Frank’s Friends Are a Minority — and a Problem

I have a soft spot for Frank O’Reilly. He was giving the business to predatory charter schools, generally, and Harold Maready, specifically, before it was cool. Even before me.

Before that, he used to light up the Polk County Builders Association over obstinate impact fee objections. I once called Frank “the only card-carrying member of the Polk County elite who ever directly challenges its self-satisifed mediocrity.”

All that makes this really unfortunate:

“I and many of my friends are sick and tired of reading about it and sick and tired of hearing it,” O’Reilly said. He urged commissioners to come together to support Womack and Thomas.

Let me respond directly, Frank: My friends and I are not sick and tired of reading about it. We’re sick and tired of the self-serving mediocrity of your generation of failed Lakeland leadership. We’re sick and tired of your friends.

And with respect, we just kicked your butt and your friends’ butts in two fair elections. (Yes, Jim Malless’ easy defeat of Ricky Shirah in the runoff counts. Shirah attached himself closely to the chief. I witnessed it repeatedly.)

So perhaps, Frank, you can explain to me why anyone should give a flying foxbat what makes your friends sick and tired. Feel free to start the explanation now.

Indeed, Frank’s really unfortunate quote illustrates just how important it was that Howard Wiggs turned the mayoral election into a referendum on Womack and Doug — and that Shirah turned his election into a referendum on Womack.

Had Gow defeated Howard, and had Shirah beaten Malless, Gow would be saying in His Gowish way, “The public has spoken. It’s time to move on.”

But Gow and Shirah got whipped. Gow’s about to return full-time to whatever Gowish things he did and does when we’re not obliged to listen to him Gowishly explain why we’re stupid. And those city commissioners who followed Gow’s lead are reduced to this:

“Even though we have all these challenges, this is a city that went on undeterred,” Yates said. “With all the, not just clouds, thunderstorms going on this is a city that went on.”

That sounds like a Celine Dion song. Honestly, by that standard, I’m pretty sure you could make my 10-year-old son the city manager. Lakeland would still be here this time next year. It would go on. As a performance measure, continued existence is about as close to the soft tyranny of low expectations as one is likely to encounter. Most death row inmates continue to live from year-to-year. Do we congratulate and reward them for it?

And there’s this:

At one point, Walker said the city can’t seem to move beyond the troubles at the department.

“We never talk about the positive, and we always have the negative,” he said. “Things have turned around in some respect.”

Walker then lashed out at Troller.

“You look at me like I’m some idiot, Commissioner Troller, but I’m not,” Walker said.

“Excuse me,” Troller said.

“You heard me,” Walker said.

Those, dear readers, are weak arguments and increasingly raw divisions. And you, dear readers and voters, made them weak and divided. You took away Edie’s or Phillip’s or Gow’s or Frank’s ability to argue that the public, the voters, are satisfied with Doug’s and Womack’s and McCausland’s performance.

No one has an argument for “moving on” other than personal discomfort.

We who are not Frank’s friends don’t have much power. But not much is not the same as none. That thing we’re all supposed to worship that we call representative democracy gives us the power to confer legitimacy. Howard gave us an avenue for exercising this limited power. And exercise it we did. This election was never about empowering Howard — sorry Howard. It was about empowering our friends rather than Frank’s.

So, sorry, haters and whiners, that means this ain’t over. Not close to over. The Lakeland public you servant leaders are supposed to serve has told you, through legitimate American democracy, that it wants the city manager, police chief, and probably city attorney, gone.

When that happens, you can move on and talk about happy things, Phillip.

But as long as the state of my city speech becomes Doug Thomas’ personal pity party and a platform for Frank’s friends, I shall be obliged to retort.

I found it fascinating that Bill Mutz played a feature role as one of Doug’s lead pity partiers. As some of you may know, Bill from time-to-time gives leadership talks at various clubs. He came to my Kiwanis club a while back.

He opened the talk by going off on those darn kids these days. You know: We’ve raised the laziest, most entitled, self-centered generation of young people EVAH. Blah blah blah. I’m paraphrasing; but that was essentially it.

Predictably, I objected; and we had a frank exchange of views about the quality of kids these days. Bill retreated a bit and said he was really talking about a somewhat older generation of kids. At that point, I sort of lost the demographic thread. I never did quite grasp what kid bashing had to do with leadership. I thought of all this again while reading Doug’s pity party story. What a spectacle Bill made of himself.

He gives presentations on leadership that publicly trash an entire generation of faceless kids — and thus their faceless parents — as self-centered and entitled. And yet he publicly praises and sympathizes with an actual, important, true life example of miserable leadership failure and self-centered attachment to a taxpayer-funded job. You guys wonder why I roll my eyes every time the ridiculous phrase servant leader comes out of anyone’s mouth.

Here’s a fact: It’s simply much easier to lie about and bash someone you don’t know than it is to speak honestly about a friend in a public setting. I suspect that’s what’s going on here. Bill Mutz probably knows Doug well. Maybe he considers him a friend. Maybe they go to church together. I don’t know. But I feel pretty comfortable assuming that Mutz, Frank, and Frank’s friends consider Doug one of them. And they generally protect their own.

Doug’s professional reputation is not coming back. Never. Ever. Not here. He’s a failed city manager, whose only leadership in the last year has been in showing other bureaucrats how to tenaciously cling to their lucrative, taxpayer-funded jobs. When this broke, he could have shown professional honor and resigned. Or he could have even offered a provisional resignation and given the commission the chance to vote on it six months. Those would have been acts of leadership that put the city before himself.

But at all times, Doug’s instinct was to protect himself, not his city. His concern was keeping his job, not doing his job. I’m very sorry that has caused his family pain. But those are the consequences of his actions. How many times have you heard that phrase from leadership types? Many families experience excruciating pain for actions far less egregious than the failures of public trust Doug has overseen. It would be nice if Bill and Frank’s friends expressed an ounce of the same compassion for them that pours out of them for Doug and his family.

I wish we lived in a world where we could separate the personal from the professional or the moral. I’ll probably see Frank tomorrow at Kiwanis. And I genuinely like and enjoy him. I like Doug as a guy. But that’s a meaningless disclaimer, isn’t it? I cannot and do not expect to write and say the things I do without personal consequences — for both the real people with real feelings I criticize and for me and my family. Personal awkwardness is the least of it.

Everything is personal — especially the professional and the moral. We all have to make personal decisions about how we prioritize each of those. Leaders have to manage the balance in public. And that comes with personal consequences — both for the leaders and the led. That’s inescapable. That’s what makes it leadership. It’s hard.

For a long time, we’ve done government and leadership by friendship in this town. It’s got nothing whatsoever to do with partisanship or ideology. Liberal or conservative is no match for dinner party guest. And government by friendship is the opposite of democracy. It’s the opposite of freedom. It’s the root of corruption. I believe that we are all — myself certainly included — vulnerable to that lure. And there’s a real price for fighting it: sometimes you turn friends into enemies, at least temporarily. Sometimes it’s permanent.

My friends and I have played by the rules, Frank. We’ve organized and led and used the American system of government to defeat your friends in the fight for public legitimacy. You and your friends might have the power to wait us out. You might have the power to keep Doug Thomas in the lifestyle to which he’s become accustomed. But that’s all you have power to do. And is that the way you want cap your distinguished career of public service and advocacy? I hope not.

In any event, you don’t have the power to argue that you and your friends speak for the public. We took that power from you. And we’re not done. Not by a damn sight.

Like Bill Mutz, like the rest of leadership class of this city, you’ve got a choice to make. Stand with democratic public legitimacy; or stand with your friends.

Which side are you on?

2 thoughts on “Frank’s Friends Are a Minority — and a Problem

  1. It’s the money, Billy. He’ll get a lot more if they fire him than if he resigns. Since job prospects after this debacle are pretty thin, it’s hard to blame Thomas.

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