Mayor and commissioners: Citizens more united in wake of cop shop demise
OAK HILL -- There's a winning motto for tiny Oak Hill, Volusia County's smallest city with a mere 1,793 residents straddling the border with Brevard County, just north of Titusville, Merritt Island and the Kennedy Space Center.
The city held a contest earlier this summer that asked the public to come up with a new motto that best represents the good in the seaside city that is home to world-famous Mosquito Lagoon, where fishing is plentiful for highly competitive professional sportsmen and the average fishing enthusiast alike, who come from near and far to this oasis.
Connie Newport was declared the winner by the Oak Hill City Commission with her motto: "City of Oak Hill – We make fishers of many.” It's a clear biblical reference to Jesus encouraging two fishermen to droop their nets and follow him as disciples.
Newport's prize was a $50 EE savings bond. In all, there were 40 entries. Donna Ross and Tom McGow were declared the runners-up with their entry: “Come Chill in Oak Hill.” And with their showing, they received a $25 gift card to the Oak Hill restaurant of their choice.
Mayor Douglas Gibson commended his elected colleagues and city staff for engaging the public in the contest, and judging by the results, he sees it as a sign the city remains special to its residents.
Certainly, Gibson, a retired Florida state trooper, elected to the top municipal post in November, sees the city coming together after several years of acrimony that led to the demise of the scandal-ridden police force a year ago. "It was a dark cloud in the city's history, but we weathered the storm," Gibson told Headline Surfer.
Certainly, Douglas Gibson, a retired Florida state trooper, elected to the top municipal post in November, sees the city coming together after several years of acrimony that led to the demise of the scandal-ridden police force a year ago.
"It was a dark cloud in the city's history, but we weathered the storm," Gibson told Headline Surfer.
As an appointee commissioner on the dais just a few months, Gibson led the charge to disband six-member police force led by Police Chief Diane Young, promoted a couple years earlier by a previous commission despite her admission of snorting cocaine a decade earlier.
Gibson and company endured the intense coverage of Headline Surfer's nearly two-year multi-media investigative series, "Oak Hill Cops: Cocaine, Corruption & Chaos." One of the segments in the investigative series, "Ex-Oak Hill Mayor: Embattled Police Chief Diane Young not only snorted coke and smoked pot, but also popped ludes," was recognized with an award for public safety reporting in the 2012 Florida Press Club journalism contest.
There was the chaos of City Clerk/Administrator Laura Goodearly, who not only was fighting with the police chief, but the media as well, especially after Headline Surfer reported she failed to put on her job application that she had been convicted of DUI after city workers complained she had been routinely dumping her empty beer bottles in the city dumpster before reporting to work.
Headline Surfer video produced by Multimedia Editor Serafina Frederick / A week after the Oak Hill police force was disbanded, ex-cop Meredith Ebarhart and his wife, Theresa, blasted Commissioner Ron Engele for his politics in the desintegrating situation in the department where officers were pitted against each other and the chief. Engele was the department head.
To compound matters, City Commissioner Ron Engele had Headline Surfer illegally removed from a Commission meeting. Bracy, who had not yet returned to the commission as an elected official, remembered it all coming to a head after then-Sgt. Manny Perez giving Headline Surfer an exclusive video interview airing the department's dirty laundry.
Then there was the internet newspaper's breaking a story where then-83-year-old Mayor Mary Lee Cook was accused of growing marijuana plants, prompting an investigation by the Sheriff's Office that revealed Young was working behind the scenes to make at the case. The VCSO didn't bite.
Earlier, there were accusations that then-Sgt. Michael Ihnken took certification tests for other officers and that Perez was stealing gas, the latter pushed by officer Meredith Eberhart, who had been a whistleblower and had to deal with backbiting within the department and city hall.
Vice Mayor and City Commissioner Jeff Bracy remembers all too well it was not that long ago that Oak Hill was referred to as "Joke Hill" and even "Coke Hill." "We were the laughing stock of the county," Bracy told Headline Surfer of the embarrassment in the crumbling police force led by then-Police Chief Diane Young, a former cocaine user hired as a cop with no prior experience who eventually worked her way up to police chief.
Vice Mayor and City Commissioner Jeff Bracy remembers all too well it was not that long ago that Oak Hill was referred to as "Joke Hill" and even "Coke Hill."
"We were the laughing stock of the county," Bracy told Headline Surfer of the embarrassment in the crumbling police force led by then-Police Chief Diane Young, a former cocaine user hired as a cop with no prior experience who eventually worked her way up to police chief.
Bracy said the city endured the adverse news coverage advanced by Headline Surfer that resulted in the Orlando TV stations and the Daytona Beach News-Journal swooping in at the 11th hour.
While Oak Hill was trying to ride out this firestorm early on, it took a back seat to a scandal in the Windemere police force that was heavily covered by the Orlando Sentinel and the TV stations.
Still, Bracy said he, for one, in hindsight was more than pleased the internet newspaper had aggressively dogged the story.
"If it hadn't been for your reporting, we might still be the laughing stock," insisted Bracy of Headline Surfer's nearly investigative series, with heavy emphasis on public records and extensive video interviews with the cops themselves.
"I'm serious about that," said Bracy, a former acting mayor, who was who was automatically seated in November when his fellow challenger for the position, Lynne Seward, failed to qualify in time, a circuit judge ruled in what became a mini-drama, after the police force was disbanded in favor of coverage from the Volusia County Sheriff's Office.
The issues dividing the city weren't limited only to the cops.
Headline Surfer cartoon by Multimedia Editor Serafina Frederick / The image here looks at the three antagonists in the municipal scandal that rocked Oak Hill. Below are Commissioner Ron Engele and since-fired City Clerk Laura Goodearly, who are featured in the cartoon along with former Police Chief Diane Young.
Then-City Clerk/Administrator Laura Goodearly was warring with Young and with the media, especially after Headline Surfer reported she was hired two years earlier despite a DUI conviction which she left off her job application.
She was replaced by Kohn Evans who had been the deputy clerk.
Headline Surfer also reported on complaints from city workers of Goodearly emptying beer bottles from her car into the city dumpster on a regular basis before starting work.
Things even got heated in the commission chambers when Commissioner Ron Engele erupted into two screaming threats before having Headline Surfer illegally removed from the premises by the police chief.
The online search engines like Google here highlighted how when Mary Lee Cook was mayor during the police scandal where she found herself caught up in a situation where marijuana plants were 'planted' on her property. The then-83-year-old mayor made national headlines after Headliner Surfer (then-known as NSBNews.net) broke the story. Cook was not deemed a suspect by the Volusia County Sheriff's Office.
Then-Commissioner Linda Hyatt demanded he resign at a subsequent meeting for his behavior with the internet newspaper as did others after complaints alleging he was showing up in the community intoxicated and bossing cops around.
Two meetings later, Cook read a prepared statement of apology to Headline Surfer while Engele was a no-show. He has never apologized to Headline Surfer for his behavior.
Engele was the lone vote in June against a $1,200 annual contract the city and the internet newspaper signed with the internet newspaper offering to speak up for the community with county, state and federal officials on big-ticket items like the city's need for water and sewer, grants and other issues where the city has traditionally been ignored by the politicians.
The images on this snapsho of the Headline Surfer video on Oak Hill's name game shows Mayor Douglss Gibson and Commissioner Robert Livingston. In the center is the longstanding municipal sign in front of Oak Hill that still lists the now-defunct police department. The far rioght image shows Linda Hyatt, former commissioner and vice mayor who writes a community blog for Headline Surfer called 'Linda's Lagoon,' and to her left is Mary Lee Cook, the former mayor.
Headline Surfer also hosted and sponsored a community forum last month in the commission chambers on Oak Hill's needs should authorities move forward with plans for a private aerospace program at the nearby Shiloh preserve where several suitors are jockeying for federal approval.
The internet newspaper is working on a video highlight package from the forum as well as a brief written report it will publish and deliver next month to the Volusia County Council, the Volusia legislative delegation and Congressman Ron DeSantis.