NEW SMYRNA BEACH -- When I was a reporter for the Journal News, a large metro daily in West Nyack, NY, one of my first reporting beats until I was freed to cover police and courts, my true love, was covering the sprawling town of Haverstraw, which was run by Supervisor Philip J. Rotella, who stood barely 5 feet tall and was well into his 90s, but clearly in charge of municipal operations, even making morning runs to the "sanitary landfill" in his SUV.
One such ride with him when I first started out in 1989, was like a trip to Hell in back, not only because he drove like a raving lunatic, but because of his utter disdain of the news media. He was Boss Hogg, straight out of the Dukes of Hazzard, except that unlike the dim-witted fictional in the TV show, he was sharp as a whip.
He ruled Haverstraw with an iron fist and was among the longest serving elected supervisors in the state of New York and even after he failed to qualify for an election one term, he didn't fret about it. He became a write-in candidate and won by a landslide.
One of Rotella's most telling one-liners in dealing with the press and inquiries that he perceived as challenging to his authority was "No news is good news." Another was an edict he sometimes made all too clear, as he had trouble hearing himself speak and would yell without realizing, to his handlers with a snot-nosed 27-year-old reporter like myself picking up: "Tell him nothing! Nothing!"
Fast forward nearly a quarter-century later and with 27 years in the reporting business, I see an eerily-similar situation in New Smyrna Beach with this city's approach to news coverage and transparency with the public. There is very little, if any.
In my career, I learned two things about the likes of Philip J. Rotella and the many who have followed: The first is that things are not always as they appear. The second is that absolute power corrupts absolutely.
No two statements more clearly define the machinations of New Smyrna Beach government: One of Adam Barringer's very first actions as the newly-elected mayor was jumping into the Intracoastal near the Brannon Center, along with two other men to rescue an elederly woman who accidentally drove her car into it.
One of Brangaccio's first acts as city manager was complaining she felt like she was being treated like a "little girl" because the commissioners balked at her $132,500 salary, settling in instead at $115,000.
From there, it was just a matter of time before she's get to her current amount. Barringer and company gave themselves an extra year in office by going to even-year elections. And then he did what most politicians do once they get elected -- opposite of what they campaigned to fight.
I was prepared to write an open letter today asking Mayor Adam Barringer and City Manager Pam Brangaccio to "do the right thing" and resign their respective positions. But as the day continued and I held out hope that thewy would at least answer basic questions as to the scandal in the police department that was released to the public just minut5es after City Hall closed Friday with northing more than a press release with few details, burt a quote from Interim Police Chief Michjael Brouillete about beinfg shocked that morew than a grand in cash was missing from the evidence room, it dawned on me.
Adam Barringer and Pam Brangaccio could give a damn less what I think is best for the city. After all, who am I to question them.
Remember, it was Brangaccio who just a week ago looked a ciitizen in the eye without hestitation after she and many of the 500 attending an annexation meeting at the Brannon Center questioned why the city was so eager to add more than 2,000 parcels.
In a show of true arrogance, Brangaccio didn't blink an eye letting this one woman and the many others know in no uncertain terms thewy were outsiders on her turf: "Ma'm you're in my home -- this is the Brannon Center -- New Smyrna Beach."
Within minutes, the citizens walked out enmasse.
That Barringer and Brangaccio each have two pending cases alleging misconduct before the Florida Commission on Ethics, is a testament to this two-headed dragon. And while the ethics complaints are mere allegations, the supporting documents and evidence are credible enough that the state agency informed both leaders the investigationas were moving forward.
In order to convince Barringer and Brangaccio that stepping down would remove the specter of taking care of themselves and their friends, it hit me like a ton of bricks.
Neither has shown one iota of contriteness or accepted any responsibility for their actions, real or perceived. There have been no press conferences, rational explnations for honest shortcomings -- just a quick-hit press release a couple months back, bashing citizen watchdog Bob Tolley for filing the ethics complaints in the first place.
Nothing has changed. Even after a 32-year-old Port Orange woman was killed in a horrible crash on the South Causeway Bridge (her surviving husband told the News-Journal threy had been drinking at the street party on Flagler), there were no condolences or sympathies from the mayor, the city manager or any of the elected officials for that matter.
And the whole crash remains under investigation, it wasa stark reminder of the numerousa stories and videos this internet newspaper had chronicled regarding lax police enforcement of the city's open container law or reigning in patrons hopping from one bar to the next, beer bottle and plastic cup in hand.
Like Port Orange's water rate scandal that cost the city millions in lost revenues, a new city manager there and the payouts to those employees who cashed in and left that were responsible, New Smyrna Smyrna Beach really is no different.
We have overpaid administrators and attorneys who provide cover for part-time elected officials who recognize the importance of cutting taxes come re-election, but otherwise take care of themselves and their friends while provide that oh so lucratice CRA advertsing to print media, which has to be embarrassed into reporting basic news like the 100 days it took the Daytona paper to report on the ethics complaint against the mayor for calling thye cop a "pr-ck."
As we wind down the the five years of the two-headed dragon that is Barringer and Brangaccio and thew silent followers in Commissioners Jack Grasty, Judy Reiker and Jason McGuirk, the theme of absolute powr corrupting absolutely is so pronounced.
Brangaccio was a master at working off surpluses to keep taxes down while raises began shooting up. Mackay's former campaign manager, Gerard Pendergast, an architect, suddenly became the "official" archuitect of the CRA without bidding.
Two years ago, Mackay and her artisans with "The Hub on Canal" got a $50,000 rent subsidy for an empty building owned by well-to-do Jim Russell through the CRA, an ultimately approvrd by Barringer and the commission. And even as the CRA ws still intact, the City Commission, acted as a "de facto" CRA, approving the expenditure.
Mackay was no longer talking about running for a second term, her former campaign manager was getting the exclusives on CRA architectural reviews and earlier this year, Macakay's group got another $50,000 in rent subsidies, evewn after stating publicly the artisans were thriving.
The CRA was subsequently disbanded in favor of the mayor and commission serving as the CRA, but not before Barringer got a key appointment on the CRA, that of young friend Chad Schilsky, an owner of That's Amore.
Then Schilsky subsequently applied for grant, with Barringer Construction named as a contractor. Though Schilsky and Barringer abstained on their respective commissions, the whole thing unraveled when it was discovered it was illegal -- not by $215,000 City Attorney Frank Gummey, but longtime CRA consulting attorney Marc Hall who made a fraction of the biggest municipal salary in Florida.
Schilsky was forced to sign a letter he said he didn't even write when he was summoned to Brangaccio's office and ended up paying Barringer Construction of his own pocket. Barringer was especially resentful of this internet newspaper for reporting the news, at one point, snidely saing of this reporter: "He's just a blogger."
He was kind of right. After all, we did win a first-place award in the 2012 Florida Press awards, though we also won for public safety reporting, general news reporting and best online presence with use of social media.
Barringer would then provide for another friend, one-time part-time county PR writer Holly Smith, who was awarded $60,000 annually as a public relations consultant for the CRA, putting our releases for the so-called, "NSB Waterfront Loop," a fancy synonym for CRA district.
Still, Planning board member Ken Bohannon's new wife scored a $20,000 advertising contract for her employer, Lamar Advertising to promote the Loop and Canal Street headed by Cindy Jones, owner of Southern Trends, herself the recipient of two $10,000 CRA grants for her store -- upstairs and downstairs.
She and Debbie Petersen, another Canal Street merchant and spouse of attorney Sid Petersen, got their $27,000 CRA-funded outdoor artificial Christmas tree, which then-Mayor Sally Mackay justified as something that would last 10 years -- nevermind that to date -- it has cost more than $70,000 overall for wiring, lights, set-up, etc. Tack on another $10,000 each subsequent Chrisatmas for Jones' "Christmas on Canal," with caroling and Hilly Smith escorting Santa as the highlights with Mayor Barringer yucking it up with Petersen and Jones.
Before long, the Barringer-led commission had given significant raises to City Clerk Johhny Bledsoe, who had been waiting on a promised raise for three years and CRA Director Tony Otte getting a ten grand raise to nearly six figures with the addeed title of economic development director, though nothing was sherpherded by him other than large-scale CRA grants to fix up the former News-Journal Pennysaver building and the Badcock Building.
Holly Smith got another $60,000 allotment, during which she charged the CRA for work she did on the weekly Observer newspaper owned by Michele and Robert Lott, who left New Smyrna Beach in 2011, only to seek protection in bankruptcy.
With no challenger in sight for Barringer riding the the CRA spending parade that provided motre than a million bucks for alcohol-fueled street parties on Flagler Avenue where the cops allowed public drinking, with Adelle Aletti's Flagler Avenue Merchants Hospitality Group getting a whopping quarter-of-a million bucks in five years to promote six festivals annually.
Barringer last year took care of boyhood friend Dave Fernandez, securing with the approval of the commissioners, a $60,000 in a CRA grant for his Trader's bar on Flagler Avenue, even as Fernandez was negotiating a PTI on a felony battety charge that he reneged on and the state ended up dismissing.
The mayor then took care of another friend, securing the appointment of yet another longtime friend, Steve Sather, to a vacant seat oon the planning and zoning board, with full knowledge that Sather pleaded no contest 20 years ago in circuit court to trying to purchase cocaine from an undercover cop with the intention of sale and delivery.
Though adjudication of guilt was withheld under then-more lenient sentencing guidelines, Sather was placed on home confinement and then a lengthy probation. Three years earlier Sather tried to run for a commission seat, finishing dead last to incumbent Jack Grasty, who remarked of his far weaker opponent: "His record speaks for itself." Last fall, though, Grasty was suddenly a supporter of Barringer's friend.
Then things got really ugly for Barringer in a hurry as the city, through Holly Smith pumped out an endless stream of press releases and ribbon curtting photos promoting the CRA successes -- primarily streetscapes, riverfront docking and the Flagler Avenue boardwalk parking area.
But outside of the CRA monopoly money that was taking care of the city's movers and shakers, with new bars popping throughout the CRA district, including Canal, Barringer and Brangaccio became more distant to longtime city commission attendees like Bob Rees and angering residents like Deb Dugas who wanted relief regarding the noise, trash and fights on Flagler.
Then the mayor, who had no opponent as he was sworn in for his second term, found himself embroiled in not one, but two controversies that would lead two subsequent complaints with the Florida Commission on Ethics.
First, the city, led by Brangaccio, held a "private party" at the mayor's So Napa Grille wine-bar restaurant for retired City Commissioner Jim Hathaway who lost the November election race for County County to Deb Denys. Barringer, who has described himself as a conservative Republican openly endorsed the Democrat Hathaway over fellow republican Denys in the race, angering his own party.
So here was the mayor holding court in his own restaurant for the sullen Hathaway and 45 others wat 30 bucks a piece with the tab picked up on a city credit card. Brangaccio was there. So was Gummey, the city attorney, all well-schooled in Florida's ethics laws.
Headline Surfer showed up to get photos unaware of the financial arrangements until Commissioner Judy Reiker's husband, Guy Mariande, unleashed a tongue-lashing that this was a private invitation-only party and the press was not welcomed. He further stated this reporter's presence was "making everyone here feel uncomfortable."
Headline Surfer left after snapping a few pictures of Hathaway and spoke briefly with Tolley to see what he knew of this. The next day, Tolley filed a public records request demanding the funding source, learning a city credit credit card had been used just like a public reception earlier at the Babe James Center for Lynne Plaskett that featured finger foods and snacks.
Among the guests were the Petersens, Sid and Debbie who employ Hathaway's wife. Though Headline Surfer repeatedly asked for paperwork showing any up-front plans for reimbursement, the city couldn't produce anything significant.
Like Brangaccio's cold, calculating response to the annexation residents that dared challenger her authority described earlier in this write-up, the ultimate showing of Mayor Adam Barringer's true colors was when he sat atop a shiny red fire engine -- a big smile as he waved like a conquering king to the peasants below that limned the sidewalks of Canal. These adoring citizens were unaware that some 20 minutes earlier, NSB cop and war hero Ralph Hunnefeld -- who saw combat in Iraq and witnessed the blood spilled of his fallen soldiers in arms -- endured the phony handshake of the mighty mayor, who angry he couldn't cut through a closed street, told the officer, "Thanks for being a pr-ck!" No matter how many CRA ribbons Adam Barringer cuts or speeches he gives, this more than anything else, cements why his political career is as much a joke as his nervous smirk. So much for that phD in leadership. This concludes my open letter to Mayor Adam Barringer and City Manager Pam Brangaccio, whose collective media silence in thew face of adversity speaks volumes as to their five-year run. God bless America and New Smyrna Beach.