A Sign of the Times?

Most professional journalists describe bloggers as worthless losers who live in their mother’s basement – socially inept nudniks shoveling Cheetos into their crumb-coated mouth – while angrily trolling the interwebz, conjuring dark myths about government.    

Before mom tells them to wash-up for supper, that is.    

Speaking from experience, the life is not nearly that glamorous. . .   

A recent statistic by those who make their living keeping track of these things says there are currently some 152 million blogs on the internet – with a new one coming online every 0.5 seconds. 

Damn.  That’s a lot of fat-assed couch ‘taters with internet access and a chip on their shoulder, eh? 

Or is it a clear indicator that people are beginning to pull their heads out of the sand and they don’t like what they see – desperate to be heard – and tired of being force-fed the pap and fluff that passes for “news” currently being churned out by mega-media conglomerates?  

For instance, in recent weeks, the Gannett owned Daytona Beach News-Journal has spent more space decrying social inequity in the marijuana industry and indulging in other far left handwringing than reporting hard local news – virtually ignoring the pressing issues that affect our lives – while the civically detached/socially connected editor lectures us with “We’re the oracle of responsible journalism, folks – ignore those uncivil cretins trying to draw an audience on social media.”

Add to that editorials that try to convince Volusia County residents that politically powerful insiders, big money interests who have openly controlled Volusia County for decades, are not locked in a no-holds-barred power struggle with our new Chairman Jeff Brower, despite all evidence to the contrary.

In his standing Sunday space, News-Journal Editor Pat Rice wrote, “We have a responsibility to cover the news about all segments of the communities we cover. We have a responsibility to be civil on our opinion pages, even when we have a strong point of view to share.”

Perhaps Mr. Rice should re-read that statement – tack it to his office wall – and understand the importance of not insulting our intelligence week-in-and-week-out as he attempts to run interference for what his newspaper has described as Volusia’s “Rich & Powerful.”

Whatever.

For me, after spending a lifetime clawing my way to middle-management in a small local government bureaucracy – then hanging on by my shredded fingernails for over three-decades – the process of writing these weekly screeds is cathartic. 

A creative means of purging my own conscience after years of silent conformity – bearing witness to the sausage being made from the inside out – watching the good, the bad, and the ugly of the mosaic of municipalities that make up the Halifax area – and experiencing the buffoonery of Volusia County government, who, for years, has deftly refined the role of the oafish ogre that far outgrew its britches.   

I observe, read, and digest the machinations of area governments, then use the hindsight of my experience to bring a different perspective on the magician’s slight-of-hand – something I hope stirs a larger discussion of the myriad issues we collectively face.    

While Volusia County is my traditional stomping ground – pound-for-pound – those elected and appointed dullards in DeLand cannot hold a candle to the consistent political absurdity in Flagler County. 

Considering we share the Deltona-Daytona Beach-Ormond Beach Metropolitan Statistical Area with Flagler County – geographic areas linked by social and economic factors – I like to keep a jaded eye on Palm Coast, our horribly conflicted and often belligerent stepsister to the north.

To say that Palm Coast City Manager Matt Morton’s tenure at the helm of this behemoth has been an ongoing travesty is an understatement – marked by ugly internecine warfare, a constant churn in senior administrative positions, and recurring headlines alluding to a mysterious conflict of interest by Mayor Mellissa Holland and her weird triangular relationship with her employer, Coastal Cloud, and the City of Palm Coast. 

In fact, things have grown so contentious that Mr. Morton recently contracted armed guards to patrol Palm Coast City Hall in a disturbing display of unbridled power that has further alienated citizens from their government. 

After months of angry dissent from a faction of citizens who are clearly fed up with the dysfunction and lack of transparency in Holland’s administration, last week’s Palm Coast City Council meeting saw a tense moment when a lowly taxpayer had the temerity to enter the Royal Chamber and approach the Grand Loge to ask his duly elected mayor a question about the expenditure of public funds related to a $5.7 million expansion of the city’s tennis center. 

The citizen’s trespass resulted in Mayor Holland shrieking from the dais, “No sir! Absolutely Not! No! We are not doing this!” and “…I’m not getting scared in the middle of a council meeting. I’m not!”

Jesus. 

The citizen, later identified in The Daytona Beach News-Journal as Mark Phillips – a member of something called the Flagler Liberty Coalition – claimed he was simply confused and thought the meeting had adjourned:

“It just looked to me like the meeting was over,” Phillips said. “And I saw the mayor was still sitting up there, so I approached to ask her a question and she immediately screamed. And I stepped back immediately, not realizing why she was screaming.”   

Ultimately, a Flagler sheriff’s deputy intervened, Phillips was removed from the proceedings and issued a trespass warning at the request of Mr. Morton, presumably preventing Phillips from entering public facilities or meetings of the Palm Coast City Council.   

That’s one way to stop uncomfortable questions from those pesky constituents, I suppose. . .

The News-Journal report states the meeting also included some other angry speakers who Holland, or the City Attorney, tried to shut down when the ‘powers that be’ felt these unruly subjects of the realm were insulting an exalted council member.

Apparently, Mr. Phillips’ ill-timed attempt to speak with his mayor is being viewed by some as an escalation of the scorching rhetoric between the Palm Coast City Council and those they are sworn to serve. 

In a recent editorial in the must-read FlaglerLive.com, the incomparable Pierre Tristam writing in “The Live Column” sees a more ominous warning in the recent turmoil:

“What happened on Tuesday at the Palm Coast City Council is indefensible and dangerous. But it’s nothing new. We’ve simply not been paying attention to a perilous degradation of public discourse and behavior. We’re no longer witnessing just fiery opposition, which is the DNA of any vibrant democracy. The opposition is now routinely aggressive, threatening, irresponsible. The gap between that and violence is vanishing.”

In my view, the dissent in Palm Coast is not unique to the local political landscape – and represents the natural reaction of citizens in a representative democracy when they feel marginalized and ignored by those they have elected to serve their civic interests and steward their hard-earned tax dollars – and when our newspaper of record (who should be keeping the public informed, but isn’t) overrides our collective reality and repeatedly tries to convince us we are seeing things. 

We have seen similar discord in places like Deltona – where elected officials routinely ignore the fervent pleas of their constituents, going so far as to stand idle while appointed city officials have used the full-might of law enforcement to silence its own citizens who dared raise their heads and speak out. 

And in the City of Daytona Beach – where officials mandate that the live feed be shut off from the government access broadcast whenever taxpayers rise to address their elected officials during what passes for public participation – a clear attempt to silence the growing voices who are demanding a say in the trajectory of their community.   

Trust me – there is escalating aggression on both sides of the dais in local governments throughout Volusia and Flagler counties – and it is a clear sign of the building frustration in taxpayers who are sick and tired of being disregarded – told their perceptions and ideas are wrong – and gaslighted into believing the dysfunction they see with their own eyes is a mirage.

Angels & Assholes for May 7, 2021

Hi, kids!

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               Governor Ron DeSantis

It is time. 

On Monday, Governor Ron DeSantis did what many local governments did not have the political will to accomplish and stopped the madness of never-ending local States of Emergency – now pointless declarations that have become meaningless to the public they were designed to protect. 

Like clockwork, each bimonthly meeting of a municipal or county elected body typically ends with the mindless passage of the umpteenth “State of Local Emergency.”

In Volusia County, the first emergency declaration was passed in March 2020, and gave extraordinary powers to County Manager George Recktenwald and then Chair Ed Kelley to make unilateral decisions in the early days of the public health emergency.

Let’s just say our tried-and-true emergency management protocols failed to work as planned.

In fact, the wheel came off the proverbial cart when some Volusia County Council members felt their contributions were being overshadowed – resulting in contradictory social media statements and stilted press conferences – punctuated by frenetic manifestos by some elected officials demanding the immediate closure of all parks, beaches, recreation facilities, etc. – and calling for “shutting down businesses completely for two-weeks. . .”

In Daytona Beach, there was wild talk about fencing off the beach – a ridiculous curfew was set in place by the dictatorial Mayor Derrick “Il Duce” Henry – along with outdoor “mask mandates,” business closures, event cancellations, and other draconian control measures employed under the almost Monarchical powers granted by the emergency declaration.

The passage of similar emergency declarations spread across Volusia County in follow-the-leader style – no one wanting to be left out of the FEMA funding cycle – or open to criticism for perceived inaction. 

My ass.

The fact is it would be unthinkable for a politician to let a good crisis go to waste without an opportunity to grandstand – an operational certainty during any emergency – which resulted in spit-spats and finger pointing as “colleagues” began calling each other out for failing to act with sufficient “we’re-scared-out-of-our-wits-and-you-should-be-too!” overreach.

Unfortunately, these emergency declarations are now a hollow exercise – no one cares anymore – except those number crunchers in the bowels of the Thomas C. Kelly Administration Building who shovel the enormous influx of federal “CARES Act” funds into the gaping maw of this outsized bureaucracy.

This week marked the 60th extension of Volusia County’s State of Local Emergency.

Of course, the news that Governor DeSantis finally put an end to this hodge-podge of abusive emergency powers really ticked-off The Daytona Beach News-Journal, because anything that signals the beginning of the end of this macabre shit show – a national nervous breakdown fueled by the incessant hype and fearmongering of the media, contradictory information from our federal and state public health services, and the oppressive measures that forced many small businesses into extinction – is bad for the newspaper business. 

In Tuesday’s op/ed damningly entitled, “Florida guts local control,” (later updated to the panic-stricken headline, “DeSantis seizes control over state’s COVID response, says emergency is over. Lord help us.”) the editorial board wrings its trembling hands, using frightening terms like “not out of the woods yet” – while raising the specter of “vaccine-resistant variants” – anything to reinforce the preferred narrative this crisis will never really be “over.” 

The fact is, Governor DeSantis sees his constituents as personally responsible adults rather than the slavish subjects we have become – and he rightfully removed this repressive yoke from the necks of citizens and businesses – who know how to protect themselves and their families, follow commonsense guidelines and proper hygiene practices, and stop the spread of a virus without massive government intrusion into every aspect of their lives and livelihoods.

With some 9-million Floridians having received at least one COVID-19 vaccination, the Governor’s message was refreshing:

“My message is: the vaccines protect you. Get vaccinated and then live your life as if you’re protected. You don’t have to chafe under restrictions infinitum.”

Now that reason is making its triumphant return – with Florida’s capitol building opening today – it is high time for all counties and municipalities to stop the asinine prohibition on We, The People attending public meetings in person – a self-serving diktat that requires citizens be sequestered away from their representatives.

Frankly, if any public official is too cowardly to do the peoples business in the presence of those who elected them, then they owe a duty to the community to resign their position immediately and make way for those with the courage and conviction to serve.

Thank you, Governor DeSantis.  Enough is enough. 

Asshole           Volusia County Council

Many thanks to everyone on both sides of the contentious short-term rental Battle Royale who sent me notes and emails this week, but as I have said before, I don’t have a dog in this brutal fight.

The fact is, I do not own investment property (all my moneys tied up in what chartered accountants call “liabilities”) – and while there are traditional rental properties located in my neighborhood, they are well-maintained, effectively managed, and conform to existing regulations. 

That said, I have a consumers view of this controversial issue because my family and friends use short-term rentals whenever we travel – a concept that seems to work exceptionally well everywhere in the world except Volusia County – and most reasonable people can see that one size does not fit all when it comes to regulating this incredibly popular industry in a resort area historically reliant on tourism. 

After weeks of hard-fought lobbying, it appears a group of determined residents from Bethune Beach – a small unincorporated community on the barrier island south of New Smyrna Beach – who have vehemently opposed any change to Volusia County’s short-term rental prohibition left the bloody field victorious on Tuesday.

At times, the debate was hard to watch as the Bethune Beach delegation told horror stories of irresponsible renters invading their quiet neighborhood, open house parties, parking nightmares – even instances of public urination – complete with a video depicting a compilation of vacation atrocities homeowners have endured, an unflattering production Councilman Ben Johnson seemed overly interested in making public. . .  

Short-term rental owners argue that a small contingent of residents from Bethune Beach cannot speak for the thousands of other homeowners in Volusia County who may support allowing vacation rentals in their neighborhoods, something proponents see as vital to the success of our hospitality industry. 

My fellow masochists and I who regularly attend (or tune in via live feed) to that théâtre de l’absurde that is Volusia County Council meetings know that, shortly after taking the gavel in January, Chairman Jeff Brower sought to sort out the lingering issue of short-term rentals countywide – a tattered political football that has been kicked down the playing field for far too long.

In February, when it appeared short-term rental owners had the high ground, council members approved an initial moratorium on enforcement of the county’s ordinance as the issue moved through the legislature – only to reverse themselves weeks later after receiving backlash from the very vocal contingent of Bethune Beach homeowners.

The clash dissolved into profane exchanges from the gallery, credible allegations of intimidation, and horribly divisive infighting that has irreparably marred the image of this quaint beachside community.   

In a commonsense move, the council considered an ad-hoc citizen advisory committee to bring back recommendations on this thorny impasse – one that is clearly not going away anytime soon – and several concerned residents and property owners representing both sides of the issue were appointed to serve.      

Unfortunately, in their infinite procrastination on politically sensitive issues, the Florida Legislature ran out the clock on further preempting the ability of local government to regulate short-term rentals (long-term ordinances such as Volusia’s were grandfathered in 2011) during this year’s session that ended last week. 

So, on Tuesday – just when I was beginning to enjoy munching popcorn while watching rich people fight over First World problems – Councilman Ben Johnson had clearly heard enough and made a swift motion to eliminate the citizen advisory committee before it ever got started (after all, nothing good can come from two factions discussing their differences and finding workable solutions, right?) and asked that the issue be brought back at their very next meeting for an up-or-down vote on maintaining the current ordinance prohibiting rentals of less than 30-days.

In turn, Chairman Brower cast the lone vote against disbanding the advisory committee, saying he saw benefit in promoting a dialogue.

I did too.

In my experience, rarely does anything of substance happen that fast in Volusia County government as evidenced by the council’s recent decision to push even the whisper of beach tolls and alternative revenue sources until after the budget takes effect in October. . .   

Clearly, there are some serious backdoor politics at play by Volusia’s Old Guard – who seem terribly resistant to finding outside-the-box solutions to long-term problems – or allowing 21st Century practices to gain so much as a toehold in this civic, social, and economic backwater. . . 

For owners of short-term rentals, the handwriting is on the wall, and they are calling on their supporters to mount a full-court press at the May 18 Volusia County Council meeting.

I am sure Bethune Beach residents are planning the same.    

Regardless of where you stand on the issue, it is going to be interesting to watch.    

In my view, the Volusia County Council should have allowed the citizen advisory committee to go forward as a mechanism to vent frustrations and allow for meaningful discussion, a forum that may have allowed residents and STR property owners to find a sliver of common ground.

Or perhaps the whole shebang would have dissolved into a no-holds-barred cage match for the ages, who knows?   

My hope is that Bethune Beach residents and vacation property owners can put this dreadful chapter behind them and find a way to come together, mend fences, and heal old wounds.    

In my experience, few things are worse than protracted neighborhood disputes – because you cannot escape them – and the long-term consequences of these vicious feuds which pit neighbor-against-neighbor can quickly destroy everyone’s quality of life, even in an idyllic setting like Bethune Beach.    

Quote of the Week

“Despite Ormond MainStreet asking for a six-month grace period to explore ways to restore the 1976 structure, and both Salty Church and Congregation B’nai Torah expressing interest in the building, the (Ormond Beach) commission voted 3-2 at its meeting on Tuesday, May 4, to tear down the building and construct a new shell parking lot for 59 vehicles. Mayor Bill Partington and Commissioner Dwight Selby voted against, wishing instead to pursue avenues to save the building.

Selby said that way, they could see if, as a community, they could reimagine what the property could be used as.

“We’ve deprived local citizens with the opportunity to come forward with a potentially really great plan,” he said.”

–Reporter Jarleen Almenas, writing in the Ormond Beach Observer, “Ormond Beach City Commission votes 3-2 to demolish church property,” Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Wait. What happened? 

We had a plan, right? 

Am I the only one who remembers the much-ballyhooed “community center” for large-scale public/private events – that singular civic benefit that formed the rationale for the City’s nearly $800,000 purchase of the historic, yet horribly dilapidated, Ormond Beach Riverside Church?   

Come on, now.  You don’t recall the incessant chatter about all the wonderful “possibilities” for this “must-have” property at Ormond Beach City Commission meetings – the high-brow tut-tutting over the “strategic importance” of the purchase – and the civic imperative of “hearing from residents” regarding the scope and direction of the project?

No?

Just me?

Okay – but you simply must remember “The Great Cross Bruhaha of 2019” – when a concerned resident of Ormond Beach – backed by those professional victims at the “Freedom from Religion Foundation” and “American Humanist Association” – threw a good old-fashioned church-and-state shit-fit, demanding that the cross we inherited with the public purchase come down immediately?

Whatever. . .

I suppose Commissioner Dwight Selby can take comfort in the knowledge his constituents are getting used to being “deprived of opportunities” – such as the assurance our children and grandchildren will enjoy clean drinking water, experience the joy of undisturbed natural places, or the opportunity to get from point A to B without sitting in gridlocked traffic on Granada Boulevard. 

You may remember that way back in 2018, Commissioner Selby was the first to propose that the citizens of Ormond Beach purchase the church and adjacent parking lot for the promised “civic center.”

We were told it was a once in a lifetime opportunity – otherwise it may have, God forbid, gone on the tax rolls. 

According to a News-Journal report from the day, Mr. Selby feared that:

“If we hadn’t bought this, somebody could’ve walked into City Hall, got a building permit and built a house on that lot,” Selby said. “I’m certain that we would’ve looked back at this moment sometime in the not-too-distant future and said, ‘Oh my gosh. How did we let that slip through our fingers?’”

OMG, indeed.    

Never mind the fact City officials knew at the time of purchase that every roof on the campus leaked like a sieve, mold was present in a classroom building, and there was evidence of deadly asbestos and lead paint throughout – but certainly nothing that throwing between $2.8 million to $3.3 million of the taxpayer’s dollars could not mediate. 

So, despite the weak protestations of Mayor Bill Partington and Mr. Selby, the existing buildings will now be demolished and hauled off.

Instead, Ormond Beach residents are getting a $729,000 parking lot.

Asphalt?  No, crushed shell. . .

Enjoy your beautiful new community amenity, folks. 

You paid for it.

And Another Thing!

Last month, late into a very disturbing evening, I stared blankly at the government access channel on my television as the majority of Deltona City Commissioners heartlessly ignored the fervent pleas of their constituents and voted to approve a zoning request which paved the way (literally) for a wholly inappropriate housing development on 110-acres of environmentally sensitive land near bucolic Osteen.

It was cruel and difficult to watch as the hopes and dreams of ‘the little people’ were shattered in favor of some speculative developer’s every want and whim. . .    

After hearing citizens speak passionately about their love of the rural life – and describe the inherent value of the woodlands, pastures, and unspoiled wildlife habit to future generations – only Commissioners Loren King, Dana McCool and David Sosa stood with their constituents and worked to preserve this threatened piece of Old Florida.

In my view, it was a damnable travesty – something I hope Deltona voters will long remember at the ballot box. 

Fortunately, it appears a group of concerned citizens in Deltona is not going to take the wholesale destruction of this pastoral setting lying down. 

This week, a GoFundMe page was established under the banner Save Enterprise-Osteen Road –Keep it Rural!

As I understand it, the group is raising money to mount a legal challenge to what they accurately describe as a “gateway” development along Enterprise-Osteen Road, a nationally recognized Scenic Byway which forms a portion of the River of Lakes Heritage Corridor:

“Five hours of testimony from the public emphasizing multiple reasons why this was not a sound decision appeared to be totally disregarded by the commission when they voted 4 – 3 to approve a plan which will replace Volusia County zoning, which would allow 34 homes, with a plan to place 189 homes on a parcel that is 55% within the 100 year floodplain, is surrounded by Conservation property, agricultural lands, large lot residential properties, and a lake.

This decision by the Deltona City Commission has left the residents with no option but to seek legal recourse as they work to defend this well know scenic byway, their rural lifestyle, and the safety of the traveling public.”

In my experience, fighting City Hall can be a daunting undertaking.

Mounting a grassroots legal challenge against the full might of government and the uber-wealthy developers it serves is a herculean task – an expensive, insanely frustrating, and time-consuming process that often ends with a ruling that the citizens who pay the bills and suffer in silence “have no standing” in the matter at hand.

I don’t know a lot about the “Concerned Citizens” behind this effort – and my hope is they will give us more of the who, what, when, where, and how of this project in the near future – but the effort to save Enterprise-Osteen Road from the threat of Deltona sprawl is deserving of your help.

To learn more about how you can contribute to the defense of the endangered scenic byway, please go to https://tinyurl.com/2rbtzfjz

That’s all for me.  Have a great weekend, y’all!