Last week, the horribly conflicted Deltona City Commission held a sham “Special City Commission Meeting” during which they went through a time-wasting “process” of asking fourteen finalists for the interim city manager role a series of softball questions via Zoom ahead of an obviously orchestrated vote.
Against all reason, controversial former Daytona Beach City Manager Jim “The Chiseler” Chisholm was tapped for the acting role on a typical 4-2 majority vote (Commissioner David Sosa was absent) putting one of the most polarizing political figures in Volusia County in charge of the most dysfunctional and wholly compromised local “government” in Florida.
That low whirring you hear is Big John spinning in his urn. . .
Despite my best instincts, I watched as much of the weird Kabuki as I could stomach.
During my productive life, I served in positions of increasing responsibility in the long-established City of Holly Hill, a quaint slice of Old Florida on the banks of the beautiful Halifax River. My long tenure included a stint as Interim City Manager following a tumultuous period of political upheaval.
It’s a hard dollar.
Although much smaller than the City of Deltona, the political pressures in a small town are often amplified, and dealing with the various factions, internal and external influences, and the challenges of an aging infrastructure made it both the best, and worst, assignment of my career.
Although I had no formal training in public administration, through the years I worked for a series of chief executives whose leadership styles ranged from itinerant narcissistic nutjobs to the absolute best in the business – which meant I had a good idea what not to do.
During my mercifully short appointment to the Cat Bird seat, I tried my best to calm the seas and return a sense of trust to citizens and staff after the bull left what remained of the china shop.
With the help of a wonderful group of professionals and the support of our elected officials, I managed to keep the ship off the rocks until a replacement could be found, then I returned to my role as Chief of Police where I could at least fake a semblance of competency. . .
As an uneducated bumpkin, what I know of leadership was gained from experiential learning, observing those skills, abilities, and personality characteristics I respected in others – dismissing their bad behaviors, faults, and foibles – then working hard to emulate those admirable traits as I clawed my way up the ladder to middle management (then hung on by my fingernails until retirement. . .)
Trust me. I made my share of mistakes – valuable lessons that served me well.
Unfortunately, the Deltona City Commission did not display any of those attributes I came to recognize as “good governance” during their cockamamie selection process last week.
In fact, it felt like the appointment of Jim Chisholm was a foregone conclusion. . .
After years of internecine warfare, secretiveness, political chicanery, and “Us vs. Them” divisiveness that has plagued Deltona, in my view, the most pertinent question asked of the applicants was perhaps the simplest:
“As a newly appointed interim city manager of Deltona, what are some techniques you would employ to create an atmosphere of trust and unity within the city administration or government and the community? What experience will you draw upon to assist you in the transition?”
Clearly, trust and unity are in short supply at Deltona City Hall – and it appears some of those on the dais of power are beginning to recognize that fact as the general election draws near.
Hard lessons learned on both sides of Deltona’s Great Divide.
Given Mr. Chisholm’s notorious lack of transparency and sycophantic deference to influential insiders in the City of Daytona Beach – I was convinced his well-publicized track record would be a dealbreaker once commissioners got passed the stilted “interviews,” performed due diligence, spoke to other elected and appointed officials in East Volusia, met with former rank-and-file employees, or reviewed open-source information regarding Chisholm’s often contentious reign.
As I listened to the question repeated to each of the finalists, I thought:
“Surely Deltona’s elected officials have families, and, at some point, they had friends and enjoyed the trust of at least 51% of their district’s electorate. On some level, they must understand the interpersonal dynamics of uniting their community and developing trust, right?”
Unfortunately, I was wrong in my stupid assumption.
My life is blessed with a small handful of dear friends – close intimates I have known and loved most of my life.
I maintain these important relationships by being trustworthy, keeping promises, being open, honest, and sensitive to their feelings, always present during times of crisis, being communicative, sharing, and open to constructive criticism, truly listening to their needs and concerns, being a cheerleader, celebrating accomplishments and sharing defeat – I have their back and trust they have mine – being respectful of their priorities, admitting mistakes and offering sincere apologies, and always striving to be loyal, forgiving, compassionate, and trusting with those I care about.
Over time, a mutual trust develops – the bond strengthens – and I know my efforts and feelings will be reciprocated in an authentic way.
Through these enduring personal connections, I learned that when we put the needs of others ahead of our own self-interests, good things result as people respond in kind, giving their trust and respect when it is earned.
In my view, the same characteristics that form the basis of close friendships work equally well in developing strong professional relationships – qualities that carryover to the administration of government – and help build organizational confidence during labor negotiations, management decisions, budget allocations, staff recruitment and retention, and assist in returning the public’s trust in their municipal government.
Because the foundation of true servant leadership is putting the needs of others first – a selflessness that creates an inspirational workplace where people take pride in doing work worth doing – it improves essential service delivery, empowers a “people-first” atmosphere where excellence is valued, and breaks down internal and external barriers.
Perhaps most important, these principles help nurture an organizational culture where passionate professionals can debate differing ideas then try new and innovative strategies without fear of failure, reprisal, or political meddling.
With many Deltona residents still suffering in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian and a municipal election less than a month away – it seemed suspiciously urgent that this iteration of the commission ramrod The Chiseler’s appointment – something that has added to the instability and left people much smarter than me asking what influential faction has set their sights on exploiting Deltona this time?
Time will tell.
Unfortunately, it looks like Deltona government has more hard lessons ahead. . .