Get Specific or Get Rolled: Fighting Lakeland’s “Darkness Visible”

I’ve attended any number of police Town Hallish events over the years. And LPD’s on Monday night went about as I expected. The over-under on speaker references to unfair Baker Acts is always 2. We hit that exactly.

And there’s always the funny woman saying/doing something outrageous to make the entire uproar seem ridiculous. Thus, we had the former LPD officer pulling a small arsenal of nick-nacks and what-nots out of her bra and waving to the crowd. See, the bra shake is totally legitimate, cuz “Women carry lots of things in their brassieres.” It was pretty funny. I have to admit.

Otherwise, we had an epidemic of non-sequitors, pronouns referencing non-existent nouns, and expressions of personal loyalty, mostly unearned and unconditional. Basically, the public and official comment went as follows. The questions are mine:

Let’s get through “this.” Let’s handle “it.”

What is “this” or “it”? And how will we handle and get through this or it?

By working through the “process.”

Oh, ok. What is that? And who should work the process that will help us get through this and it?

Why, the chief and city manager and city attorney other city officials, supported by the public. It’s time to work the process as a team. And we support the chief/city manager/city attorney et. al. so we can get through it. They’re doing a great job.

Based on what?

The Ledger is mean. And, of course, if you’re mad at the police, why do you call 911?

In Paradise Lost, Milton used the phrase “darkness visible” to describe the light in hell. Author William Styron used it as the title of his memoir of depression. I’d say we’ve reached the clinical depression/hell phase of the LPD Pirhana scandal now. We’re post outrage. For the public, we’ve entered the paralyzing-inaction-that-you-can’t-really-explain-will-this-all-just-go-away phase.

The chief beneficiaries of darkness visible are Chief Lisa Womack, City Manager Doug Thomas, and City Attorney Tim McCausland. (By the way, even in midst of the worst scandal in recent Lakeland history, which he did nothing to avert, McCausland continued to publicly exude snarky contempt for his clients. Pretty amazing, really.) The current fog of generality and uncertainty is bad for changing an organization’s “culture,” whatever that means. But it’s good for highly paid executives who want to keep their jobs. Unless people with power start to make specific points and call for specific action, the entire matter will collapse into a singularity of obtuse pointlessness and bureaucratic inertia. Much like Gow’s “committee” is collapsing under the unbearable weight of its own nothingness.

Before that happens, here are a few specific points and recommendations to consider:

1) At this point, the entirety of the Pirhana scandal, all the action, is about what happens to the city executives. That’s the “this” and the “it.” The police officers named are either gone already or will be. They’ll apparently get to keep their pensions. But they won’t be our problem anymore. But will Womack, Thomas, and McCausland stay? Do they face any “accountability?” That’s the only question that’s still to some degree a question. Are you, the citizen, satisfied with their leadership? I am not. As I said to them Monday night, this “culture” thrived under this leadership. I see no evidence whatsoever that it won’t thrive again under this same leadership. Just watch the meeting and look at the contempt that McCausland feels comfortable exuding for commissioners and the public. Do you think he cares about what city employees do as long as he has a “defensible” position for himself and the city?

2) All evidence suggests that leadership behavior and/or incompetence is not part of any internal or external investigation or review. But fear not, Doug Thomas has thought long and hard about why his policies and processes failed. Soon enough he’ll get around to the process of creating new processes.

That’s the extent of the review/investigation that senior level behavior and competence will receive. The city government’s leaders have given themselves immunity from any investigation.

And the elected City Commission either agrees, is too timid to object, or too busy hosting prayer vigils asking God to help LPD officers not to act like dirtbags.

3) Jerry Hill and The Ledger have been relentlessly specific through this entire affair. The objections and responses from the PD and city government and assorted supporters have been content-free, generic whines. Stop being mean to us, you meanies. Don’t you know every agency has a sexual piranha scandal. And a bra shake scandal. And a spitter scandal. And a withholding public documents scandal. And a road rage beat down of teenager scandal. And a DUI document fabrication scandal. And a we-won’t-use-you-as-witness-scandal. And a you-can’t-see-the-grand-jury-presentment scandal. Within the space of 6 months or so. So stop picking on us. The chief’s doing a great job. And so are Doug and Tim.

There is a faction out there that hates The Ledger and Jerry Hill so much that nothing else matters. One wonders if they would ignore hurricane warnings if The Ledger reported them, just because there must some political good-ole-boys thing at work and bias against low pressure. (By the way, who the hell are the “good-ole-boys” any more? What a tired and useless phrase. Can we retire it, please?)

Memo to the Jerry Hill and Ledger-haters: When one side has details and testimony and the other can only bleat about generic political bias, it’s pretty good indicator. You need not stop hating The Ledger and Jerry Hill to recognize that.

4) Gow told the town hall audience that he has read the sealed grand jury presentment that he and the city have spent more than $250,000 of our money fighting to keep secret. Regretfully, Gow said, he’s only allowed to tell you what’s not in it. But don’t worry, it has nothing to do with the piranha scandal or bra shake or any of the other issues that have become so explosive.

I don’t think that’s quite the winning argument Gow thinks it is. Wait, you mean there’s other stuff? And you’re fighting to the death — or at least the pain — to keep it hidden in order to protect a few employees? Well, I guess that’s plausible, because we all have seen how seriously Lakeland takes the protection of its employees.

5) The people who have resigned from Gow’s silly commission should form their own. Nowhere is it written that all committees must emerge like Adam from the mayor’s sacred finger. The resigners lead four of the most important institutions in town and include the Ruthven patriarch. Any thing they say as a group in public will carry weight. Any recommendation; any commentary on how Lakeland city government has behaved; any personnel suggestions from the group would matter. And they wouldn’t need to haggle with the city about access they weren’t going to receive anyway. Just read Jerry Hill’s report and make suggestions.

6) If nothing else, the City Commission should hire an organizational ombudsman that answers only to it, like the city manager and city attorney do. This will be very important if things continue on this path.

In my observation, survival matters much more for city executives than fixing the culture or even figuring out how this all happened. The bureaucratic tenacity on display Monday night was impressive–and telling.

They answered the questions that helped them; ignored the ones that didn’t; and smothered those they couldn’t avoid in clouds of legalistic and linguistic nerve gas. They’re fighting to stay right where they are. And they’re fighting for keeps. Nothing else matters.

And if they win, I suspect it will be open season on anyone suspected of bureaucratic disloyalty during this time. Employees need a channel that does not answer to the existing city leadership. And a formal whistleblower channel, insulated from the command structure, seems to me like a solid organizational feature that can help prevent scandals like these from getting so enormous.

Whatever we do, imagine that you’re a smart young technocrat with options and a conscience. Knowing what you know about all that’s gone one here, why would you think about working in this organization if you had any choice at all?

5 thoughts on “Get Specific or Get Rolled: Fighting Lakeland’s “Darkness Visible”

  1. I agree with you on every point. I don’t think putting all the usual characters on the committee will result in much real progress. What is needed is a few members of the committee that will ask the hard questions, the ones the commission and management don’t want to talk about. Without a few rebels there is little hope that the committee will have much respect with the general population.

  2. Nothing seems to have changed. LPD still seems intent on trying to withold records. I don’t see any reason to think absurd searches will cease. It all seems to roll back to that grand jury presentment and their determination to keep it sealed. If it has nothing in it, why have they invested so much keeping it sealed?

  3. A few thoughts after watching the Lakeland PD Advisory Committee on LGTV:

    1) I’m sorry that former Mayor Frank O’Reilly apparently had a death in his family, so he was unable to attend the group’s initial meeting. When it comes to a possible Chairman, I would suggest former Mayor O’Reilly, now a member of the Polk County School Board. His experience as a former city official and knowledge of the city and the face that he’s “out of the system” may be very helpful toward leading this type of group. Shortly after I arrived in Florida over 25 years ago, I was honored to serve on Winter Haven’s Human Relations Committee after it was initially formed, one year as Chairman. Of course, we didn’t have any of the type of situations that LPD now faces, And watching the meeting, I noticed that it would be good to have at least a few couple of more “working” people involved, instead of a select number of business leaders and executives.

    2) As far as meetings, a weekly meeting would be good in the beginning. As for where, a good idea would be to schedule for a variety of locations; for instance, one at the Main Library, another at the Jackson Branch Library on North Florida Street. But not at the Lakeland Center anymore, and not late evenings or at night. I would hope that more people would make the time. Besides, the last buses leave the downtown terminal at 6:15 PM.

    Just some notes.

  4. Ultimately, what is the goal here? It’s not like the public has any real authority to make changes until election season (and even then it’s dubious), so the only approach left to us is mindless bitching or burying our heads in the sand.

    And for their part, the city seems to be doing a decent job of hosting as many meetings, town halls and get-togethers to give us the feeling of “being heard” without the burden of having to actually do anything about it. We can vent until we feel better (or grow weary of the effort), and they can immediately ignore it all and get back to business as usual.

    So is all this just to let us feel like we have a voice, or some sway in the process, to avoid the niggling reality that we have no actual ability to affect the outcome? I’d rather accept that I’m powerless than pretend that I’m not.

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