I don’t know who said it first, but I have always held to the tried-and-true proverb, “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.”
It is as much a morality tale as a warning.
Because anyone who thinks they can get something for nothing, without any hidden motive, return, or benefit, is either lying to you – or themselves.
For a brief time in my career, I served as an interim City Manager – the worst period of my professional life, an incredibly difficult and multifaceted job, akin to spinning plates while herding cats. . .
On my first day filling the seat, an expensive box of chocolates arrived at my desk, accompanied by a congratulatory note addressed from a firm which held a professional services contract with the city.
I asked a staff member to return the gift, and included a letter of thanks expressing my sincere appreciation for the gesture, explaining that I could not accept the generous gift. It sent a message to city staff – and the contractor – that, from the top of the organization to the bottom, gratuities would not be solicited or accepted.
In my view, at best, the practice unavoidably promotes the appearance of quid pro quo favoritism in the public contracting and procurement process, regardless of how the thing of value was intended or whether the gift results in an official act.
Some praised my action – others said I should have simply shared the goodies with staff and forgotten about it – while a few of my colleagues (and some of my elected bosses) thought it sent the wrong message to a valued and well-intentioned outside partner.
At the end of the day, the contractor might not have felt the love – but it felt right to me.
Look, I am no better or worse than anyone else – a leaky vessel, susceptible to the same ethical faults and moral foibles inherent to all human beings – but, for right or for wrong, I was recently reminded of my decision to return that box of candy.
Earlier this week, the pomp and circumstance of the annual State of the County address played out in all its pageantry at the Ocean Center – presented in grand style thanks to copious gifts from a few government contractors and local businesses seeking absolutely nothing in return for their generous bronze, silver, gold, and platinum corporate sponsorships.
Unfortunately, I wash my beard on Tuesdays, so I couldn’t attend. . .
Instead, I took a strong antiemetic – chased it down with three-fingers of Woodford Reserve – and hunkered down for the 2022 edition of that yearly hootenanny touting all the wonderful accomplishments granted to us by our munificent Monarchical elite on the Volusia County Council.
My weakened stomach is still doing flip-flops. . .
I thought it fitting that Mother Nature set the tone for the afternoon – openly weeping with a cold and steady rain – symbolic of her anguish over the death and destruction of our natural places as the bulldozers continue to roar across the width and breadth of Volusia County as the “free” Margaritas flowed like manna from heaven.
Look, I know many smart people see a public benefit in these fancy fêtes – with someone I respect noting that they provide a certain level of access to our elected officials – others noting the value in educating constituents on the various programs and initiatives their tax dollars are funding.
In my jaded view, they are wrong.
If we have gotten so far afield that citizens need a gilded gala, sponsored by active government contractors, campaign contributors, and hangers-on to interact with our elected county representatives – then we have bigger problems than we know. . .
Admittedly, I got caught up in the excitement as a disembodied voice counted down, announcing to the assembled elected officials, their political benefactors, and a few gallant citizens who came to keep them all honest: “The program will begin in five-minutes. Please bring the congratulatory backslapping and unhygienic brown-nosing to a close and take your seats,” or something like that. . .
Things kicked off with a flashy video touting the ‘free lunch’ as the “Hottest Ticket in Town!” – with Community Information Director Kevin Captain reminding everyone that the food, margaritas, knick-knacks, gimcracks, and giveaways were all “compliments of our sponsors!” – a message reinforced by Chairman Brower, who, at least twice, reminded everyone in attendance that the soiree was paid for by sponsors and not our tax dollars.
Okay. . .
(Emetrol, don’t fail me now. . .)
As guests noshed from the ‘free’ buffet, I chomped on a greasy ham sandwich, sipped my whiskey, waited through the various saccharine video productions and fluffy time-fillers on the live-feed, and, in the lead up to Chairman Brower’s address, perused the online event brochure, “2021 Volusia County Council: A year of change,” which began:
“For Volusia County, 2021 was a year of great hope, promise and optimism. (Gyaaak, sorry) And the accomplishments were abundant. An historic water quality improvement project with significant implications for the Mosquito Lagoon got underway. A cherished portion of the Ormond Scenic Loop and Trail was protected from development.”
(Huuuurk, again, my apologies. Damn agita.)
That snippet reminded me of the abuse and opposition the intrepid environmentalists at Dream Green Volusia, through its successful Defend the Loop campaign, faced as they pushed against incredible odds to see some 36-acres of endangered land at Plantation Oaks saved from future development.
Although the final vote to appropriate Volusia ECHO funds to save the historical and ecologically sensitive parcel was unanimous, at the time, His Eminence, District 5 Councilman “Dr.” Fred Lowry, crowed he would “hold his nose” and vote for the purchase, an important environmental conservation project that is now held out by Volusia County as a major accomplishment.
As threatened manatees continue to die in unprecedented numbers in Mosquito Lagoon – the direct result of government approved overdevelopment and the resultant toxic soup of runoff and discharge that has decimated seagrass beds and eroded water quality – I remembered the reception two world-renowned marine biologists recently received when they appeared before the council to discuss a small-scale test of an innovative biofiltration technology called Biorock.
For their trouble, the esteemed experts were met with open skepticism – treated like cheap hucksters and charlatans by those dullards on the dais, a countywide embarrassment complete with gross negativity, roadblocks, and politicking from every corner – including two derogatory editorials in The Daytona Beach News-Journal – bolstered by chiding posts on social media dismissing the concept and accusing anyone associated with the project of ulterior motives.
Because Chairman Brower proposed the idea. Something Volusia’s obstructionist Old Guard, those stalwarts of the stagnant status quo, would not let see the light of day.
“But more than anything, 2021 was a transformational year – a year of meaningful, monumental, impactful change for the county.”
Rah, Rah, Sis-boom-bah!
(Urrrrp, excuse me! Wow.)
I agreed with Chairman Brower on a number of issues – especially his push to open the beach to vehicles from International Speedway Boulevard to Main Street – a true economic shot-in-the-arm to the flagging boardwalk – and exempting Volusia County taxpayers from excessive beach access tolls that he rightly believes represent double-taxation.
Perhaps most impressive was Mr. Brower’s nod to addressing the malignant development that is rapidly consuming large swaths of Volusia County when he accurately said, “We cannot and we will not pave our way and clear-cut our way to a better future.”
Look, I cannot tell you what the rest of the State of the County address included.
At some point, I think it was right after Councilwoman Barb Girtman gushed over Volusia County’s commitment to “affordable housing” in an environment where average monthly rents now top $1,300 a month, I collapsed into a sugar coma, regaining consciousness only when the screaming strains of Jake and Elwood crooning “Gimme Some Lovin!’” serenaded Chairman Brower and his smiling “colleagues” off the stage to the applause of those who bought their lunch.
How fitting. . .
How horribly depressing.
I like Chairman Brower. In my view, he is an incredibly decent human being – a man of character navigating a system where that virtue is rarely valued – trying valiantly to accomplish some important things under difficult (if not politically impossible) circumstances.
That said, sometimes I wish Mr. Brower would remember his role – and the powerful decree that placed him in the most important position in Volusia County government. Then use the bully pulpit he has been gifted by We, The Little People to speak truth to those pernicious forces that have had their way for far too long, and give validity to those things we see with our own eyes, rather than what we are told to believe by those with a chip in the game.
Because to stand before us and gloss over the serious issues we collectively face is disingenuous – not befitting a trustee of the public’s confidence – and when we see him embracing the same pageantry and perquisites of his predecessors, it sends a confusing and conflicted message to his long-suffering constituents.
Why is it that politicians – even those who attain high office on a citizen mandate of transformational change – fall victim to the damnable and wholly dishonest practice of shilling for the bureaucratically defined concept of “progress,” all while those of us who elevated them with our sacred vote live in a parallel universe – struggling to maintain a quality of life that is rapidly being destroyed by the insatiable greed of those who control the rods and strings of Volusia County politics?
As the dust settles on this circus, we wait. Actions speak louder than words – and we’ve heard it all before. . .
In my view, it is time for the charter-mandated State of the County address to return to a simple agenda item, presented at a regularly scheduled meeting of the Volusia County Council, stop this two-hour privately funded and unreported campaign rally, and work to return the public’s trust in Volusia County government.