Few realize what little influence those we elect to represent our interests have on the day-to-day operations of the bureaucracy or those career civil servants who deliver essential governmental services.
It is a source of frustration, especially following elections, when a new slate of elected officials is elevated to high-office amid great pomp-and-circumstance – a time of anticipation – when we expect the ardent promises of the campaign season to come to fruition.
The fact is those self-aggrandizing stuffed-shirts who fill expensive wingback chairs on the dais of power are little more than wooden bowsprits – elaborate figureheads fixed at the prow of a large and often unwieldy ship – without any control over the speed, direction, or momentum of the vessel.
As the policymaking arm, at best, the council or commission may set the ultimate destination – but make no mistake, how the ship of government navigates, and when it arrives – will be determined by the omnipotent City or County Manager.
In this “Council/Manager” form of government, the inviolate pecking order is explained to newly elected officials before they take office – the “chain of command” – a hierarchy usually established by the jurisdiction’s governing charter which, in theory, protects public employees from the meddling of politically motivated elected officials using a sacrosanct “hands-off” policy that keeps the council or commission members away from the tiller.
Conversely, the city or county manager is appointed (and terminated) by majority vote of the elected body and granted the extraordinary authority and responsibility to administrate the daily operations of government, carryout the policies of the council or commission, hire, fire, and discipline employees, and given wide latitude to ensure efficient service delivery.
Trust me. It’s a hard dollar.
Because with enormous authority comes incredible responsibility.
Optimally, the chief executive employs strong leadership to maintain sound organizational discipline, respects the formidable power of government, identifies objectives, communicates effectively, provides equal and unbiased information to the policymakers, exercises judgment, builds esprit de corps, instills confidence in constituents, and effectively directs personnel and resources under his or her command to accomplish difficult goals important to our collective welfare.
Most important, the leader sets and demands high moral and ethical standards so subordinates will act honorably in the absence of direct supervision.
The role is never static – constantly in flux – and it requires the ability to ‘multi-task,’ evaluate, consider variables, constantly monitor high-liability operations, adjust to changing conditions, and anticipate future challenges in time to adapt.
Regardless of the pursuit, a leader – public or private – must have the ability to maintain situational awareness at all times, even in the fog and confusion of stressful or rapidly changing conditions, and constantly evaluate Context, Circumstance, and Consequence.
What is happening. What has happened. What could happen.
You either have that three-dimensional mental picture or you don’t – and once lost, it is extremely difficult to recover in a dynamic environment – and nothing is more noticeable, or destructive to morale and public confidence, than a “leader” who has lost command and control of a situation or organization.
Initially, the crisis phase is marked by the element of surprise – horrible revelations “pop-up” out of nowhere, misperceptions drive the solution, the wagons are circled, established processes are manipulated to accommodate situations, and cracks begin to appear in the carefully constructed façade.
Often, people in the upper-echelons of government – senior leaders who should be “in the know” – appear to be caught unaware, resulting in a lack of faith in management and a growing sense of organizational confusion – with subordinates and constituents left flummoxed by the actions of those in positions of great responsibility.
Unfortunately, once this damaging process begins, it is often unrecoverable – resulting in systemic failures, finger-pointing, retaliation, “cover-ups,” misplacing blame on subordinates or “failed technology,” and a creeping atmosphere of suspicion and animosity ensues.
In November, 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 former 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, wherein Flowers wrote that he has repeatedly reported unlawful actions at the jail and suggested a “cover up” surrounding a use-of-force incident against an inmate.
According to the report, against Flowers’ recommendation, Mark Swanson, who, rather than being relieved, was recently appointed 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.”
Ultimately, Flowers was removed from office, stripped of his responsibilities, and forced to work from the very public and humiliating pillory of a conference room.
Last month, a Volusia County mouthpiece cryptically told us that “portions” of the investigation had been handed over to FDLE – then, with the investigation presumably still underway – late last week, we learned in an informative follow-up by the News-Journal:
“Volusia County filed a notice of intent to fire Corrections Director Mark Flowers, who has alleged the county is retaliating against him after he complained that corrections officers were abusing inmates. Volusia County fired back at Flowers, accusing him in its notice, among other things, of violating policies by ordering that an inmate be placed face-down in a four-point restraint and demanding that another inmate on non-active suicide watch be moved without medical clearance.”
According to the shocking report, senior Volusia County officials now say inmates were abused at Flowers direction – to include instances of prisoners being hog-tied – with “inmate(s) being four-pointed in a prone position naked for several days” – an incredibly dangerous and painful practice that even a rookie law enforcement or corrections officer knows can result in death by positional asphyxiation – and others left in a disciplinary unit ominously called “10-A” for extended periods without basic hygiene products.
Who do we believe?
As the accusations and counteraccusations play out, one thing is clear – inmates have been subjected to abuse inside the isolated walls of the Volusia County Jail – and a hostile workplace exists for an already demoralized corrections staff.
In my view, regardless of who is ultimately found culpable for this abominable conduct, County Manager George Recktenwald bears ultimate responsibility for the acts and omissions of his subordinates.
According to the News-Journal’s report:
“Councilman Danny Robins said the situation is under the purview of the county manager and that it was his understanding that Flowers would meet with Recktenwald Friday, though he wasn’t sure what would happen.
Councilman Ben Johnson and Vice Chair Barb Girtman declined to comment. Volusia County Council members Jeff Brower, Billie Wheeler and Heather Post couldn’t be reached.”
Councilman Robins is right.
This repugnant scandal is directly under the “purview” of the County Manager – and the inviolate rule of command is that responsibility may be delegated, but ultimate accountability cannot be abdicated – and Mr. Recktenwald either knew, or should have known, what was going on at the Department of Corrections.
Frankly, the old dodge, “I didn’t know what was happening,” is not a privilege afforded to those who are held to exacting standards of professionalism and personal accountability – and a chief executive commanding an annual salary of over $224,000 plus benefits and perquisites should understand that.
In my view, as an act of conscience – County Manager Recktenwald has a responsibility to step down and allow an external criminal investigation of abuses at the Volusia County Jail to proceed.
Then, if there is any justice, let those who brutalized inmates – and those whose inaction facilitated it – find themselves in a similar predicament as their victims.