The introduction to today’s column is presented by the resurrected voice of Rod Serling, legendary host of the legendary “Twilight Zone” television series.
Consider, if you will, a peaceful little town near the heart of a tropical state in the American South, a living, breathing theme park full of boutiques, antiques and friendly cafes, a place where nothing much ever changes and that’s just how the residents like it.
But sometimes appearances deceive, and lately a current of unrest brought about by the hasty actions of strong-armed politicians has threatened the tranquility of our little village, and even the state’s Legislature has taken notice. And there, just now, emerging from a modest office on a shady street just beyond the downtown square, is the elected official who’s been targeted as a result of commissioners needlessly giving the town a black eye.
The official’s crime? He tried to stop his colleagues from doing the wrong thing in the wrong fashion. Now, for the temerity of being a stand-up guy, Scott Black has drawn an opponent in his re-election bid. Meanwhile, the instigator of the intrigue that embarrassed the town, damaged its small treasury and may yet bring a rebuke from state lawmakers has been re-elected without opposition.
The signpost up ahead says you’re coming into Dade City, but that odd tingle in the air says our destination is somewhere altogether different, somewhere strange and unexpected, and lorded over by a sharply dressed woman in heels and perfect makeup. So welcome, you fans of the politically dysfunctional. Welcome to ... “The Twilight Zone.”
Yes, Scott Black, the occasional mayor of Dade City and the board’s ethical North Star, has drawn an opponent for the April 8 election. Black, a reliable hand who first won election to the commission in 1990, will be tested by Angelica Herrera, heroically active on behalf of Lock Street residents struggling to build better lives.
This is in no way a complaint about Herrera’s decision. It is, in fact, quite the healthy development, even if voters elect Black to a seventh term. Unchallenged, officials tend toward sloppy thinking, self-importance and a dangerous sense of invincibility. Combined, these qualities often precipitate bad governance, as we witnessed in October.
To refresh: Mere days before Halloween, a workshop convened to sort out the merits and details of splitting the duties of clerk and finance director (conducted for 21 years by Jim Class) ended precipitously, without notice or opportunity for public comment, with a vote to sever the jobs. That night, three egregious votes (by Commissioners Jim Shive and Eunice Penix, and Mayor Camille Hernandez) beat the vigorous and, by every account, wiser objections brought by Black and veteran Commissioner Bill Dennis.
The fallout has been in every way embarrassing and painful for Dade City. Class left for a job at the school district. Deputy Clerk Joanna Akers, tabbed for promotion and a $2,882 raise, cited personal reasons to opt instead for less responsibility and fewer hours. Last month, commissioners filled the open slots, increasing their payroll by $36,000, a whopping 57 percent.
The Dickensonian Class was paid $63,000 to do both jobs.
Leslie Porter cut a better deal just to run city finance, getting $65,000 to start with a bump to $70,000 in six months. The new clerk, Suzanne DeAugustino, is being paid $34,000.
Nonetheless, when qualifying closed Tuesday, it was Hernandez, whose rumored personal pique with Class was what started this expensive ball rolling in the first place, who was re-elected without opposition. That’s two elections in a row. Seriously?
Meanwhile, not only have Dade City commissioners recently voted to close the barn door long after the horse skedaddled — they will never again take votes in workshops — Sen. John Legg (R-Trinity), wearing an I-can’t-believe-I-really-gotta-do-this expression, introduced a bill that would latch all local governments’ workshop barn doors.
Good taste prevented Legg from naming it the “Camille Hernandez Workshop Conduct Act,” but if he did, the mayor probably would turn it into a broach.
After all, stranger things already have happened in Dade City, a little town that Tuesday officially slipped into “The Twilight Zone.”