Pancakes and Politics. . .

Vacuous bureaucrats have a way of looking at things that work – traditions and proven best practices that make sense.  Then, with the right application of unimaginative routine, sterile processes, and robotic paper shuffling they find a way to muck things up. 

Unfortunately, over time we have been sold on the fallacy that bigger is naturally better – and our faux-reality is often crafted by some corporate marketing image group. 

I hate to break it to you, but Cracker Barrel isn’t really a ‘country store.’ 

It is a 633 location publicly traded mega-chain built upon the concept of identically laid out retail outlets that serve as a convenient waiting area for the theme restaurant – strategically funneling hungry customers toward branded food, apparel, toys, and tchotchkes to provide maximum product exposure.   

And, for the uninitiated, Latitudes at Margaritaville is a zero-lot-line ‘immersive lifestyle’ gated subdivision based on Jimmy Buffett’s well-crafted sense of escapism, built on top of eco-sensitive pine scrub miles from an actual beach. A fabricated Eden blanketed with wood frame cracker boxes “starting in the mid $300’s.”  

That pseudo-utopia may appeal to some, but to my taste, that contrived horseshit is as far from paradise as one can get. . .     

Why is it that our ‘powers that be’ fail to recognize and protect those things that are truly distinctive – a place, service, or attraction that is genuinely sui generis and unrepeatable in nature – things built on hard work and time-honored tradition that become part of the unique culture of our community by virtue of their longevity?

When the hard-earned success of these one-of-kind places becomes attractive to those with resources and a profit motive, it suddenly becomes survival of the fittest, as government engages in corporate welfare schemes to skew the economic playing field in favor of influential insiders – or falls back on narrowly defined procurement policies and officious processes that fail to take anything into consideration other than the size of the bid.       

According to reports, next month, after six-decades of continuous family operation, the Old Spanish Sugar Mill Restaurant at Deleon Springs State Park – thought by many to be the most unique restaurant in America – will cease to exist as we knew it thanks to a recent decision by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection who oversees state park concessions. 

Cooking your own buckwheat pancakes on an open griddle at your table in the cozy little eatery has been a family tradition in Volusia County since I was a small child.  Generations of people have gathered around the beautiful clear spring, toured the museum, and walked the grounds while they wait for a table in the 100-year-old wooden building.

This wildly popular local attraction has been lovingly operated by the Schwarze family for 61-years.

Recently, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection accepted a competing bid from the Virginia-based mega-hospitality management company Guest Services, Inc. effectively ending the Schwarze family’s successful operation and destroying a local small business for a few dollars more. . .    

According to the family’s post on social media earlier this week:

“After 61 years, the Old Spanish Sugar Mill will be closing its screen doors.

While it is unfortunate, the state has decided not to renew our contract and move forward with another concession in the DeLeon Springs State Park. We have been blessed to serve as a Central Florida staple since 1961. We sincerely thank you for making us your “go-to” for when you’ve got company or a chocolate chip pancake craving.  Thank you again for sharing those memories with us. The Sugar Mill was without a doubt the coolest breakfast restaurant in America. Our business will close September 12, 2022.”

The Schwarze family specialized in chocolate chip hotcakes. 

Guest Services, Inc. specializes in monetizing what now passes as “hospitality” to drive revenue across a range of services to public and private entities.

Nothing wrong with that – but they are not the same. . .

You may remember in 2017 when the Florida Department of Environmental Protection came under scrutiny when they ghosted the Schwarze family ahead of their quinquennial contract renewal – simply refused to communicate with them – leaving the operation in limbo.    

Following a massive public outcry some faceless bureaucrat in Tallahassee finally got off their ass and did the right thing. . .

Now, here we are again. 

Only this time, a business carefully built by the blood, sweat, and tears of our neighbors – an experience that can never be duplicated – is lost forever.

What happened to the commonsense notion of our municipal, county, and state governments providing preference in procurement and contracts to Florida-based businesses as a means of bolstering the local economy, generating jobs and regional supply chains, and creating an “economic multiplier” effect in the community where those dollars originate? 

You know, all that happy horseshit our “economic development” gurus spew when selling us on another corporate welfare shim-sham for an influential local billionaire or mega-donor to all the right political campaigns? 

Yeah. Don’t give me any shit about competition in a ‘free market economy’ until mom-and-pop receive the same tax-supported largesse and access to the public teat as an insurance magnate or some well-heeled developer with a chip in the game.

Speaking of those do-nothing Volusia County bureaucrats sitting atop piles of federal Covid-19 recovery funds and those self-congratulatory “experts” over at Team Volusia – where were they when we needed them to protect a long-time area business? 

What was more important to these empty suits than saving a family-owned business that has created jobs and served our tourist industry for six-decades?

And why did they sit idle as the Schwarze family was summarily out bid for a high-profile local contract by a national hospitality management conglomerate?   

And where were our incumbent local and state politicians who are so damn busy groveling for our sacred vote – telling us everything they think we want to hear – bickering, backbiting, and grooming their abhorrent records, while the Schwarze family and the unique experience they provided to our community, was being outsourced to an out-of-state mega-corporation specializing in “…luxury communities, hotels, resorts, government and business dining facilities, full-service restaurants, state and national parks, outdoor recreation, boathouses, marinas, museums, conference centers, senior living communities, health care systems, school and university dining facilities, and specialty retail stores.”

Don’t hold your breath waiting for answers.

What a damnable shame. . . 

Angels & Assholes for August 5, 2022

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:

Asshole           Volusia County Council’s Gang of Four

I like to chuckle along with the farcical slapstick and hopeless absurdity that permeates those bimonthly hootenannies of the Volusia County Council.

But what happened earlier this week was no laughing matter. 

In my view, the meeting dissolved into a vicious and highly coordinated attack – something darker, more sinister – an orchestrated political hit job that simply could not have occurred without careful coordination outside the public’s eye.   

As usual, the big losers of this shambolic shim-sham were the long-suffering citizens of Volusia County.

On Tuesday, the craven Gang of Four – Council members Danny Robins, Billie Wheeler, and The Very Rev. “Dr.” Fred Lowry, led by the grandpappy of the Good Ole Boys & Gals network, Councilman Ben Johnson – worked cooperatively to dismantle the biggest threat to their control, Chairman Jeff Brower, and bring him and his “Volusia Values” slate of likeminded candidates to heel before the August primary. 

(According to a report by Jarleene Almenas detailing the tempest in a teapot for the Ormond Beach Observer, “The “Volusia Values” candidates include Doug Pettit (at-large), Ted Noftall (District 3), Ken Smith (District 4) and Julio David Sosa (District 5).”)

Like the dutiful handmaidens they are, the Gang of Four once again proved their devotion to Volusia’s Old Guard – those stalwarts of the stagnant status quo inside government and out – who are scurrying like cornered weasels to protect the interests of their political benefactors and consolidate power in the hands of a few well-heeled insiders by any means necessary. 

Following the typical shitshow of a business meeting where absolutely nothing of substance was accomplished – during his closing comments, Councilman Johnson launched into an obviously rehearsed soliloquy – thundering away in his patented cornpone, openly labeling Chairman Brower a liar for his support of the now quashed Florida Wildlife Corridor workshop, cutting into Brower’s recent effort to challenge the pending environmental atrocity that is the proposed I-95/Pioneer Trail interchange, while showcasing his own abject ignorance of the “Toilet to Tap” reclaimed water scheme which is emerging as the seminal issue of our time.

Of course, Mr. Johnson’s opening salvo was quickly supported on all flanks by his dutiful minion, Councilman Danny Robins and the meanspirited lame duck Councilwoman Billie Wheeler, who took turns cutting into Mr. Brower (and Councilwoman Heather Post) with a ferocity and faux indignation that demonstrated to their political overseers they are earning their keep. 

It was interesting to watch these cheap shot artists at work.

Using political gaslighting to maximum effect, Councilman Johnson painted Brower as having “politicized” the Florida Wildlife Corridor workshop – citing emails with presenters and organizers wherein Brower asked that the meeting be held in advance of the primary elections so voters could better understand the concept and benefits of the conservation effort.

There were also ominous rumblings of a $20,000 donation by a supporter of the Wildlife Corridor to a Political Action Committee which supports the Volusia Values candidates. 

(I guess PAC’s that shower money on candidates are only acceptable when used to fund the campaigns of hand-select developer shills, eh?)

“You have made this a political event,” Johnson crowed. “A cheap political stunt to enhance your Volusia Values candidates. This is wrong all the way around.”

At the end of the day, the Gang got what they wanted all along when they confederated to successfully “postpone” the Wildlife Corridor workshop to an uncertain date after the November election – with Brower and Post voting to keep the already schedule August meeting in place (with some 200 people already registered to attend). 

What are they afraid of – an informed electorate? 

Of course, Robins and Wheeler eagerly piled on while “Dr.” Lowry phoned it in (literally), wallowing in their phony moral outrage, twisting Brower’s every word to support their fabricated witch hunt, then screeching about their “integrity.” 

Bullshit.

In the most cogent comment of the day, Councilwoman Heather Post said she had never seen a “bigger circus” staged by Robins and the others – then accurately described the haughty snobbery that marks these arrogant tools for what they truly are:

“This holier than thou attitude that four people on this council have suddenly devised or come up with that everyone has to fall under the standard except them.  It does not show integrity, and I’m a little offended as a resident of Volusia County. We’re having all of these different discussions that we’ve been having over ridiculous stuff.”

Trust me.  Ms. Post knows of which she speaks. 

From the first day she took office, Volusia’s Old Guard demanded lockstep fealty to the status quo – working overtime to beat any vestige of independent thought or innovation out of her – marginalizing Ms. Post’s every initiative and depriving District 4 of equal representation. 

Sound familiar? 

It should – because they have done the same to Chairman Brower every meeting since he took office – callously shitting on the citizen mandate that resulted in his trouncing of a well-funded insider in 2020.

Then, in the longest reach of the day, Councilman Johnson pressed the attack by accusing Brower of misusing his position when he sent a letter to Governor Ron DeSantis last week requesting an investigation into the Florida Department of Transportation’s decision to waive environmental exclusions for the proposed Pioneer Trail interchange.  

According to Johnson, Chairman Brower’s letter made it appear the remainder of the County Council agreed with the request.

Again.  Bullshit.

Anyone with two functioning synapses understands that anything our High Panjandrum of Political Power, Mori Hosseini, disagrees with the Gang of Four must also disagree with – because they know what side their political bread is buttered on – and their hypocrisy knows no bounds. . . 

To kiss the sizeable backsides of their political benefactors in the influential development community – and ensure that everyone who is anyone understands they could give two-shits about environmental impacts to the sensitive Spruce Creek watershed – the Gang voted 4-3 to send a letter to Governor DeSantis explaining the request for an inquiry was Chairman Brower’s doing – not theirs. 

What a contrived crock of shit. . .

Anyone remember when Councilwoman Wheeler willingly took part in the public humiliation of Councilwoman Heather Post after former Chair Ed Kelley wrote a letter on behalf of all residents and the County Council supporting Ms. Post’s candidacy for a leadership role with the Florida Association of Counties?

I do. 

It would have been the first time in the 90-year history of FAC that a sitting Volusia County representative had been a candidate for the Executive Board.

Speaking on behalf of every man, woman, and child in Volusia County, Kelley wrote in his glowing letter of recommendation:

“Volusia County enthusiastically supports County Council Member Heather Post’s candidacy for a Vice President position with the Florida Association of Counties (FAC).”

Then, when the time came to make good on their promise – in perhaps the most shameful display of quisling, meanspirited, cut-throat political backstabbing on record – Old Ed and Billie Wheeler openly campaigned for her opponent in a bait-and-switch artifice that violated the public trust and exposed the depth to which the Old Guard would stoop to embarrass and demean Ms. Post.

Yeah.  That whole “Integrity” thing again. . .

To add to the confusion, during Tuesday’s abomination, Councilman Johnson – now fully enrobed in his demented Inspector Clouseau character – raved about a comment Chairman Brower made at a meeting in Seminole County regarding our threatened natural resources wherein he mentioned the publics concerns over the widely-publicized “toilet to tap” strategy that will have us all drinking recycled sewage to ensure developers can shoehorn more, more, more cracker boxes “starting from the low $300’s” on top of our aquifer recharge areas. 

Acting as though he had just deduced it was Professor Plum, in the library, with a lead pipe – Johnson ensured the Chair’s embarrassment was complete by having a clip of Brower’s comments loudly broadcast through the Council chamber.

For anyone listening, it would appear that Councilman Johnson had just returned from the dark side of the moon – because everyone who has paid even marginal attention to recent events is aware of the City of Daytona Beach’s operation of an experimental treatment plant to process reclaimed sewage for public consumption.

The results of this gross Soylent Green-style testing are currently being condensed into a report by local and state researchers. 

But it’s all news to Ben Johnson?

Apparently, our addled At-Large Councilman is unaware of the massive development across the width and breadth of Volusia County his inaction on issues like impact fees and low-impact development helped facilitate – tens of thousands of new homes and hundreds of thousands of square feet of commercial space – out-of-control sprawl that has some municipalities already requesting additional groundwater withdrawals to keep up with soaring demand.    

How is it possible that a sitting elected official could be that out-of-touch?

Or that compromised. . .

Don’t take my word for it, watch it for yourself here: https://tinyurl.com/32m3wu3m

Angel               Volusia District Schools Whistleblower Alex Kennedy

We have a problem, folks.  

Last month, the Volusia County School Board took delivery of a shocking report detailing the results of an operational audit of district processes and administrative activities conducted by Florida’s Auditor General during fiscal year 2019-20. 

The summary findings were a guided tour through a disturbingly dysfunctional organization where the concept of accountability commensurate with responsibility is a cudgel reserved for silencing whistleblowers who point out the flagrant waste and incompetence all around them. 

For instance, the audit’s first significant finding explained:

“District personnel did not always verify vendor bank accounts before electronic payments were made to those accounts and, as a result, electronic payments totaling $359,566 for vendor services were made to a wrong bank account.”

According to the report, due in part to lackadaisical security and independent vendor verification procedures, the district fell victim to what the DeLand Police Department later described as an “overseas fraud scheme,” which resulted in some vendor service payments being routed to an unverified account.

Fortunately, $193,869 of the theft was recovered from the “District’s bank” and the remainder – $140,697 – was paid by the district’s cyber insurance company.

Volusia County taxpayers were on the hook for the $25,000 deductible. . . 

Most telling, the report detailed the massive waste of time, money, and resources related to the district’s horribly compromised software program – something former Assistant Director of Applications and Infrastructure, Alex Kennedy, tried multiple times to warn key decisionmakers about until he was suddenly fired in 2020. . . 

Auditors determined that the installation and implementation of the Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system was beset with issues from the beginning – complicated by the district’s failure to keep minutes of “steering committee” meetings when the software was selected – with little effort to ensure that the project progressed through implementation according to the terms of the contract. 

Then the committee was disbanded without explanation – which destroyed any institutional knowledge or project continuity – leading to even more expensive delays due to personnel changes. 

Ultimately, the program cost Volusia County taxpayers millions of dollars in cost overruns and functionality issues. 

It also cost the only person in the district who gave a damn his livelihood. . .

From the outset, Mr. Kennedy raised concerns about the School Board’s adoption of the financial software because it was not designed for use in a K-12 setting, which required that the district spend millions of dollars re-engineering the program – the fact that no other K-12 school system had successfully adopted the program – and that there were other software options that cost less and were designed for the district’s needs.

In August 2018, Mr. Kennedy authored an email to the highest echelon of district leadership, which ended with the dire warning:

“More importantly, if we are ever lucky enough to “make” this software work it will most likely be the most expensive ERP solution ever brought forward to a K12 institution with both the minimal and most complicated functionality. As an employee and tax paying citizen I strongly recommend putting this project on hold and having it reassessed by a third party state agency such as DMS (Department of Management Services).”

Unfortunately, his expert opinion was ignored. 

Had district leadership listened to Mr. Kennedy instead of acquiescing to those who told them what they wanted to hear it is estimated taxpayers could have saved over $4 million on the project.

On May 14, 2020, without warning that his employment was in jeopardy, Mr. Kennedy was abruptly terminated – because that is the fate that befalls anyone who breaks the Code of Omerta in the Ivory Tower of Power in DeLand and sounds the klaxon on misfeasance, the gross waste of funds, or the organizational incompetence that permits it.  

In a recent appeal of his previously dismissed whistleblower lawsuit, Mr. Kennedy’s attorney wrote:

“His repeated complaints resulted in his termination, so Mr. Kennedy brought a claim under the FWA (Federal Whistleblower Act).  The FWA protects public employees from retaliation when they raise allegations of government negligence and waste.”

Considering the findings of state auditors – I wish Mr. Kennedy the best of luck. 

In my view, the audit was a scathing indictment of a cloistered system that now commands an annual budget in excess of $1 Billion with little oversight or answerability. 

In addition to these serious issues, the audit also uncovered a lack of accountability in the disposal of tangible personal property (fixtures, furniture, equipment, and motor vehicles), lax access privileges to sensitive student data that could result in fraud and other financial crimes against individuals, the fact 5% of employees with direct contact with children had not received a required five-year background check, and a history of weak information technology security training, authentication procedures, and written guidelines which could further compromise sensitive data.

My God.

These scandalous revelations should send a shudder through parents, teachers, students, and staff – and enrage Volusia County taxpayers who are forced to pay for this continuing institutional incompetence.

Quote of the Week

“If you don’t grow, you die,” he said.

And Florida is growing.

“Our state has seen an influx of people, about 1,000 per day,” he said. “Those people need a place to live.”

He said property rights need to be protected, but he thinks “development should happen.”

“It’s important for the economic growth and maintenance of the county,” he said.

Johansson said he prefers to see infill development in cities versus new development in rural areas, but he doesn’t want to force any local governments to do anything…”

–Volusia County Council At-Large Candidate Jake Johansson, as quoted by Eileen Zaffiro-Kean writing in The Daytona Beach News-Journal, “Where do at-large Volusia Council candidates stand on exploding growth?” Monday, August 1, 2022

And Another Thing!

Believe it or not, well-meaning readers sometimes ask if they can advertise their goods and services on Barker’s View.  

As a dilettante editorialist, it is very humbling to think someone would want to be associated with this tripe, but I always graciously decline.

There is a reason I do not accept advertising on this blogsite – and I damn sure do not take money to express opinions with a certain slant or advocate for the well-funded candidate of some special interest with deep pockets.    

That bought-and-paid-for propagandized bullshit is readily available if you want it.

Just not here.  

Right or wrong, the views expressed on Barker’s View are my own.

If I favor one political candidate over another – it means I have done some research and come to believe that they will serve the broad public interest – rather than function as another malleable marionette for all the right last names.

I am not infallible – subject to being duped like anyone else.

And I don’t have a crystal ball.

My only advantage is that I spend an unhealthy amount of time studying the particulars of public meetings, analyzing the “issues,” talking politics on barstools, picking the brains of those “in-the-know,” before forming a viewpoint on the news and newsmakers through the jaded prism of over three-decades in local government.  

But make no mistake – these jumbled thoughts are mine alone. 

That is why I rarely tell people who to vote for anymore.  Not my role.

I believe it is important for people to educate themselves on the candidates and where they stand on the issues – then vote their own conscience, experience, and vision.

Given modern campaign tactics, that’s not as easy as it seems.  

Like everyone else, I make my share of analytical mistakes; but I still believe that past behavior is the most accurate predictor of future performance, because a leopard is incapable of changing its spots. 

Yet, each election cycle, some very smart political strategists and their surrogates use every tool at their disposal to convince us otherwise – or put just enough dust in the air so the average apathetic voter becomes so confused they simply give up. . .

When educating oneself on the differences in ideology, values, and loyalties of candidates, I always employ the idiom: If it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and walks like a duck – it’s a duck, regardless of how anyone presents it. 

Although perennial politicos and their handlers try to deny it, as the voting records of many incumbents prove, the source of campaign funds are a prime indicator of future loyalties. 

I don’t care if an elected official envisions a different path for the future or disagrees with me on solutions so long as they are open and honest about who benefits – and why

As naïve as it sounds, I still believe character counts

I suspect you do to. 

That is why political camps are spending so much time (and money) dredging up, embroidering, and trotting out their opponents’ past peccadillos while downplaying their preferred candidate’s faults, foibles, and ethical lapses.

I have rarely met an adult who hasn’t had at least one bad day, a youthful indiscretion, or lapse in judgement they aren’t proud of.

Have you?   

The fact is no one is perfect in their personal and professional lives – regardless of how impressive their accomplishments may be.  That is what makes us human, and, in my experience, why most people can forgive what they see themselves doing.  

What they will not tolerate is the stench of lies, machinations, and a continuation of the self-serving duplicity that has created an “Us vs. Them” mentality in Volusia County government and beyond.

A continuing degradation of the “trust factor” that has destroyed public confidence in the process – a pay to play system where the very presence of those who have purchased a chip in the game with massive campaign donations elicit a Pavlovian response from their hired rubber stamps on the dais of power. 

Unfortunately, the results of that pernicious quid pro quo – all perfectly legal under our imperfect campaign finance system – are evident across Volusia County. 

In my view, if a candidate is actively taking thousands of dollars from well-heeled insiders and the entities they control – then telling voters that he/she has no intention of ensuring those political benefactors a return on investment – that is disingenuous – and unfair to contributors.

And it causes me to wonder what else that candidate is hedging on. . .     

Most people I talk to are not looking for a “perfect” candidate – because that mythical political unicorn only exists on those glossy mailers that end up cluttering your mailbox.

We, The Little People are seeking candidates of character with a fire in the belly to serve – who dedicate themselves in word and deed to the highest ideals of the public service and constantly strive for ethical leadership, accessibility, and fairness – committed to serving the best interests of ALL citizens of Volusia County.

Candidates who will represent existing residents and believe that clean water, greenspace, and our threatened natural places are more important to the lives of our children and grandchildren than the overstuffed pocketbooks of extremely wealthy land speculators and the sutlers who make their living on the crumbs left in their wake.

They are out there. 

You will not find them anywhere near those partisan political fishing camps and the backslapping ‘Good Ole Boy’ networks that exist to serve the stagnant status quo.

Time to do your homework, folks. 

This one’s important.

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