Let me first stipulate that I know next to nothing about the specifics of the Florida Commission on Ethics’ smackdown of Lakeland’s former mayor, Buddy Fletcher. But he certainly doesn’t seem to be fighting to clear his name.
Maybe I’d know more if The Ledger had written about it more than three times over the last year. That includes today’s story that, oh by the way, mentions: “Fletcher would have faced the possibility or removal from office had he not retired.”
As it is, he’s looking at fines of up to $20,000 for conflicts of interest while serving the public.
Shockingly, the story didn’t even make it above the fold on A1. A speculative piece about casinos was deemed more important.
Contrast that to how The Ledger treated allegations against the Polk County Opportunity Council, the controversial housing and anti-poverty agency that brought itself ignominy over the years. Back in 2006 or so, we at The Ledger started crawling down PCOC’s throat over a series of shenanigans with public money. Day after day, we pounded it. Two dozen stories, probably, accopanied by tsking editorials. I remember. I was the editor that supervised much of the coverage, and we didn’t accept “ignorance” as an excuse. Heck, even U.S. Rep. Adam Putnam, R-Bartow, was so concerned with public integrity that he swooped down from his perch in Congress to criticize PCOC and strip or reform various funding mechanisms for it. All of this was legitimate scrutiny. PCOC was broken. Our reporting caused official agencies to get involved.
But let’s be very honest, PCOC was also the lowest of low-hanging fruit. An agency that served primarly poor, African-American clients. Nobody pushed back on its behalf. No reporter or editor was going catch any social guff for going after it. It was a classic case of the faux public service too much institutional journalism tuts tuts about while ignoring the high-hanging fruit because it’s hard, people do push back, and there is social guff to take.
Fast forward to Buddy. I like the guy. It’s hard not to. But it’s a little nauseating to read the encomiums handed down at the aristocracy’s – errr, the Chamber’s – going away gala knowing this stuff was out there. Just another case of the important people embracing their own. You would think in a supposedly conservative county there might be social stigma attached to ethical violations. Yes, I know, cackle. I’m still waiting for Adam Putnam to swoop down and call for reforms to the way Lakeland city commissioners do business because of Buddy’s shenanigans. I will not hold my breath. Most of all, it would be nice if The Ledger would do any original reporting – as opposed to noting when someone else makes complaints or judgments – on what the “leaders” in our community do.
Bottom line, if you’re Buddy Fletcher, or J.D. Alexander, or some comparable figure, you can do whatever the hell you want, safe in the knowledge that your local check on institutional power will do absolutely nothing to check you. Sigh.