March 4, 2021
A member of the critically important and politically influential Volusia Forever advisory panel who is excited about listening to those of us who pay the bills is a welcome addition to county government.
I do not know Mr. Lamontagne personally, but we clearly think alike on matters of development and environmental protection.
After nearly a decade in mothballs, on Tuesday the County Council dusted off the Volusia Forever committee after the tax-supported conservation program was enthusiastically extended by voters last year.
While Mr. Lamontagne received his appointment to the board from Volusia County Council Chair Jeff Brower – I was also happy to see that Ormond Beach’s own Suzanne Scheiber, an intrepid environmental activist and founder of Dream Green Volusia, was appointed by Councilwoman Heather Post.
As you may know, the Volusia Forever program acquires, conserves, and manages environmentally sensitive lands and ensures public access to our diminishing wild places for generations to come.
The program compliments the Volusia ECHO initiative which supports and preserves our environmental, cultural, historic and outdoors resources.
I like these important programs, and, judging from the groundswell of public support during the 2020 election, you do too.
We were promised greater oversight of how our tax dollars would be used and managed – and it appears our elected officials are living up to that commitment as evidenced by their thoughtful appointments to the Forever board.
In my view, if our “new” Volusia County Council keeps messing around and appointing the likes of Lamontagne and Scheiber to advisory roles, before you know it, they are going to have an effective, efficient, transparent, and responsive government on their hands.
And Another Thing!
Well, that should just about do it for the emotionally charged, off-the-agenda, knee-jerk reactions of the Volusia County Council. . .
At least I hope it does.
During a raucous meeting on Tuesday, one that at times looked more like an angry hornet’s nest than a public hearing, our elected officials got an earful from a very vocal contingent of highly pissed-off residents who oppose changes to the county’s short-term rental ordinance – including surly shouts and obscenities from the gallery – underscored with horror stories from residents demanding that the recently enacted code enforcement moratorium be lifted.
Conversely, about half of the speakers were steadfast owners of vacation rentals lobbying hard to preserve their properties and livelihoods.
It was disturbing – with horrific anecdotes of neighbor versus neighbor warfare in idyllic Bethune Beach and beyond.
In fact, it was the first time I ever heard the word “investor” used as an epithet.
Like many, I was thunderstruck by the incredible emotion and depth of concern on both sides of the issue – the anxiety evident in the quavering voices of speakers – as they vividly described their experiences and how much they care about preserving their neighborhoods and our collective quality of life.
Owners of short-term rentals spoke eloquently of the benefits their properties bring to our economy in increased tax revenues and supplemental income – and their sincere wish to be good neighbors – as they invest to improve the aesthetics of the area and open hospitality options for visitors seeking a more local experience than one finds in a beachfront high-rise motel.
One impassioned vacation rental owner, a widow facing bankruptcy, asked – if Airbnb can operate successfully in Egypt – then why can’t it work here?
Tough call. One that veteran Volusia County Councilman Ben Johnson called one of the most contentious issues he has seen.
There is clearly no easy answer.
Normally, I am not a fan of political insulation committees – putting a group of people together that toss a hot potato around until it cools, putting time and distance between a controversial issue and the elected officials who will ultimately need to make an unpopular decision – but I like Chairman Brower’s idea to put both sides of this controversial issue in a room and see if consensus on the highpoints is even possible.
I doubt the two sides are ever going to see eye-to-eye on what many see as the commercialization of residential neighborhoods – while owners argue they should be allowed to advertise their properties and participate in the lucrative and increasingly popular peer-to-peer rental market.
The fact is, for all the stomach acid expended this week, the point may be moot.
The Florida Legislature will take up the issue of short-term rentals during the current session – something that may take control of the issue out of local government’s hands.
Last month, the Senate Regulated Industries Committee approved a measure that would require online platforms like Airbnb and VRBO to collect taxes on vacation rental properties, ensure that only properly licensed rentals are advertised and provide the state with specific information regarding vacation rentals.
In a February article by Dara Kam of the News Service of Florida, we learned, “In exchange, regulation would be “preempted” to the state, largely preventing local governments from licensing or inspecting the rentals. Local governments could only regulate the rentals in the same way as other properties in neighborhoods, a restriction that cities and counties strenuously oppose.”
A great deal can (and will) happen between now and the end of the legislative session on April 30, so the Volusia County Council is wise to kick this dented-up can a little further down the road before making sweeping changes to the current ordinance.
I hope our “new” Volusia County Council learned the valuable lesson that it is impossible to pick up a turd by the clean end. . .
In the future, our elected officials should think twice before upending a can of worms without exploring all facets of an issue (because half-assed spontaneous reactions by an elective body rarely solve anything) and avoid telegraphing their intentions until the established legislative process can work – laborious as it may be.
That’s all for me. Stay safe and have a great Bike Week, y’all!