Untended Power: How Lakeland Leaders Failed Lisa Womack and Each Other

Power is the soil of leadership. When it’s cultivated, deployed, and restrained with care and expansive purpose, it can produce bounty. When you look at all the pretty things you like in this city, you may think you’re looking at sound, forward-looking policy. What you’re really looking at is power. Because there is no policy without power. All those pretty position papers and sensible development rules mean nothing without the power and will to enforce them against the real people who always seek to subvert them.

Thus, when you look at the stunted harvest that is LPD, you see ill-managed power and poisoned organizational soil. It shouldn’t be this way. On paper, LPD is extremely well-funded and full of sparkly policies and directives. But life isn’t lived on paper. Ask Lisa Womack.

Just because Chief Womack is a scapegoat — and she is — doesn’t mean she didn’t cause her own scapegoatation. Nor does it mean she didn’t have to go. I have never understood the cries of sexism — never backed with a single tangible example of the sexism — that came from some of the chief’s defenders.

Commissioner Phillip Walker’s uninformed allusions to 19th Century sexism and racism in Womack’s departure are silly (funny how he’s good with how gay rights in the 19th century, by the way). And yet, one must acknowledge today that Womack is on her way out while good ole boys Doug Thomas and Tim McCausland are still sitting at the dais collecting very big checks filled with your money. One can be excused for seeing some unfortunate isms at work there.

And it will be fascinating to see if Walker — and the liberalish folks who supported the chief for reasons of identity — follow their own logic to where it leads: Thomas and McCausland.

I think honest review shows that Womack is a subset of the problem, a smaller piece of the Venn Diagram of dysfunction that is choking the soil of our city. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t very real reasons that she can’t be chief anymore.

The Chief’s Failures

Here’s what I think the evidence and reasonable analysis of the record show.

1) LPD, as an institution, has suffered from two deep, longstanding cultural problems:

— A general sense of contempt for the public it serves and an operational-level expectation of impunity for whatever its officers did. Look at the many, many examples of bad behavior, and you’ll see this reflected over and over again. Look at the seemingly endless amount of power-imbalanced sexual behavior that has been the signature of both LPD and Lakeland government dysfunction. Too often, LPD has not taken its power seriously as anything but a license.

— A nasty internal factionalism, which is an entirely predictable outgrowth of an Alpha-Dog, king-of-the-hill gets his way culture of agency power. That culture will turn on itself. It always does.

2) Both of those endemic problems existed well before Womack came on board. But my goodness, did she ever fit right in to the Alpha Dog culture. Her career record shows this quite clearly. There was no stakeholder relationship she couldn’t turn into a power struggle and no power struggle she couldn’t escalate gratuitously. The utter failure to recognize this before he hired her — and then to tame it afterward — is reason number one Doug Thomas needs to go. (More on that and the other reasons in a minute.)

3) I see no evidence that Womack ever tried to confront and change either of those two cultural problems. I detailed this long ago in this post. No one has ever shown a shred of evidence to the contrary.

4) Worse, I do think she picked a collection of favorites and took a side in the factionalism. Testimony in the State Attorney’s report shows that many of her favorites were implicated in the Sue Eberle scandal. It’s worth remembering that I asked Thomas and city leaders — to their faces — if they planned to investigate the allegations of factional favoritism. They blew me off. So, we’re left with inferential speculation. But it seems clear that Womack’s favored faction included the leaders of its SWAT culture. See again this post.

I do not believe it’s a coincidence that at the same time LPD was repeatedly winning or nearly winning national SWAT championships on some playing field, it was routinely preying on the public with impunity. Again, this predates Womack but continued under her. SWAT is power. It is the power to kick down a door, set off miniature explosives, shoot people’s pets, and hold people’s kids at gun point. It is the power of violent violation, an instrument of state-sanctioned terror. On rare occasions, it is necessary. But it’s used entirely too often and has become a blight on policing generally. That power should never, ever be treated like a football game. And yet you had this, from one of the key figures of the Eberle scandal:

The Police Department has a long tradition of competing and placing high, said Sgt. David Woolverton, who led this year’s first-place team. It puts Lakeland on the map in law enforcement circles.

“Ask the Los Angeles Police Department where Lakeland, Fla., is,” he said. “They know.”

LPD should not care if LAPD knows about Lakeland, Florida. It should care about the manner in which it polices the people over whom it has awesome power. I can think of nothing more pointless to policing than celebrating victory in the mock application of power. It’s almost as pointless as saying accreditation on paper is more important than the experience of the people you serve and protect in real life.

5) The result of all of this was a department out of control. It was, I think, a department where everyone knew that kicking down doors was rewarded. Thus, its officers treated far too many people and situations like doors to kick down. The Eberle scandal was just the bomb that blew everything up. It demonstrated in the ugliest way this mutilated relationship with power that extended well into LPD leadership.

Eberle followed the “spitter”, the bra shake, the gratuitous traffic funnel, the kid beat down by a road raged off-duty officer, the promotion of problem officers, etc. etc. All shared a common element: unrestrained power that expected compliance and submission in every situation — the essence of SWAT culture.

All of this was happening as Womack picked utterly pointless public fights over public records with The Ledger and allowed her officers to behave with cavalier indifference toward the responsibilities of trial preparation. LPD preyed on the public and itself while needlessly antagonizing its two most important institutional stakeholders — the state attorney and local newspaper. That’s unspeakably awful leadership.

I remember sending a tweet months before the Eberle scandal urging Doug Thomas to “get your department under control.” The department was a disaster long before Sue Eberle provided her brutal detail. Her sexual dysfunction did not cause the bra shake.

The Men Who are Still in Charge

For all Womack’s very real missteps, I believe Thomas and McCausland have greater ultimate responsibility.

I think the record shows that Doug Thomas manages paper, not people. He’s more comfortable drafting policy than driving solutions. And he has shown that given the choice in a terrible crisis between doing his job and keeping his job, he will seek to keep his job. These are perfectly recognizable human traits. They don’t make Doug a bad person. But they make him a bad city manager for Lakeland in 2014. And honestly, I’m not sure what Tim McCausland does other than give bad legal advice and treat commissioners and the public alike with a smarmy contempt.

Let’s review why:

1) Thomas should never have hired Womack. As Rick Rousos’ fantastic and thorough story documented, he conducted a sloppy search myopically focused on accreditation, not culture or on-the-ground performance. He ignored Womack’s combative history or didn’t make himself aware of it. Neither is acceptable. Most tellingly, other local governments who did their homework passed on Womack. I think, in Doug’s view of government, process matters more than results. But in Womack’s case, both failed.

2) Look at that bad hire in the wider context of both LPD and the general city government. Everyone seems to agree that LPD has a longstanding culture of contempt and impunity. This has been the number one excuse offered by the chief’s supporters — that all of this pre-dated her. But that’s not a good argument for Doug Thomas or Tim McCausland. Doug’s been city manager for a decade. At what point can police department’s culture be said to reflect the culture of city leadership? It’s important to remember that Chief Roger Boatner lost a truly one-sided no-confidence vote before his departure. Looking back at Doug’s behavior, one does not sense any professional urgency to attack the real problems at LPD. As always, he attacked the paper, in the form of accreditation.

It seems he just wanted to hire the chief, get accreditation re-established, and wash his hands of the thorny pathologies of his most important department. You can’t do that as a manager or leader.

Thomas and McCausland and Womack should have worked closely with Jerry Hill on a legal and administrative strategy for identifying and neutralizing problem officers. It might not have worked. I am actually quite sympathetic to the challenges of changing an organizational culture, particularly one with the personnel protections of a police department. But I expect my leaders to try, to publicly identify problems, and to describe efforts at reform. Instead, the most logical reading of the record indicates that Womack simply sought to co-opt the Alpha Dogs, the problem officers who had the most internal juice.

3) Once Thomas and McCausland were stuck with Womack, they indulged her public fights rather than ending them. I don’t have any fancy masters of public administration degree, but I promise you this: I would have had Womack, Jerry Hill, and Lenore Devore in the same room at the first hint of a public feud. Those feuds would have ended instantly — or Womack’s tenure would have ended.

If Doug Thomas had done that, Lisa Womack would still be police chief. By allowing her to make straight up enemies of The Ledger and Jerry Hill, Doug Thomas all but signed her pink slip. As always, the failure to confront a festering problem only leads to greater fester.

If McCausland had put the kibosh on the “cat and mouse” game with public records, Womack would likely have avoided the grand jury. Had McCausland quashed the unbelievably stupid, counterproductive, expensive, and fruitless decision to fight public release of the presentment, it would have come and gone as an issue long ago. Instead, it came out — along with a stinging court opinion — at the time it was able to do the most damage to Womack. Is this what you’re paying your city attorney for, commissioners? Or is it his work on his pension?

4) When the Eberle story broke, top city administrators faced a choice. Aggressively acknowledge and fix problems, including problems with their leadership, or hunker down and hope the whole thing blows over. They picked the latter.

That became most obvious at the dreadful public meeting at the Lakeland Center. Here’s a link to my account of that. I wrote this at the time and stand by it today:

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.

That never changed. I can’t name a single meaningful action that Thomas or McCausland took. Even to the end, Doug never acted. If you buy the official story, he simply accepted Womack’s resignation. And all this time, he and McCausland continued to bank your money.

5) Let us remember that systemic abuses of power in Lakeland city government did not stop with LPD. To this point, Thomas’ tenure is bookended by HR directors who abused their power and behaved disgracefully. That first HR director was accused in one of the most awful of the Eberle incidents. As I wrote long ago:

And, according to Eberle’s testimony in the report, the action came right into City Hall in 2004, through employee relations director George Brooks. Let me repeat that: Employee. Relations. Director.

According to the state attorney’s report, “Brooks was very flirtatious and asked Eberle many times for sex…All of their contact was in person at City Hall.”

And on one occasion in 2004, Brooks and Eberle were alone in Brooks’s office and he closed the door. He undressed Eberle enough to be able to “cut some pubic hair from Eberle. He put the pubic hair in an envelope and told Eberle he wanted something to remember her by.”

I believe Brooks predated Thomas. You can’t blame Doug for hiring him. And let’s charitably assume that Doug had no idea about Brooks’ behavior. Fine. But you can’t really be charitable about the Tommy Hamrick HR scandal from earlier this year. Hamrick was Doug’s handpicked guy, and another example of his hiring judgement. It took less than a year for Hamrick to bring the wrath of multiple women and the EEOC down upon himself.

Unfortunately, it seems that too many of the wrong people and traits thrive and rise under Doug Thomas’ organizational management. The Hamrick hire and the Womack hire make a pattern, as does the fact that Thomas’ tenure started with problems in LPD and HR, and those problems remain. Commissioners, do you trust Doug to hire the next police chief and HR director? Based on what we’ve all seen? Why?

Three cheers for the Lakeland public

There’s a snide saying I used to repeat fondly when elections didn’t go my way: People get the government they deserve. I have come to realize that’s crap. People cast votes or don’t cast votes for many reasons. I am not superior to them because I always show up at the polls. And frankly, I think the most important votes often come outside the voting booth.

The unsung heroes of this story are the everyday Lakelanders who reported the bra shake; wouldn’t accept an abusive arrest for spitting; who complained about Tommy Hamrick’s work environment; who kept insisting that someone stop Julio Pagan even after LPD officers ignored them. This city owes a debt of gratitude to the men and women who would not quietly submit to unjust power.

They, not the Leadership Lakeland crowd, brought a chance at reform. The people who brought down Lisa Womack and focused the attention on McCausland and Thomas are often the same people whose children leaders won’t let their kids go to school with. And that makes sense when you consider the abuse the leaders allow themselves and their children to take in the name of keeping the rabble out.

I went through this pretty thoroughly in my “Frank’s friends” post. And I want to invite Frank O’Reilly or Bruce Abels or Bill Mutz to respond to me here. Tell me why what I’ve written is wrong. You can have a free shot, unedited. I won’t even comment on it. Email me at bitown1@gmail.com.

In any event, I think it’s vital to note that many of the “leaders” of this community have been showering Thomas and McCausland in reassurance and emotional protection. I understand the loyalty of friendship and respect it, even when it has deleterious effect on the public.

But I wonder if “Frank’s friends” have ever considered that a little more tough love from them months ago might have helped their friend and their chief survive with their jobs and reputations intact. But it’s too late now. The latter is gone — and the former is on the clock.

And the human cost of this pointless, ugly battle of attrition is terrible — from the victims of bad government to Womack and Doug and Gow and their families to the fired officers and their families to The Ledger reporters and editors who take constant abuse. Almost no one is getting out of this unmaimed. It’s very, very sad. It is what happens when our leaders forget to take their power seriously and fail to treat it with the care it demands.

One thought on “Untended Power: How Lakeland Leaders Failed Lisa Womack and Each Other

  1. Billy: another well-written column, but there’s a thread of thought where I’d take issue. Though I’ve only followed the past six months from afar, you know LPD and Womack were much on my mind from her hire until I left Lakeland.

    Given that a scapegoat is best defined as “singled out for unmerited negative treatment” I’d say Womack fails the test. Her own actions and policies brought about her downfall. Though they were exacerbated by the LPD sex scandal, mismanagement by her boss and the lack of common sense by many of the commissioners, please don’t forget Womack brought about her own downfall. She merits her negative treatment.

    She had plenty of opportunities to see her policies were hurting the community. Her hubris and proven inability to learn from mistakes kept her from forestalling this failure of leadership.

    On the contrary, she spoke again and again on her strong belief that she was doing right by the city. This months long train wreck has unfolded slowly, but I hope the city can take less time to right the damage caused by her tenure.

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