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 The Reconstituted Deltona City Commission
West Volusia Beacon reporter Al Everson said it best:
“What a difference an election makes!”
On November 28, the newly constituted Deltona City Commission voted unanimously to reject a rezoning request that would have permitted an additional 145 homes in Fernanda Place on Deltona’s east side.
With recently elected Mayor Santiago Avila Jr. and three new commissioners on the dais, in a refreshing break from tradition, the elected officials listened to constituent concerns surrounding increased density, traffic, and inadequate parking – ignored attractive baubles, gewgaws, and developer incentives – such as a swimming pool, a dog park, enhanced tree preservation, and a $100,000 cash spiff to the City of Deltona “for affordable housing efforts” – and voted 7-0 to deny the zoning change from Agricultural to Residential Planned Unit Development (RPUD).
The bold move to protect the quality of life for existing residents resulted in an ominous warning from the developer’s normally conciliatory attorney, Mark Watts:
“The property currently has rights. There’s going to be development there.”
According to an excellent report by Al Everson writing in the West Volusia Beacon:
“After the commission voted down the ordinance to rezone the property for Phase 3 of Fernanda Place, Watts left the meeting, but he indicated he and his clients are not giving up.
“The property has rights to develop,” he said, adding he may submit a new request for Phase 3.
“We can file tomorrow,” he concluded.
In other words (in my best Schwarzenegger impression): “I’ll be bach.”
And you can bet your sweet bippy they will. . .
In my view, for the first time in a long time, a local elected body put down the rubberstamp and held firm to existing zoning regulations to protect the character of their community from the rampant overdevelopment that has stressed existing transportation infrastructure, added to flooding concerns, and threatened the quantity and quality of our drinking water supply across Volusia County.
In addition, according to the Beacon’s report, in a refreshing about face from the “Us vs. Them” mentality that has gripped Deltona City Hall for years, Commissioners removed the “…cordons in the commission chambers that formed a sort of no man’s land between the audience and the dais.”
First implemented by former Mayor Heidi Herzberg during the bad old days of 2019 when Deltona residents were rightfully up-in-arms over the direction of their community – the physical barrier separating citizens from those they elect to represent their interests was a bitter reminder of an ugly and divisive period in the city’s history.
Although the physical screening procedures at the entrance to the commission chamber will remain, Mayor Avila assured the citizens of Deltona that he is committed to representing all residents of Deltona – and extended an olive branch to wary citizens asking that they trust their city commission going forward.
That’s going to take time – but this week’s meeting was good start toward mending fences.
I have often said, if the City of Deltona is to remain a legitimate entity, then the elected officials must begin the painful process of sorting through the contentious baggage and set a collective vision, put aside the mean-spirited “gotcha” politics, collusions, and accusatory maneuvers, and work cooperatively with stakeholders to achieve civic equilibrium.
While it is too early to tell how things will shake out, in my view, Mayor Avila and the reconstituted Deltona City Commission is making great strides to reverse the sins of the past and restore public confidence at City Hall.
Asshole Volusia County Council
Just one month ago, The Daytona Beach News-Journal published an in-depth look at another brewing scandal in the cloistered Halls of Power at the Thomas C. Kelly Administrative Building in DeLand, when reporter Frank Fernandez exposed allegations of “malicious and abusive behavior” toward inmates at the Volusia County Branch Jail…” and, more disturbing, a possible cover-up at the highest levels of county government.
According to the News-Journal’s exposé, now neutered Volusia County Department of Corrections Director Mark Flowers retained the venerable Daytona Beach attorney Kelly Chanfrau whose firm investigated claims that Director Flowers was retaliated against after he blew the whistle on the physical abuse of inmates.
In turn, Chanfrau forwarded correspondence to County Manager George “The Wreck” Recktenwald that included a memorandum headed “formal written complaint” that Flowers sent to the County Manager on August 6, just days before his suspension and isolation:
“In the memo, Flowers wrote that he has repeatedly reported unlawful actions that have occurred within the jail, but the issues have not been addressed. Flowers wrote there was a cover-up involving a use-of-force incident against an inmate named Justin Caruthers. He wrote that Caruthers reported that “Your correctional officers beat my ass.”
Flowers wrote that two correctional officers witnessed the incident and wrote statements. The two officers said that while they could not point to any individual officer, Caruthers was struck and punched numerous times in the head and body. A nurse at the jail said, “They beat his ass,” Flowers reported. Flowers wrote that nine days after the incident he interviewed Caruthers, who still had two black eyes.
Flowers said that against his recommendation, Mark Swanson, the interim director of the Public Protection Department, reassigned the officers involved to other duties in the jail rather than removing them from the facility to prevent any possibility of witness intimidation or harassment.”
In my experience, public and private organizations that value the public trust take credible allegations brought by a sitting department head seriously – and act upon them in an open and transparent way – to protect the integrity of the process.
But not in Volusia County.
Here, the old “fire him or promote him” managerial style is clearly alive and well – cementing a culture of mediocrity that rewards those who toe the line, keep their mouth shut, and help marginalize anyone who dares blow the whistle on the dark side of this cloistered and opaque “government.”
On Tuesday, rather than formally relieve Recktenwald and Swanson pending an independent external investigation into Flower’s serious accusations (we were told in November by a Volusia County mouthpiece that FDLE is handling a “portion of the investigation”) – the Volusia County Council (with Chairman Jeff Brower absent) voted 5-0 to reward Swanson by enshrining him as permanent director of the Public Protection Department.
Look, I get it.
No one gives two-shits about the physical abuse of inmates (unless and until you or a loved one get your teeth kicked in on the floor of some fetid jail cell).
Let’s face it, outside of their defense attorneys, incarcerated convicts don’t have a very good lobby – but the integrity of the system should matter to everyone who pays taxes and expects professionalism and accountability from those who accept public funds.
Instead, Volusia’s bloated bureaucracy continued its exponential expansion this week when Recktenwald announced the formation of the new Emergency Services Department – which transfers a few services from the existing Public Protection Department (emergency medical services, emergency management, emergency medical administration, and fire/rescue) – and places them under the Emergency Services Division’s new director, Jim Judge.
In perfect bureaucratese, The Wreck explained, “I think this puts us in a good position to capture efficiencies and to continue to evolve the department.”
(Yeah. I know. It’s the art of expending hot air while saying absolutely nothing of substance.)
No word yet on what those “efficiencies” will amount to in dollars saved – but according to a recent article in The Daytona Beach News-Journal – prior to their promotions, Director Swanson commanded $144,592.88 annually while Director Judge enjoyed a handsome salary of $135,015.32, and that’s while they served in an interim status. . .
Keep the faith, kids. Help is on the way!
Come January, when those we recently elevated to high office are sworn in, we will see them immediately roll up their sleeves and begin the process of right sizing this gluttonous bureaucracy – putting the fiscally conservative values that got them elected into action – and making good on their promises of cutting taxes, reducing costs, chopping the dead wood, and whittling things down to a “smaller, more efficient” government.
Right. . .
Angel L. Gale Lemerand
According to Merriam-Webster the word philanthropy means literally “love of mankind.”
In 2014, Halifax area business leader L. Gale Lemerand was rightfully named “Philanthropist of the Year” by the Volusia-Flagler chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals.
No one deserved that special recognition more.
At the time, Mr. Lemerand said, “If someone’s living the American Dream as I have been, I believe it’s important to give back to the community and to help others who haven’t been as fortunate,” said Lemerand. “The community’s been good to me. I’m really happy to be in the position to give back.”
Before I retired as Chief of Police for the City of Holly Hill, our community was experiencing the disastrous effects of The Great Recession resulting in far-reaching funding cuts to programs and services our citizens had come to rely on.
During those very dark days, quite unexpectedly, Mr. Lemerand appeared at City Hall and graciously offered to fund an important social program that benefited underserved families in our community. Without question, demands, or recognition – L. Gale Lemerand simply saw an unfulfilled need and selflessly donated the resources required to ensure those less fortunate were cared for.
I have never forgotten that. How one man’s noble generosity in the face of terrible uncertainty gave hope to so many during that grim time.
This week, it was announced that Mr. Lemerand has graciously pledged $100,000 to the challenged Palm Terrace Elementary School in Daytona Beach – a Title 1 school where 95% of students are living in poverty.
According to an excellent article by education reporter Danielle Johnson writing in The Daytona Beach News-Journal, “The donation will have an “immense impact” on the student body, Volusia County Schools shared on social media, especially given the makeup of Palm Terrace’s nearly 600 students.”
The school’s new Assistant Principal Madison Miller – an outstanding educator who was named 2022-23 Teacher of the Year while at Chisholm Elementary – was quoted, “We are notably one of the, if not the, highest-need schools in this county,” she said Monday.
“Without education, many do not have a ticket out of poverty and less-than-desirable situations, she noted.”
The News-Journal report explained that, although Mr. Lemerand has been a longtime supporter of higher education, this represents his first donation to an elementary school:
“I went over and I met the principal and some of the students and was even more impressed with everything that I saw than I was before I made the donation,” he said, adding that the school welcomed him with its drum corps, choir, and cheerleading team.
Lemerand, 88, also came from humble beginnings. He was raised in a “very poor” family in Michigan and graduated high school but did not go to college.
“I guess that’s one of the reasons I support education so much is because I had missed out on it myself,” he said.
Mr. Lemerand understands from personal experience that an investment in education is an investment in the future.
By any measure, Mr. Lemerand’s life-changing generosity will have a significant and sustainable impact on the lives of Palm Terrace students – and the civic, social, and economic health of our community.
A lasting tribute to one man’s unconditional love of humanity.
Thank you, Mr. Lemerand. We’re glad you passed our way.
Quote of the Week
“Again, Town Council members and residents, we have heard you. By voting down the lease, versus tabling the agenda item so the terms can be modified to the satisfaction of both parties, you decidedly elected not to negotiate with the FBH Community. If this Council was serious in negotiating with a non-profit, you wouldn’t instruct us to, as one Council Member put it, “go and write a new lease” without any additional information or clarity. A cold remark from a Council Member when asked by Mayor Bennett if they were willing to entertain a revised lease, of “well, I can’t stop them from bringing another lease,” rather than answering the question, was insulting and gave us a clear message of your intent.”
–Founder and Chair of Food Brings Hope Forough Hosseini writing to the residents and Town Council of Pierson, Florida, Thursday, December 1, 2022
Residents on both sides of Volusia County’s palmetto curtain were secretly aghast this week when Forough Hosseini’s Food Brings Hope made good on its threat to pull $250,000 in much-needed educational and nutritional services from the tiny Northwest Volusia hamlet of Pierson following a David & Goliath pissing match.
I say secretly, because no one – and I mean no one – openly challenges the House of Hosseini, especially county and municipal elected officials who are expected to genuflect anytime one of Volusia’s High Panjandrums of Political Power enter a council or commission chamber then obsequiously acquiesce to their every want and whim.
The spat began over reasonable differences surrounding a proposed lease agreement which would have allowed Food Brings Hope to occupy several rooms of the Pierson Town Center for a token $1 per year for the next decade – leaving townsfolk on the hook for recurring expenses like maintenance, utilities, and insurance coverage.
That did not sit well with taxpayers in the challenged community of 1,491 who sought a more equitable arrangement.
Ultimately, the Pierson Town Council listened to the concerns of their constituents and rejected the lease.
Why? With a limited tax base, they couldn’t afford it.
During the heated public meeting in November, FBH attorney Nika Hosseini threatened:
“If the town would like Food Brings Hope to route every call that we get from your residents to the town itself, we’re happy to do that,” she said. “… If you don’t want these services, we will allocate the quarter of a million dollars to other jurisdictions that are actively asking for them.”
And that is exactly what they did.
To add insult, on December 1, Forough Hosseini fired off a two-page snark-filled comeback to residents and their Town Council essentially detailing the many ways she was “insulted” by the community’s cautious response – correspondence that some quietly felt was petty, small, and unbecoming someone of Ms. Hosseini’s stature.
As I said earlier in the week, to prove a point, Food Brings Hope stormed out of the needy community in a snit – essentially weaponizing their charity by withholding much-needed humanitarian services from hungry children who have absolutely no influence over the town’s difficult decision.
I’m not sure who is advising Ms. Hosseini, but she is certainly smart enough to know that using the suffering of disadvantaged families for political leverage is cruel.
Especially at the Holidays.
In my view, this unfortunate brouhaha has nothing to do with bringing food stability and literacy resources to those who desperately need them in Northwest Volusia – and everything to do with power and control.
It is one thing to fill a very real need in a challenged community like Pierson – it is quite another to become a burden on limited public resources while touting your virtuous deeds to those who simply cannot afford to help – then taking personal offense when those responsible for stewarding scarce public funds are forced to look the gift horse in the mouth.
In the aftermath, this meanspirited and incredibly public powerplay has exposed something we all recognize but rarely discuss (at least not openly) – and it has cost Food Brings Hope and its leadership the admiration, respect, and trust of those now left to ponder what consequences the charity’s retreat will have on those unfortunate children who have come to rely on these charitable efforts for sustenance.
Food Brings Hope will hold its final community activity in Pierson – the Hope for the Holidays event – at the Mission San José of St. Peter Catholic Church from 5-7 pm, Tuesday, Dec. 13.
Yeah. Merry Christmas. . .
And Another Thing!
Now that the elections are over and our “new” elected officials are preparing to take their seats on the dais of power in January, I have been thinking about how our entrenched power structure perpetuates itself, the insidious influence of partisan politics on local races, and the importance of dissent and accountability to good governance.
The answer to the first question is relatively simple: Money.
Those who observe local politics with a critical eye have long understood that Volusia County’s artificial economy is based on the whims of a very exclusive club – a group of wealthy power brokers who pass the same nickel around – and, with increasing frequency, that nickel originates from our tax dollars in the form of lucrative “economic development” incentives, tax abatement schemes, infrastructure, land giveaways, and other spiffs.
For instance, it is one thing to use publicly funded partnerships to lure business and industry to Volusia County – it is quite another to ensure these new enterprises benefit those select few with a chip in the game.
Maintaining one’s place in the suckling order begins each election cycle when these wealthy insiders inject huge sums of money into the campaigns of hand-select candidates for local offices through their countless corporate entities, political action committees, and shadowy business alliances.
Volusia’s Old Guard did not accumulate massive personal wealth without the ability to control their environment, and, in my view, that is exactly what the political influence they purchase provides.
I have said this before – you do not need an MBA from The Wharton School to understand the concept of ROI – Return on Investment – and the road to the poor house is paved with the bones of those who ignored the simple analytical formula: Net Profit v. Cost of Investment.
The fact is members of Volusia County’s camera stellata did not become incredibly successful by shoving money down a rabbit hole and expecting a magical bean stalk to rise into the heavens where the Golden Goose resides.
So, they skew the playing field.
All perfectly legal – because our slanted campaign finance system allows it.
In my jaded view, influence and access represent that return on investment – and given the astronomical amount of “economic incentives” that local governments have showered upon this exclusive group (and emerging players) – I would say they have done extremely well on the risk/reward scale.
The modus operandi for consolidating power rarely changes – because it works.
Once the various courtiers and favorites are selected for advancement to high office, those powerful party bosses at the Volusia Republican Executive Committee insinuate partisan support into non-partisan local races through lopsided “voter guides,” endorsements, and coordinated smear campaigns – while “grassroots” candidates are labeled “RINO’s” (or worse), shut out, cash starved, and left to wither on the vine.
Then, when the playing field is set, the pernicious “system” destroys any opposition – or independent thought – while rewarding those obsequious toadies who perpetuate the stagnant status quo.
Don’t take my word for it.
Ask Volusia County Council Chair Jeff Brower or Councilwoman Heather Post how it feels to be on the outside looking in and have your every initiative marginalized and invalidated – to be snickered about in the cloakrooms of haughty “civic” clubs and cliquish political fishing camps – while being publicly beaten like a square peg into the round hole of conformity.
If you think it is bad now – wait until January when the real bloodletting begins.
Is what we experience in Volusia County quid pro quo corruption?
I don’t know.
But in my jaded view, it has a whiff of the shit about it.
What I do know is that when these powerful insiders appear in various council and commission chambers, invariably – I mean 100% of the time – the issue, project, incentive, or development they support is handed to them on a gilded platter, while We, The Little People are left on the outside looking in – expected to pay the bills and keep our pie holes shut.
Am I wrong?
As a result, these omnipotent power players have assumed an almost mythical stature in a place where thousands live at or below the poverty level – with more than 45,000 working households considered asset limited/income constrained in Volusia County – with the only possibility of escaping the vicious cycle now limited to $15 an hour scutwork in an industrial warehouse.
So, what can we do about it?
Given the apathy of most registered voters on the Fun Coast – not much.
But substantive change – and a government of the people, by the people, and for the people – is worth striving for.
Even when the odds seem insurmountable.
We can start by reminding our neighbors, children, and grandchildren that all political power springs from the will and consent of the governed – not the wallet of some Fat Cat with a profit motive and an outsized sense of entitlement – or the compromised yammering of their hired marionettes on the dais of power who work hard to convince us this stagnant oligarchical rule is the best we can hope for.
That’s all for me. Have a great weekend, y’all!