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 Volusia County Councilwoman Heather Post
As the late, great commentator Paul Harvey used to say, “Now we know the rest of the story.”
Earlier this month, during what passed for the annual organizational meeting of the Volusia County Council, the intrepid Councilwoman Heather Post took it on the chin from her “colleagues” for having the temerity to report a possible crime to the one person in the massive bureaucracy with the independence to do something about it – Internal Auditor Jonathan “Big Foot” Edwards.
I half-facetiously refer to Mr. Edwards as “Big Foot” – because like the mysterious Sasquatch – he is rumored to exist but rarely seen. . .
So, when Edwards appeared in the Council Chamber to present the 2022 Internal Audit Plan, Ms. Post took the rare opportunity to discuss the autonomy of the Internal Auditor in Volusia County’s autocratic hierarchy.
During that discussion, we learned that in October 2021, Ms. Post reported a significant issue with Volusia County Jail inmate trust fund accounts to Mr. Edwards in her role as an elected representative – a responsibility which Ms. Post justly considers an integral and important part of her job.
Because it is.
That turned into a pointed rebuke by the three lame ducks, Councilman Ben Johnson, His Eminence “Dr.” Fred Lowry, and Councilwoman Billie Wheeler, who explained to Ms. Post just how county government works – ensuring that everyone is aware that all roads go through County Manager George “The Wreck” Recktenwald – warning that individual elected officials are expressly prohibited from bringing serious concerns to Mr. Edwards’ attention.
Clearly, Volusia County’s “Old Guard” is comfortable in the knowledge that ferreting out fraud, theft, and financial inefficiencies will never be as important as lockstep conformity to a rigid process that protects the bureaucratic upper crust.
As a veteran law enforcement officer, Councilman Johnson knows that it is not important how crimes are reported, and an internal policy that discourages elected officials from bringing constituent concerns to the attention of the only person in the building specifically charged with investigating internal corruption is tailormade for disaster.
It got worse.
“I don’t think that any one of the council should be going to a department head or Jonathan personally and saying, ‘I need you to look at this.’ That puts him in a terrible situation,” Councilwoman Billie Wheeler mewled.
Then “Dr.” Fred Lowry took a cheap swipe at Ms. Post:
“The problem I have with the way it was brought up is it indicates to the public there’s a problem in that area. While maybe certain people’s Facebook groupies tonight will be cheering them on, there will be a lot of saying, ‘Why in the world were they talking for hours? Is there a problem going on with the auditor?’”
Yes, you read that right. This is how these jacklegs think. . .
Now, we learn that Councilwoman Post’s concerns were completely validated when it was confirmed that money had been illegally taken from the accounts of some thirteen inmates – ostensibly to reimburse the county for various services provided during previous incarcerations – unauthorized withdrawals made after the statutorily permitted three-year time limit had passed.
In an informative report by Mary Helen Moore writing in The Daytona Beach News-Journal, Ms. Post explained that she routinely receives requests for assistance from her constituents – and acts upon them:
“In this case, a Volusia County Branch Jail inmate reached out to me for assistance, saying that money had been removed from his inmate banking account in violation of state statute and that his inquiries and requests for resolution over many months had been ignored,” she wrote in an email.
Post said she inquired about the matter and was told the money had been withdrawn to pay the medical lien from 2015, in violation of the Florida statute which caps the liens at three years.
“Although obviously simply an oversight in jail operations… We can’t be illegally taking money from people we have placed in jail,” Post said.
She told The News-Journal that she pointed out the person should be reimbursed and procedures should be corrected, then asked staff to investigate whether this had happened to others.
“I was advised there were too many transactions to look at to audit, so county finance staff advised they checked into a select category of inmate accounts with deposits of greater than $600 over the last two years and found twelve where the county had withdrawn monies in violation and they were working to rectify those,” she said.”
Interestingly, the inmate trust fund accounts are now Priority One on Mr. Edwards’ 2022 audit plan. . .
Despite the asinine unwritten policy limiting how evidence of possible criminal activity can be transmitted to Volusia County’s internal watchdog – purely bureaucratic restrictions that have a chilling effect on this important process – in this case, thanks to Councilwoman Post’s persistence in ensuring that a constituent’s initially ignored concerns were addressed, an unlawful practice was exposed and rectified.
No thanks to Ms. Post’s craven “colleagues” who place more weight on lockstep conformity to a rigid system that allowed the unlawful withdrawals – and the concerns of victims of the pernicious practice to be ignored by senior administrators.
Asshole Gannett Company
For the uninitiated, Barker’s View is not a “news site” and I am not a “journalist.”
Far from it.
At best, I am a dilettante editorialist – at worst, a blowhard with internet access and a jaded opinion on everything.
Like you, I simply digest scraps of “news” and rumor regarding the myriad issues of the day, consider the possibilities through the prism of over three-decades in local government, hoping my off-base theories stimulate a larger discussion in our community.
Unfortunately, local journalism is quickly ebbing away, leaving an information vacuum that social media forums and blogs simply cannot fill, especially in a political environment where public policy is chillingly susceptible to insider persuasion.
Last month, The Daytona Beach News-Journal took a disturbing step in the ongoing effort to pare down and regionalize our hometown newspaper when they consolidated the Holiday Week editions, combining the Thursday, Friday, and Saturday print issues into a single paper that was delivered on Thursday.
Rightfully, many long-time subscribers felt shortchanged.
Because they were.
Recently, the News-Journal’s parent, Gannett, announced that beginning in March it will be eliminating the Saturday print edition altogether – making it solely an online offering.
In exchange for forcing this “new Saturday experience” on its dwindling readership, Gannett is now marketing what it enthusiastically bills as “additional benefits” for perplexed subscribers, including online access to its daily newspapers across the nation, as well as its flagship, the horribly homogenized USA Today.
What? You don’t want a new Saturday experience? Tough shit.
That is what happens when your hometown newspaper is sold to a media “investment group” committed to “expanding and promoting digital offerings” and the concept of local focus and control is lost to a greed-crazed strategy of profit over quality. . .
For instance, on Monday, when I attempted to take advantage of my “additional benefits” by accessing an online story from a previous e-edition of The Daytona Beach News-Journal – the website directed me to last Sunday’s Mansfield, Ohio News-Journal.
We’re not alone.
According to reports, Gannett – the nation’s largest newspaper network – is eliminating the Saturday print edition in half its markets, a cost-cutting move affecting some 136 daily newspapers across the United States.
I often say that The Daytona Beach News-Journal is the best written, worst edited, daily in the nation.
Our hometown newspaper has some of the most talented journalists in the business – dedicated reporters who live here and care about the issues that affect our lives and livelihoods – the hard-working survivors of a once bustling newsroom that lost so many in recent years, victims of corporate ‘downsizing,’ and others who were simply run off by shortsighted management – corporate tools more fixated on fighting the inane culture wars than retaining talent and producing a marketable product. . .
When Gannett acquired our local newspaper, we lost a big part of our civic identity – and a vital watchdog in a political environment dominated by a few extremely wealthy insiders with outsized influence.
Unfortunately, that external oversight is not coming back – now replaced with a mishmash of pap and fluff derived from other Gannett properties in the region – the editorial page eviscerated, while the local stories get short shrift just when we need aggressive investigative journalism the most.
A disturbing sign of the times.
A November 2019 study by the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life at The University of Texas at Austin entitled, “Newspaper Decline and the Effect on Local Government Coverage,” found:
“…staffing cuts and a shift to online publishing have dramatically changed the reporting model of local newspapers. These changes prompted a reduction in press attention to local government activities and led to a more reactive press that is less able to set the agenda in communities. Journalists note that there are likely important political consequences to changes in coverage. Corruption, mismanagement, lower turnout, and incumbency advantages are all thought to possible outcomes from changes to local government coverage.”
A frightening take on the old “When the cats away, the mice will play” analogy, in a place where our local governments are not known for their transparency. . .
In the past 15-years, more than a quarter of American newspapers have gone away – and those that remain have been traded like chattel – with more than half of all daily newspapers now controlled by hedge funds and financial firms.
In an excellent October 2021 article by McKay Coppins writing in The Atlantic, “A Secretive Hedge Fund is Gutting Newsrooms – Inside Alden Global Capital,” we got a glimpse of the mercenary strategy that many believe is destroying local journalism:
“What threatens local newspapers now is not just digital disruption or abstract market forces. They’re being targeted by investors who have figured out how to get rich by strip-mining local-news outfits. The model is simple: Gut the staff, sell the real estate, jack up subscription prices, and wring as much cash as possible out of the enterprise until eventually enough readers cancel their subscriptions that the paper folds, or is reduced to a desiccated husk of its former self.”
At a time when We, The Little People are increasingly ignored by those we have elected and appointed to represent our interests – openly sold out to speculative developers and craven opportunists willing to slash-and-burn our natural places to make room for another zero-lot-line “theme” community, while our hard-earned tax dollars are willingly pissed away in dubious corporate welfare schemes that hide projects behind “confidentiality agreements,” a system that perpetuates the warehouse/logistics economy that is being foisted on our children and grandchildren – independent local journalism has been neutered by this weird profit strategy that substitutes recycled and regionalized horseshit for hard news.
Angel Daytona Beach Shores City Manager Michael Booker
“At the top of the mountain we are all snow leopards. Anybody who can do one thing better than anyone else in the world is a natural friend of mine.”
–Dr. Hunter S. Thompson
I have a natural affinity for anyone at the top of their game – and few have done it better in their difficult field of endeavor than Daytona Beach Shores City Manager Michael Booker.
Earlier this month, Mr. Booker announced he would be retiring in July following 22-years of admirable service to this seaside community – a notable effort that has helped craft one of the most stable and respected municipal governments in Florida.
In my view, Mr. Booker has built an outstanding team of servant/leaders that includes standouts like Director of Public Safety Stephan Dembinsky and Finance Director Kurt Swartzlander, two of the absolute best in the business.
Last week, Daytona Beach Shores City Clerk/Human Resources Director Cheri Schwab was honored by the Volusia County League of Cities as Administrative Employee of the Year while Mayor Nancy Miller received the prestigious Mayor Blaine O’Neal Award of Excellence.
During his impressive tenure, Mr. Booker has guided a period of incredible progress.
Collaborating with elected officials and civically engaged residents who take immense pride in their unique coastal community, Mr. Booker successfully brought a new City Hall facility, a state-of-the-art Public Safety building, the Shores Community Center, beautiful parks and recreational opportunities, a Public Works headquarters and storage facility, and utilities infrastructure improvements.
According to a release issued by Daytona Beach Shores:
“Safety, financial responsibility, and the appearance of the community are highly valued. Shores voters approved a major beautification project to move utilities underground and upgrade streetlights, sidewalks and water/sewer lines and, in 2021, the City paid off that debt early, along with other debt in the general fund. As the City prepares to welcome a new city manager, it is officially debt-free.”
“Booker said he’s looking forward to spending more time with his wife and family during retirement. He’s been in treatment for cancer since 2020. Booker plans to take up the drums again and is excited to have more time to read about history and to travel.”
Thank you, Mr. Booker.
Congratulations on your well-deserved retirement – enjoy it in good health and happiness!
In my view, Michael Booker is a credit to his difficult profession, someone who has worked diligently to improve the quality of life for residents of Daytona Beach Shores. In doing so, he has raised the bar for the entire Halifax area and set a shining example of what can be accomplished when government works cooperatively with those it serves.
We’re glad he passed our way.
Quote of the Week
“Brower said he thought the perception was that Holly Hill had been given special treatment.
“We need to talk about that,” Brower said before quizzing staff on a number of matters, including asking why Pictona was allowed to use other local property taxes to serve as their match when it had been prohibited for others in the past.”
–Volusia County Council Chair Jeff Brower, as quoted by reporter Mary Helen Moore writing in The Daytona Beach News-Journal, “Pictona scores $2.5M grant,” Wednesday, January 19, 2022
From personal experience, I can report that the City of Holly Hill has never received preferential treatment from Volusia County – or any other public or private entity – in its hardscrabble 121-year history.
While I normally agree with Volusia County Chair Jeff Brower – in this case, he got it wrong.
On Tuesday, the Volusia County Council considered the recommendations of their ECHO Advisory Committee and approved some $3.8 million in grant funding – including an “exceptional grant” of $2.5 million for the expansion of the popular Pictona at Holly Hill pickleball facility – a public/private partnership of the City of Holly Hill and founders Rainer and Julie Martens.
A worthwhile project that Chairman Brower voted against. . .
Look, I understand not everyone agrees with the Volusia ECHO and Forever programs – publicly funded initiatives that use tax dollars to protect and enhance our environmental, cultural, historical, and outdoor amenities.
However, in 2020, some 70% of Volusia County voters supported renewing these important programs which makes this well-vetted allocation something Mr. Brower could have hung his hat on without any political liability.
In my view, the Pictona expansion represents the very essence of a mutually beneficial public/private project, and its extraordinary success is self-evident.
In fact, the incredibly popular pickleball facility is a proven regional asset, and the coming 1,200 seat multi-use championship stadium will also serve as a venue for concerts, art festivals, and community events.
There is no denying that the sport has legions of devoted participants and represents a growing national draw – one that has, quite literally, put Holly Hill and Volusia County on the map – with fitness-related businesses, a proposed luxury recreational vehicle resort, and other enterprises seeking to take advantage of Pictona’s increasing popularity.
In my view, Chairman Brower attempted to play the role – publicly questioning a proven project that had already been thoroughly scrutinized during a rigorous evaluation process – before casting the lone “No” vote, safe in the knowledge the grant request would pass with a majority vote.
Rather than show unanimous support for the most promising new addition to Volusia County in decades – Mr. Brower chose to engage in the same ridiculous preening and posturing normally exhibited by his “colleagues” – a shallow, time-consuming exercise in political theater that is patently disingenuous and, in my view, corrosive to the public trust.
Does Mr. Brower not realize that these carefully choreographed dramatics – questioning worthy projects, while issues of real concern, like corporate welfare giveaways and tax breaks are ramrodded at warp speed – represent everything his long-suffering constituents abhor?
For instance, where was the same level of concern in November when this council voted unanimously – without any substantive public discussion of the detrimental impacts – to accept a $2.7 million proportionate share agreement and extend Pelican Bay Drive, dumping traffic from what will be Amazon’s massive industrial warehouse onto the already congested Beville Road?
I guess it all depends upon who’s asking, eh?
Talk about special treatment. . .
To their credit, Holly Hill Mayor Chris Via and City Manager Joe Forte stood firm, advocating for this valuable project, and the future of their community:
“It’s already shown to be a success,” Mayor Via explained. “Doubling this facility will only make it greater, into a world-class facility… This is an opportunity to put Volusia County on the map, Holly Hill on the map.”
Early in his presentation, Mayor Via made the cogent point that the City of Holly Hill does not ask for much – and Brower’s insinuation that this small community received an undue advantage in the open and extensive approval process is laughable. And wrong.
To his credit, Councilman Danny Robins was the voice of reason reminding Chairman Brower that Volusia ECHO was overwhelmingly approved by voters during the 2020 election:
“We’re not talking about a 50-50 split in the community,” Robins said. “There is an extreme vetting process for this. It’s expensive, but the public voted for it.”
Nothing has ever been handed to Holly Hill – a community that has historically been treated like a red-headed stepchild by Volusia County government – and snidely maligned by some who have never lived or done business there.
If it sounds like I take Mr. Brower’s pandering “No” vote on an issue of vital importance to the economic future of Holly Hill and beyond as an insult – that’s because I do.
I can tell you from personal experience that Holly Hill City Manager Joe Forte, the elected officials, and staff get the most from every tax dollar they receive while providing a full range of responsive and efficient essential services to a grateful constituency.
In fact, Volusia County government could learn a valuable lesson about fiscal stewardship, inclusivity, and the lasting benefits of working cooperatively to reach civic goals from The City with a Heart.
Congratulations to the City of Holly Hill and Pictona on this monumental award – one I am certain will pay dividends for all Volusia County residents for many years to come.
And Another Thing!
I am not an educated man.
Perhaps best described as a hedonistic simpleton who squandered his early educational opportunities – the boy who couldn’t be told – a maladaptive daydreamer with a hyperactive imagination rivaling Thurber’s Walter Mitty.
As a mimic of the admirable qualities found in others, I always felt Winston Churchill’s famous insight, “It’s a good thing for an uneducated man to read books of quotations” was sound advice.
In my experience, there is much to be learned from the musings of the great thinkers, and their anecdotes have helped shape my ability to think critically on the issues of the day.
For instance, I frequently use Einstein’s definition of insanity as a metaphor for Volusia County politics.
We do the same things – electing the same perennial politicians over and over again – each time expecting a better outcome than before.
Fitting, don’t you think?
Because history always repeats for those who refuse to learn from it (George Santayana), this week we learned that the Volusia County Council’s own éminence grise – The Very Reverend “Dr.” Fred Lowry – will challenge incumbent Ruben Colón for the District 5 Volusia County School Board seat.
My God. The more things change, the more they stay the same (Alphonse Karr). . .
At present, “Dr.” Lowry has now been in elective office for the past 12-years – having been elected to the Deltona City Commission in 2010 – then elevated to the Volusia County Council in 2014 and again in 2018.
In my view, this important history lesson bears repeating.
During his first term on the Volusia County Council, by any estimate, “Dr.” Lowry was an almost ethereal presence in the chamber – rarely heard from on the critical issues – voting as he was no doubt instructed by those who so deftly manipulate the rods and strings of their malleable politicians – always maintaining lockstep conformity with Volusia’s “Old Guard” – fiercely committed to maintaining the stagnant status quo.
Then, in January 2021, following the election of Chairman Jeff Brower – an outsider who beat the ultimate insider with a voter mandate for change – Lowry seemed to emerge from a weird chrysalis, transforming before our eyes from an ineffectual lump – an inanimate houseplant perched on the dais of power who didn’t say two words during his first term – into a virtual parliamentary expert who relished publicly spanking the neophyte Brower for every procedural faux pas using arrogant histrionics, annoying “Hear!, Hears!,” and toad-like puffery to get his point across.
Don’t take my word for it. Steel yourself with an antiemetic suppository and watch a Volusia County Council meeting.
Trust me. It will be 8 or 9 interminable hours of your life you will never get back – and you will somehow be dumber for the effort – but you will come away with a better understanding of how things work around here. . .
As 2021 wore on, it became obvious to even a casual observer of that bimonthly théâtre de l’absurde that His Eminence was leading a blatant effort by those stalwarts of the status quo (inside government and out) to marginalize Chairman Brower and diminish any political momentum he may have enjoyed after decisively defeating the preferred puppet of Volusia’s well-heeled insiders.
After four-years of virtual silence, Rev. Lowry had come into his own – and he aggressively fulfilled his marching orders to wrest power from Chairman Brower and return it to those elite political insiders who believe they have rightfully purchased it with massive campaign contributions to their political handmaidens.
The Right Reverend repeatedly put the boots to the often-clumsy Chairman Brower, then sat back, arms folded with an overconfident hubris, as his “colleagues” on the political tag-team joined in the near non-stop beatdown of Brower, Councilwoman Heather Post, and everything they stand for.
In turn, it looked certain to many observers that Rev. Lowry was on his way to the at-large seat in 2022.
Then, the hopes and dreams of Rev. Lowry’s uber-wealthy handlers went off the rails. . .
As often happens at the nexus of politics and religion, His Eminence virtually imploded in the pulpit of the Deltona Lakes Baptist Church during a May 30, 2021 sermon to the faithful – a weird allocution that ran the gamut of half-baked political nuttery – from wild conspiracy theories to descriptions of macabre Satanic rituals involving child sacrifice, even a puzzling denial of the Coronavirus pandemic – bizarre pontifications, literally from the lunatic fringe, that left many of his constituents horrified.
Some openly questioned Lowry’s clearly tenuous grip on reality. . .
In a subsequent blockbuster op/ed by the Orlando Sentinel’s Editorial Board we learned:
“…a Facebook Live video shows one of Volusia County’s top elected officials preaching to the congregation about satanic rituals and torturing children and using their blood to extract a compound called adrenochrome, which is then used in the belief it brings on hallucinations, intensifies personalities and slows the aging process.
“This issue is supposed to be rampant I hear in Hollywood and among the elite,” Lowry told his flock. “I don’t know if it’s true, but where there’s smoke …” Lowry then held his hand behind his ear and awaited the answer he was looking for: “Fire.”
You read that right.
I am certainly not going to pick Rev. Lowry’s weird thoughts apart – because I don’t want to understand that level of batshit craziness – but, needless to say, the fallout was immediate and included calls for his resignation by the Volusia County Democratic Black Caucus and others who rightfully felt “Dr.” Lowry’s outrageous beliefs had no place in the policy-making chain.
Now, in a scenario that could only happen on Florida’s fabled Fun Coast – “Dr.” Lowry announced this week that he will seek a voice on the Volusia County School Board – no doubt to provide a better vantage point from which to protect our youth from the rampant scourge of “left coast” Adrenochrome fiends. . .
Look, The Right Reverend is free to spew any bilgewater he wants from the comfort and protection of his haughty pulpit in Deltona, and no one, other than those unfortunate souls who choose to listen to his tripe, will be the worse for it.
In my view, regardless of your thoughts on Ruben Colón’s service, to elevate Lowry’s abject lunacy to a policymaking role on the Volusia County School Board – one that will have a direct and lasting impact on the formative education of our children and grandchildren – boggles the mind and proves that this shameless shill knows no boundaries in his perennial quest for power and prestige.
I know it is hard to believe – but we deserve better than this.
That’s all for me. Have a great weekend, y’all!
On Monday, January 24, Barker’s View will join GovStuff Live! with Big John on the fastest two-hours in radio!
We will take an in-depth look at the local issues and take your calls at 386-523-1380 beginning at 4:00pm.
Please join us locally on WELE 1380am The CAT – or online at www.govstuff.org (Listen Live button).