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Nine Tallahassee Issues People Should Be Concerned about in 2022

OPINION

BY Jeff VanderMeer

February 6, 2022

From Justice to Ethics, Secretive Economic Development to Public Engagement to the Greater Tallahassee Chamber of Commerce’s Outbursts, VanderMeer outlines issues people in Tallahassee should be paying attention to in 2022

Currently, Tallahassee is mired in a number of issues that require vigilant monitoring and activism. The corruption we’ve witnessed being rewarded with silence or disavowal speaks to the corrosive influence of special interests that don’t have the community’s best interests in mind. It’s perhaps indicative of city hall’s current respect for people’s input that its spam filter is set so that petitions from MoveOn.org and others signed by Tallahasseans never make it to the commissioners, but instead go straight to “trash”.

Related to the issue of how the city and county commission vote on projects, people should carefully differentiate between the high-minded statements of commissioners during the lead-up to votes on issues and the actual votes. A recurring Orwellian pattern has become the norm: of saying one thing and then voting another way, with a vague allusion to self-regulation down the road or other assurance that has no actual enforcement weight behind it. Sometimes no follow-up of any kind occurs.

Perhaps the apex of this behavior, damaging to the public trust, occurred in some county commissioners’ comments about the $27 million drained from public tax coffers for the Seminole Booster’s stadium deal (the final vote is in late February).

These issues matter because of the ongoing wealth disparity in Leon County and how taxpayer dollars tend to benefit the well-off rather than helping uplift the entire community. The undemocratic nature of processes in local government also leaks out into unilateral actions like the militarization of our police force and the undue display of force against peaceful BLM protesters.

Whether it’s flawed processes, irregularities in project management, or public servants arrogantly thinking they’re above the law, Our Tallahassee has spotlighted at least nine situations (in no particular order) that Tallahasseans should be aware of going into 2022. 

Leon County Sheriff Helicopter Flies Over Tallahassee's Southside

1—Tallahassee Police Helicopter’s Nightly Surveillance. In 2020, the Tallahassee Police Department acquired a surveillance helicopter that has since made hundreds of trips over Tallahassee. It flies nightly loops around Tallahassee’s urban core, with neighborhoods from the Southside to Betton Hills subjected to its loud noise and pollution. No credible policing reason was given for the immediate increase in law enforcement helicopter flights, now surveilling the community on a nightly basis. It flew under the radar due to an arrangement with the county. Purchases under $250,000 do not require city commission approval or public input; in this case, the city split the cost with the county in order to avoid having to seek permission. The city and county should close this loophole in purchasing in the interests of transparency.

What are the Issues?

  • Invasion of privacy in poor and underserved neighborhoods
  • City manager and police chief lack of transparency in the purchase
  • No accountability for purpose or policing usefulness of individual flights
  • Additional unscrutinized noise and fuel pollution at night
  • Each flight costs taxpayers an estimated $10,000, with no cost-benefit analysis made public
NAI Talcor benefits from sale of public land while contributing to commissioners' reelection campaigns.

2—No-Bid Selling of Public Land by Local Government

The Tallahassee City Commission continues to flout its own rules and guidelines by approving no-bid sales of public land. Worse, these 3-2 votes by Tallahassee Mayor Dailey, Commissioner Williams-Cox, and Richardson result in revenues that are then not placed in the City Affordable Housing Trust Fund as required by city policy. Instead, the monies are distributed to the Deficiencies Fund, under a COVID-era “policy change” made in the name of financial responsibility–in actuality an accounting loophole used to avoid spending money on affordable housing. 

Unfortunately, this irregular process has come to be viewed as “normal” by its mere repetition, the Tallahassee Democrat typifying commissioner opposition as complaining” in one article. However, this warping of process also results in extremely foreshortened periods for public input and analysis by the commissioners. In the latest example, the three commissioners voting yes ignored the relevant Frenchtown committee’s recommendation to reject the deal. In a typical gambit, Williams-Cox then indicated Frenchtown had to have input as to the developer’s use of the land, even though it is unlikely that input will have any power after the one proposed meeting with the Frenchtown community. 

What are the issues?

  • Bypassing the city’s own best-practices rules
  • Creating an atmosphere where special interests can exert more influence
  • Not using the monies received for the intended benefit to the community
Florida State University Athletics Director David Coburn Leans Into Greater Tallahassee Chamber of Commerce President Sue Dick at the December 2020 Blueprint Meeting.

3—Lack of Transparency and Public Input on Large-Scale Economic Development Projects 

While it is true that current state law allows large corporations to remain anonymous while seeking economic development funding of projects, the fact remains that local governments have the power to decide whether projects subjected to little public input should come to their communities in the first place. 

Whatever your opinion about Amazon, the creation of two huge warehouses in Tallahassee should have been subject to rigorous debate and oversight, not to mention more than a cursory environmental impact review. Other communities have fought these warehouses for very good reasons, while still others are now suffering because of such warehouses for multiple reasons. (See recent company failures during extreme weather events, resulting in loss of life.)

City and county officials let our community down by not creating a path for both commissioners and everyday people to review and debate the huge footprint of such warehouses. Further, city and county officials failed to even explore how the opportunity could be used to incentivize worker protections, like the right to unionize, leaving Tallahasseans who work for this company at risk of exploitation. County Commissioner Rick Minor stated that the $12-$15-an-hour warehouse jobs will solve the “brain drain” of students coming to Tallahassee for college and then leaving the community. This is on the face of it not only untrue but an elision of the truth that whether intentional or unintentional raises competency issues.

What Are the Issues?

  • Lack of public debate for projects with generational impacts on the community
  • Need for groups made up of everyday people to watchdog local government for further weakening of democratic and transparent process on economic development projects
  • A clear conflict of interest in county bundling of economic and environmental oversight positions
  • Demonstrably false statements by commissioners as to the effects of a particular economic development project
A member of the public speaks at a recent Blueprint Intergovernmental Agency Meeting

4—Irregularities in Blueprint Projects, including Dismissal of Public Input 

Blueprint’s processes to involve the public in decision-making are flawed, on what are often huge projects with a profound impact on Tallahassee. This may be by design, given a source who indicated Blueprint leadership has internally expressed a desire to cut back on public input and, preferably, ignore it altogether.

Who can forget the controversy over the Northeast Gateway, a developer’s wet dream paid for on the taxpayer’s dime. In December of 2019, prior to the Blueprint vote, Tallahassee Mayor John Dailey’s political consulting firmVancoreJones, worked to influence the vote by faking public support for the development project by having its employees and family members send emails in support of the project, posing as genuine public feedback. These paid consultants of both Dailey’s campaign and Blueprint itself never disclosed their conflict of interest.

More recently, a Market Square “placemaking” project–a new park adjacent to Sage restaurant and close to Premier Fitness–seems to have ignored overwhelming public input for shade trees in the park. Midway through the process, Blueprint created designs that included plenty of shade trees and excellent use of water resources for nature and pollution control.

However, a planned follow-up meeting was mysteriously delayed and the finalized plans jettisoned the design in favor of a huge, unshaded lawn. A Blueprint source indicated that the company creating the park came in with an estimate that was millions of dollars over budget, which seems ridiculous. Other credible sources indicated that the real cause was an adjacent neighborhood or business owners circumventing public input.

The current upshot is that the will of the public has been ignored, in a context where Tallahassee’s summers are only getting hotter. The further irony is that to create the park as now approved, the city may need to cut down native shade trees and native plants that have grown in the space over the past few years. 

Special interest push-back or sheer incompetence? What is clear is that Blueprint leadership has a cavalier attitude toward both public opinion and trees. (In fact, multiple people in positions to know, but no wish to be punished by Blueprint leadership, have expressed that Blueprint leadership has no interest in protecting our urban canopy, due to personal preferences that have nothing to do with facts or science.)

What Are the Issues?

  • Wasting people’s time while spending their taxpayer money makes people less likely to become involved in community projects
  • Warping the process to make it less democratic and community-oriented hurts the usability of the projects in question
  • Decisions about communal spaces and huge infrastructure projects should not include bowing to pressure from special interests
Revell looks out to the audience assembled at the Mayor’s LGBTQ+ Advisory Council, which met to question Revell about his appearance at the Billy Graham paid speaking engagement, November 1st, 2021 | OurTallahassee.com

5—Alleged Systemic Irregularities in Police Department

As first reported by Our Tallahassee, an EOCC action with DOJ probe indicates that not only Tallahassee Police Chief Revell but senior officers have allegedly engaged in behavior that disqualifies both the chief and those officers from serving Tallahassee. Whether it’s alleged discrimination or the fact that Revell spoke at a conference funded by an anti-LGBTQIA+ organization, at which he displayed contempt for the separation of church and state, there clearly is a need for change. 

Complicating the issue is how City Manager Reese Goad continues the staff consolidation of power by insulating key agency heads through direct control. In a highly irregular move, the city first offered the police chief job to St. Petersburg’s Antonio Gilliam, only to immediately undermine Gilliam’s faith that he would have control of his own agency by announcing publicly that-then Sergeant Major Lawrence Revell would be Gilliam’s Deputy Chief. When Gilliam rejected this bad-faith move, issuing a remarkable statement showing just how badly Tallahassee treated him, Goad hired Revell. This follows a pattern of Goad for the most part not hiring from outside, but consolidating his position by rewarding friends and allies.

What Are the Issues?

  • The Tallahassee Police Chief must be accountable to the public and our city commissioners, not the city manager.
  • Discrimination and unprofessional behavior should not be allowed in any local government department.
  • The amount of power held by the city manager makes it harder for the community to hold public officials accountable.
Ben Wilcox, Research Director of Integrity Florida and Tallahassee Ethics Watchdog Reviews Ethics Ordinance, 2020

6—Ethics Reform Has Stalled Due to Noncompliance by the City Manager 

The JT Burnette City Hall Public Corruption Trial made it clear that ethics reform is vital to the democratic operation of local government. Transparency with regard to the influence of special interests is vital–as is the ability for everyday people to clearly see that their elected officials have no conflicts of interest. A proposed ethics ordinance died, due to a 2-3 vote with Dailey, Richardson, and Williams-Cox opposed. The approved ethics workshop still has not been scheduled due to City Manager Reese Goad either being too busy to get around to it or willful noncompliance. More evidence of slow-walking ethics reform became crystal clear late last year when Mayor Dailey silenced Commissioner Jack Porter and abruptly adjourned a commission meeting as she was about to make a motion regarding ethics reform. 

The unwillingness of the mayor and some commissioners to commit to what amount to clear and commonsense ethics reform undercuts the credibility of these same public officials when they claim that there are no systemic issues and no more public officials engaged in corruption in our community. Why not adopt these measures to ensure that our rules match the stated intention of public conduct: to serve the community? Loopholes, fuzziness, and stalling do nothing but undercut public faith in government. 

What are the issues?

  • Under current rules, unregistered lobbyists like VancoreJones can still exert undue influence in the City and County.
  • Commissioners votes on local issues should be for the people and on behalf of the people, not on the behalf of powerful special interests.
  • Clear rules and systemic reform, not the individual efforts of specific public officials, lead to the most democratic forms of local government. 
  • Communities that do not fully address a history of worst practices in local government are condemned to allow bad actors to continue to exploit loopholes in existing ethics guidelines.
Excerpt from Leon Soil and Water Conservation District letter urging city to retain or strengthen the existing burn ordinance

7—Ongoing Weakening of Quality-of-Life City Ordinances

Tallahassee’s Tree Trimming Ordinance passed despite opposition by Commissioners Porter and Matlow, resulting in city-wide outrage from people who value the urban canopy. This unscientific approach to protecting public utilities was conducted with a disregard and butchery that not only weakened trees but also disfigured many of Tallahassee’s canopy roads. But it’s not the only assault on the city’s quality of life via ordinance.

In September of last year, Tallahassee Mayor Dailey and Commissioners Williams Cox and Richardson voted to change the burn ordinance in a way that is harmful to anyone living within city limits. Previously, Tallahassee had banned backyard burning without a permit from the fire department. Now, instead, the city allows burning as long as a landowner meets certain criteria, including setbacks from other houses and the street. Many other cities around Florida have received permission from the Florida Forest Service to have stronger burning ordinances than the state rules, but, unfortunately, city staff and the three commissioners were not interested in that option.

Along the way, the process wasted the time of many experts who provided the requisite data, which showed the science supported keeping the existing ordinance or strengthening it further, in light of Tallahassee’s growth.

Combined with the potential for increased air quality issues stemming from police helicopters, the just-approved mega-warehouses, and other development, the city should be invested in strengthening, not weakening such measures. The only individuals in the city who benefit from a weakened burn ordinance are developers and large property owners.

What Are the Issues?

  • Increased pollution should not be sanctioned by local government.
  • Already at-risk individuals, like those with asthma, suffer disproportionately from changes to law that affect the community’s quality of life.
  • Smart stewardship requires local government to offset growth with better pollution regulations, not worse regulations.
  • Local government should follow the science and not be beholden to special interests, especially when the results can adversely affect the wider community.
Candidate for City Commission, David Bellamy appears at a campaign fundraiser at CEO of Capital City Bank, Bill Smith's House and meets with Donors

8–The Hostility of Greater Tallahassee Chamber of Commerce Leadership to Reform and Accept Rule of Law

One reason for optimism in Tallahassee concerns a new wave of candidates for office, progressive and centrist reformers, that are not part of the good ol’ boy network. For decades, the legacy families of Tallahassee, and some of the wealthiest businesses, have had too much sway over local politics. In this atmosphere of renewed interest in public service, one would think that a Chamber organization that backed to the hilt two local figures convicted in a federal corruption case would show some humility and self-reflection. Instead, the Chamber has doubled down. Unwilling to listen to criticisms coming from its own rank-and-file members, the leadership of the Greater Tallahassee Chamber of Commerce has responded to the Scott Maddox/ JT Burnette trial by trying to silence reformers.

The Chamber was so proud of the Tallahassee Democrat’s coverage of State Attorney Jack Campbell’s tantrum at the 2021 Greater Tallahassee Chamber of Commerce annual retreat against progressive City Commissioner Jeremy Matlow that the leadership went so far as to host the article on their blog and promoted it in their newsletters. Then they raced to proactively back a slate of same-old candidates in upcoming commission races, trying to exert an untoward influence even greater than in the past. These candidates are so cookie-cutter that some of them use the same website template and the same consultants.

“MAGA Democrat” David Bellamy’s race against Matlow especially epitomizes the war between the past and a more hopeful future in Tallahassee.  A video recently disseminated by Bellamy’s campaign shows him bragging to a crowd of mostly all-white business owners, and executives of Capital City Bank, hosted at the house of Bill Smith, the patriarch of Tallahassee’s most historic and wealthy family. The video opens with footage of Bellamy speaking to Steve Beasley, a black campaign consultant promoting Bellamy to the black community. Bellamy pays Beasley $1,000 a month for his work in support of his campaign

What Are the Issues?

  • Republican candidates stealth-running as Democrats.
  • Special interests funding a slate of candidates with a minimum of transparency.
  • Cynically using race in a pay-to-play way that does not serve the communities in question.
  • Status quo organizations trying to hold onto power at the expense of effective governance that benefits all of Tallahassee, rather than just the rich and powerful.
A full size advertisement for the Office of Economic Development, a subsidiary of the Blueprint Intergovernmental Agency appears over the 2020 Holidays on the Tallahassee Democrat website.

9—The Tallahassee Democrat’s Soft Coverage in the Economic and Environmental Spheres

Unlike both the Orlando Sun-Sentinel and the Miami Herald, the Tallahassee Democrat has established a reputation over the past five years of giving the Greater Tallahassee Chamber of Commerce and economic development of any kind a big, uncritical thumbs up. At the same time, the Democrat lacks a dedicated environmental reporter and rarely makes the link between quality of life and the quality of our environment. Social justice, as we’ve seen in cases like Flint, Michigan’s water quality issues, is often intertwined with environmental issues. The Democrat often shows it understands how social justice affects crime, public health, and poverty–but willfully fails to draw the connection when it comes to the quality of our air, water, soil, and overall ecosystems.

Stories about developers and new development—which rarely includes affordable housing—are more or less press releases from the developers themselves and the resources and investigative reporting allocated to the newspaper’s excellent health and education coverage is completely lacking. Whether it’s sewage spills or how clearcutting our urban canopy makes us less resilient in a time of climate crisis, the Democrat’s voice is notably absent or underwhelming. 

It is worthy of scrutiny when the very economic development agency the newspaper reports on spends thousands of dollars on advertisements over the same time period. It is unknown how much money Amazon has paid the Tallahassee Democrat for a countless number of advertisements since Amazon began exploring expansion into Tallahassee.

Whatever the reasons, the paper of record’s lack of incisive reporting in these areas renders invisible a host of issues affecting the community that are inextricably interwoven with the idea of responsible and equitable economic growth. If you are unwilling to publish disinformation or misinformation about, for example, the pandemic, you shouldn’t be willing to publish disinformation or misinformation on other subjects.

What Are the Issues?

  • Visibility for critical issues affecting public health and safety often go under-reported or not reported at all due to the Democrat’s anti-environmental bias.
  • Special interests have an outsized voice in the newspaper, as the environmental lobby in town has little clout to counterbalance this and no insider access.
  • Already at-risk and poor communities often suffer more from the lack of coverage of environmental issues.

Since we launched, we’ve been proud to break stories that have been picked up on the local, state, and national level, but we rely on our readers for your feedback, tips, leads, and insights. Have a correction? Want to offer a quote, or pitch us a story? e-mail us at admin@ourtallahassee.com. 

9 Responses

  1. I am so very grateful for Jeff Vandermeer’s laser eye into Tallahassee’s woefully undemocratic governance I am thankful for Commissioners Jeremy Matlow and Jack Porter and I wish retiring Commissioner Dozier would run against Mayor Dailey.

  2. Brilliant, incisive commentary. Mr. Vandermeer is exactly on point.
    Many thanks for summing up Tallahassee’s governmental problems so well. Now, lets get MOVING on a solution.

  3. This article is most enlightening as well as disturbing. We elect our government officials to serve in our best interest but that is not the case. The Tallahassee citizens are being given bad information as well as horrible decision making and leadership by our city and county government. This is most disturbing to me as a voter and a resident of this community.

  4. It is time to give neighborhood associations and CONA resources needed to survive and thrive. Neighborhood associations must be supported by the city and county with dollars and skills. Grass roots democracy can be obtained with community organizers using the tools of advocacy planning. Neighborhood and Community associations should determine priorities for project spending. Residents must be empowered to determine their future.

    Otherwise our future will continue to be determined by elites such as those who have recently been convicted and jailed.

  5. Thanks!.. I have been out of touch a few years and sad to see we are growing…just like LA,Miami,Atlanta,….not learning frim their mistakes.

  6. In addition to the listed problems with Blueprint money is the mayor’s plan to use 18 million to put the new high tech senior center inside the Canopy, a private residential development. This center will have the only public gym in the city. In effect this is using Blueprint money to promote the sale of housing to mostly white, wealthy future residents of Tallahassee.

  7. This should be printed in the Tallahassee Democrat on the front page. Perhaps if we pay them enough they will print it. Very insightful article!

  8. Why are we spending $100 million dollars for a private road from the airport to FSU’s campus? We already have a brand new Capital Circle restoration that gets you to and from the airport.
    BLUEPRINT strikes again.

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