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
On Tuesday, I wasted another day – 7 or 8 hours of my life that I will never get back – listening to the monotonous drone of the Volusia County Council meeting and waiting patiently for an item of interest on the published agenda to be discussed – only to have the rug pulled out from under me when our elected representatives lost their stamina and postponed the issue.
I guess when it comes to Volusia County government, the best way to avoid disappointment is to expect the unexpected – and accept the unacceptable. . .
The meeting had an undercurrent of the “tail wagging the dog” syndrome that sees senior staff making decisions ahead of scheduled workshops and hearings by setting policy and budgetary priorities in the cloistered environment of a bureaucratic office rather than a public meeting.
In other words, it was business as usual in Deland.
Predictably, our elected officials had a testy chin-wagging session to telegraph how they plan to raise our taxes yet again – complete with the usual handwringing and scary stories of the cataclysmic fiscal destruction that awaits Volusia County if our elected officials fail to squeeze even more blood from us desiccated turnips to support a proposed $1.1 Billion budget.
You read that right. $1.1 Billion – and not one penny can be cut from the encrusted fat that won’t result in financial Armageddon.
Now is the time for all good citizens to accept our punishment for voting against the proposed half-cent sales tax – and pay the piper for the precious few quality-of-life improvements we asked for last year – because in Volusia County, refusing to obey the powers that be always comes with a cost.
During what passed for the millage rate “discussion,” the gang viciously bludgeoned Chairman Jeff Brower for attempting to hold true to his personal convictions – and campaign promise – of full rollback and a 5% across-the-board spending reduction in all areas except public safety.
When Councilwoman Heather Post even suggested that her “colleagues” use this time to carefully examine operations, leverage federal coronavirus relief funds, and look for ways to save money – she was openly scoffed at and dismissed as a lunatic.
It was interesting to watch the strange lycanthropic transformation of Ben Johnson, Danny Robins, Billie Wheeler and The Very Reverend Fred Lowry – each of whom hold themselves out as staunch Republicans 364-days a year – then morph into something completely different when it comes time to raise our property taxes – at which point they never met a massive bureaucracy or bloated budget they didn’t love. . .
Then, inexplicably, our self-anointed eminence grise, the uber-weird Dr. Fred Lowry, made the left field suggestion that agenda Item 19 – the innocuously titled (but incredibly important) “Discussion and direction regarding public meeting rule ordinance” governing such things as “decorum” and “public participation” – be moved to the next meeting.
They simply kicked a properly noticed agenda item down the road, apparently because they didn’t feel like dealing with it – and to hell with us lower caste members of the booboisie who waited patiently to learn what limitations will be placed on when, where, why, and how we will be permitted to participate in our government – and under what conditions we will be unceremoniously tossed out of the chamber on our ass should we insult the Monarchy’s sensitive feelings and sense of decorum.
I guess they had done enough damage to their political futures for one day, eh?
Look, raising taxes is as foreseeable and expected as getting hit by an uninsured motorist in Volusia County – it happens all the time – but whenever a small group of hubristic dullards start manipulating our ability to seek redress of grievances before our government – or speak out on the issues important to us – that frightens me.
Increasingly, small-minded politicians and entrenched bureaucrats attempt to quash dissent and civic activism by cloaking their overweening censorship in “civility ordinances,” “rules of decorum,” and other asinine suppressive measures not seen since Mao Zedong’s Double Ten Directive.
It has become obvious to most that some local governments would prefer taxpayers acquiesce to symbolic “meetings” – choreographed shams where predetermined policies and expenditures are rubber-stamped – while the ‘people’s business’ is hammered out behind closed doors and shaped by insider influence, far from the prying eyes of us rubes who are expected to pay the bills and keep our pieholes shut.
In my experience, ministerial edicts designed to enforce a subjective notion of “decorum” is usually the first sign that an elected body is in serious trouble.
The symptoms begin with the discussion of a “civility ordinance” as a means of maintaining the dignity of public meetings – which, by their very nature, should be contentious, participative, and filled with the vigorous debate of competing ideas – because the lofty decisions that come from these deliberations directly affect our lives and livelihoods.
In January, when Chairman Jeff Brower gaveled to order the first meeting of the current iteration of the Volusia County Council, our elected representatives promised an unprecedented level of transparency and public involvement.
It represented a demarcation from the bad old days when former Chair Ed Kelley made sport of restricting public participation – lording over anyone with the temerity to approach his elite domain with petty problems, and brusquely dismissing citizens who overstayed their begrudged three-minute audience like the Great and Powerful Oz – all while marginalizing Councilwoman Post with eyerolling histrionics whenever she refused to go along with the lockstep majority.
Unfortunately, the openness and collegiality we were promised soon dissolved into the tired old harrumphing of perennial politician’s intent on protecting the status quo while seeking to neuter Chairman Brower at every turn.
They don’t like applause. They don’t like signs. They don’t like videos. And they don’t like you.
When will they learn that good governance does not occur in a vacuum?
Good citizenship is not silent subservience to an entrenched power structure convinced of its own infallibility – and the process of crafting inclusive public policies should not be at the comfort and convenience of a few hypersensitive prima donnas perched on the dais of power.
If citizens cannot make themselves heard before their elected representatives at a public meeting – in a building paid for with their own hard-earned tax dollars – among bureaucrats and senior staff who accept public funds to serve in the public interest – then where can they be heard on matters of civic importance?
In my view, it is time those who hold high elective office understand that all political power is derived from the consent of the people.
This continuing undemocratic effort to alienate constituents and limit meaningful public participation – especially by curtailing the use of posters and video technology to get a point across (while staff relies almost exclusively on PowerPoint presentations that are more effective than sedative hypnotics) – is contributing to the lack of trust in government and fostering a malignant cynicism that continues to erode public confidence and hamper substantive progress.
Angel Port Orange Councilman Chase Tramont
Clearly, Chase Tramont is not averse to hard work or civic involvement, and the Port Orange city councilman, First Step Shelter board member, and announced candidate for the Volusia County Council won some hearts-and-minds this week.
At their recent meeting, the First Step Shelter board continued to cry the Poormouth Blues when it became apparent that another fiscal year has come and gone without adequate private funding to meet the annual operating needs of that elaborate self-esteem seminar in the hinterlands west of I-95.
That left some First Step board members instinctively returning to the public teat – that ever-flowing fount of tax dollars that the “shelter” drags its leaky bucket to, time-and-again, for its lifeblood – while many private donors continue to shy away from what has been an incredibly expensive and terribly confusing bait-and-switch scenario from its inception.
Unfortunately, the First Step’s governing board never reconciled the fact that what we were sold is not what we received – and all the fancy marketing videos and “look at our progress!” social media campaigns in Mike Panaggio’s extensive repertoire cannot change that. . .
This week, The Daytona Beach News-Journal ran an informative piece by reporter Eileen Zaffiro-Kean entitled, “Shelter relying on public dollars,” which opened:
“For now and the foreseeable future, the city-owned homeless shelter for adults run by a nonprofit will continue to get the vast majority of its funding from local governments.”
“In the current budget year, $975,754 of the $1.39 million annual budget is being covered by seven Volusia County governments. The balance comes from an array of private donations and grants.”
The First Step board members quibbled about what each contributing municipality should pay for the privilege of attaching themselves to the “shelters” true raison d’être – the legal and political insulation that allows government entities to claim a dubious level of “compliance” with federal protections against criminalizing homelessness.
A point not lost on Daytona Beach Mayor Derrick Henry:
“Henry pointed out that a government’s ability to stay compliant by offering the shelter’s safe zone as an option to jail is a value for cities that should be adequately paid for, even if a city isn’t referring many of its homeless to the shelter residency program.”
But just how much of our hard-earned tax dollars is that protection racket worth?
According to the First Step board, the municipalities should be ponying up an amount equal to .258% of their 2016-2017 fiscal year fund balance – with some cities paying more, and others less, while the City of Daytona Beach and Volusia County have each promised $400,000 annually for the first five-years the “shelter” is in operation.
To his credit, Chase Tramont stood firm – proving his worth as a good steward of the public treasury – when he rightfully declared that the “shelter” should not be perpetually carried “on the back of taxpayers.”
During the meeting, Mr. Tramont argued that governments should have the ability to contribute what the individual community feels it can afford – rather than be lashed to some arbitrary formula.
According to the News-Journal’s report, “Tramont was the sole vote against continuing to make the fund balance percent the standard funding request.”
At the end of the day, the First Step board did what most elected and appointed governing bodies in Volusia County do and opted to maintain the status quo – using the fund balance formula as a “suggestion” while accepting whatever the municipalities agree to pay.
Because, what else are they going to do?
In my view, “beggars cannot be choosers” – meaning one must accept that which is handed to them – especially if they do not have the means to acquire it themselves.
I know it is gauche to bring up not-for-profit executive salaries, but when First Step director Victoria Fahlberg was hired in 2019 – with an annual salary totaling some $75,000 in wages and benefits – she told us the “shelter” would need to raise $500,000 each year on top of local government contributions – assuring us she would be “applying for grants,” working with foundations, and putting the arm on businesses and individuals to make ends meet.
At the time, I thought, “That’s gonna take a lot of bake sales, raffles, and walkathons. . .”
Along the same line, Ormond Beach City Commissioner Dwight Selby reasonably suggested a financial study to determine if the “shelter” had enough money coming in to meet its monthly nut, as quoted in the News-Journal:
“A cash flow analysis is of dire importance,” said Selby, an Ormond Beach city commissioner. “We need to clarify that the cash will flow in at least at a level equal to what we’re burning.”
Now, I am not sure if that basic budgetary examination ever happened – or if the board simply decided it wasn’t necessary, so long as it could count on City Hall to keep writing checks. . .
I have often wondered how Director Fahlberg and the First Step board members must feel as they stare out the window and watch P$S Paving – a private company – haul millions-of-dollars in publicly owned fill dirt from their backyard while they continue to hold the begging bowl?
Kudos to Mr. Tramont for holding firm to the basic principle that the First Step Shelter should be required to stand, or fall, on its own merits by consistently demonstrating value to the citizens of communities from which it receives its funding.
But for now – and the foreseeable future – be prepared to keep hand-feeding this insatiable beast from the public trough. . .
Quote of the Week
“As soon as you get off I-95, it’s impressive all the way down (International Speedway Boulevard) until you start to get to about U.S. 1, and then,” he said with a pause. “It’s dilapidated.”
–Daytona Beach resident Richard Martinez, as quoted by Daytona Beach News-Journal reporter Mark Harper, “Public reacts to roadway proposals,” Saturday, July 17, 2021
I am a big fan of Maryam Ghyabi-White, CEO and president of Ghyabi Consulting and Management, a professional traffic engineering and transportation consultancy, who has put her time, talent, and considerable influence into developing workable solutions for our challenged beachside.
In a recent interview with The Daytona Beach News-Journal, Ms. Ghyabi-White said, “Every project I’ve done with public input has been so much better. I truly believe in it.”
She understands the inherent benefit in listening to those who use our streets and roadways before millions in scarce public funds are literally set in concrete.
Last week, a public charrette was held at The Plaza Resort and Spa attended by approximately 100 citizens desperate for substantive change in our core tourist areas of East International Speedway Boulevard, North Atlantic Avenue, Main Street, Oakridge and Seabreeze Boulevards.
Now that the asinine suggestion of a traffic loop-de-loop at Volusia County’s busiest beach approach at East ISB and A-1-A has been put to rest, the Florida Department of Transportation is rightfully seeking public input on improvements to the long-neglected and desperately blighted gateway to the World’s Most Famous Beach.
According to an informative report on the helpful suggestions received during last week’s planning session in the News-Journal, reporter Mark Harper wrote:
“The latest concepts will all be more fully developed for the September meeting, where public comment will also be sought, Ghyabi-White said.
“This is not going to solve all our problems. It’s not going to make it better 90%. Perhaps 70%,” she said. “But it’s better than what we’ve got.”
One thing I really liked was the idea of a bicycle lane physically separated from vehicular traffic using the Zicla Zipper system (look it up) – which will keep the bumper of my rig a safe distance from that peloton of middle-aged cyclists, dressed cap-a-pie in spandex (ugh), who compete for space in the right lane with that shirtless 48-year-old dude still doing nollie-heelflips and frontside shuvits on his skateboard during peak traffic hours. . .
These solutions would not have been possible without Ms. Ghyabi-White’s tireless efforts to bring stakeholders together at the same table, a collaborative effort of citizens, business owners, and government entities, that demonstrates true progress is possible when the hearts and minds of decision-makers remain open to new ideas and information.
Here’s to new beginnings – no matter how long overdue.
And Another Thing!
While watching the Volusia County Council meeting this week, I got a troubling sense that all is not well in the exalted Halls of Power at the Thomas C. Kelly Administrative Complex.
I could be wrong – but I’m not.
There was a palpable strain in the air.
It began with that abomination in New Smyrna Beach, where the family of Kenneth Parker was forced to spend an estimated $250,000 defending their beachfront home from the threat of a forced parking lot – a paved pad and accompaniments that would have destroyed sensitive dunes and protective vegetation – an expensive push that, in the end, no one, from New Smyrna Beach officials to the Volusia County Council, seemed to give two-shits about.
According to an informative article in The Daytona Beach News-Journal by reporter Mary Helen Moore, entitled “Off-beach parking lot plan dropped,” we learned:
“The county spent an estimated $110,000 on the plan for a parking lot, including more than $87,000 on designs, $2,600 on permitting and $20,300 on a court hearing.
“That does not include staff time. That’s checks cashed to consultants,” Coastal Director Jessica Winterwerp noted. Staff have logged an estimated 2,525 hours on the project, including 325 from the legal department.”
It appears everyone ensconced in wingback swivel chairs in the executive offices in Deland were aware of what was going on – except those mushrooms we elected to represent our interests and steward our tax dollars.
At the end of the day, the Parker’s were understandably left in tears – the good citizens of New Smyrna Beach are apparently getting a simple walkover – and Director Winterwerp went back to doing whatever it is she does at the Coastal Division, whose motto should forever be:
“We’re not happy until you’re not happy.”
Then, during the “preliminary” budget presentation, it appeared that Volusia County’s Chief Financial Officer Ryan Ossowski – an appointed department head with no political accountability – had already cobbled together next years budget.
It was all cleverly spelled out on a colorful PowerPoint tableau – complete with the various allocations and millage rates already decided upon – leaving little for our elected officials to do but stop meddling in the work of professional bureaucrats and rubber-stamp their “recommendations.”
It was obvious to anyone watching that Chairman Jeff Brower and Councilwoman Heather Post would prefer to think for themselves.
They seemed absolutely stupefied that this granular level of budgetary detail would be presented one week before a workshop to allocate millions in federal American Rescue Plan Act Transition funds.
In my view, it epitomized Volusia County’s historic problem of senior staff directing the outcome of important issues, and effectively taking those with political accountability out of the equation, by limiting options with forgone conclusions.
It appears the majority of those impressive mimics on the dais of power won the day on a 5-2 vote – but I doubt Ossowski and Co. have heard the last from Chairman Brower and Councilwoman Post. . .
Then, perhaps most disturbing, Councilwoman Post brought up a dangerous occurrence earlier this month, as reported by the Deltona firefighter’s union, after a city ambulance “…was denied the ability to transport a Trauma alert patient during a large motor vehicle accident” by Volusia County’s emergency services hierarchy.
Because – who cares about your sucking chest wound, your child’s open head injury, or your mother’s stroke – the transport fell outside the arbitrary hours set by Deltona’s agreement with Volusia County.
As the brave men and women of Deltona Fire Fighters Local 2913 so aptly put it:
“The time has come to revamp this outdated system that Evac ambulance uses (VCEMS) and grant the city fire departments the ability to have full transport. The Deltona fire stations in the city are strategically placed throughout the city to provide adequate coverage to the 100,000+ residents.”
Unfortunately, when former Port Orange Fire Chief Ken Fustin stood up for the safety of his residents and staff, proved his emotional investment, and demanded his department be permitted to transport residents in need – an act of impudence that gravely offended the delicate sensibilities of Volusia County’s Director of Public Protection Joe “Blue Falcon” Pozzo – he was summarily fired, drummed out of the corps, and had his professional reputation tarnished in the newspaper as an example to others who would raise their head.
Under Ms. Post’s glare – Pozzo tap-danced in his own inimitable style – but I am not sure the Councilwoman got the answers she wanted – other than the tired old ditty, “change” is coming.
In turn, Chairman Brower asked why – with a dearth of paramedics in Volusia’s emergency medical service – 19 current vacancies – the Public Protection Division does not provide adequate facilities for these professionals to clean-up and decompress after handling calls for service?
A situation that now requires they use convenience store bathrooms for personal hygiene and pathogen decontamination – a point driven home by Mr. Brower’s disturbing visual of EMS personnel removing a dirty hypodermic syringe from a public sink before washing-up.
It was a simple request – a necessary convenience that would show first responders, who put it all on the line to protect and serve the public, that the Public Protection Division cares about their health, safety, and welfare.
Again, Pozzo did his best soft-shoe – never seeming to grasp that recruitment and retention isn’t about throwing money at professionals – it is about strong leadership that values their contributions.
In another weird moment, when Chairman Brower asked Growth and Resource Management Director Clay Ervin about the long overdue impact fee study – he got a song-and-dance that explained the study has not yet commenced, and ended with, “…we plan to have it ready to rock-and-roll in October.”
Look, I like County Manager George “The Wreck” Recktenwald – and he does an admirable job protecting his department heads from the heat.
He’s an old school manager and master of that weird language known as “bureaucratese” a persuasive (and equally confusing) dialect that keeps the uninitiated (including the elected officials) guessing.
I may be the Carnival Barker but serving as Ringmaster of this Three Ring Shitshow is a hard dollar – something Mr. Recktenwald does extremely well.
However, I can tell you from experience that elected officials do not like to be embarrassed in front of their constituents by senior staff – and they aren’t big on surprises either. . .
Ultimately, Mr. Recktenwald runs a fine line trying to orchestrate a modicum of progress despite the political dysfunction on the dais – especially during the budget cycle – all while his department head’s attempt ham-handed end-runs on those we have elected to make the difficult decisions.
This bears watching. . .
That’s all for me. Have a great weekend, y’all!