Although only two of its seven members are new, the Volusia County Council is setting a new tone for the year ahead, and the tone sounds positive.
Members say they want to work and play well together, even if they disagree on some issues. At their first session Jan. 7, the members promised to maintain respect for one another.
The two freshmen, County Chair Jeff Brower and District 3 Council Member Danny Robins, signaled they also bring a distrust of government to the posts they now hold.
“The purpose of government is to protect your God-given rights,” Brower told the audience, which included a large number of his family and friends. “A former county chair once said, ‘What does the Constitution have to do with the county?’ That question is frightening.”
In wielding his power to preside over council meetings, Brower singled out a Deltona activist who had been expelled from a County Council meeting last spring because she brought a sign to the meeting that displeased then-Chair Ed Kelley.
“Brandy White — I would like to offer an apology from this chair. That will not happen again,” Brower said.
White was not visible in the Council Chambers.
In that vein, County Council Member at Large Ben Johnson said he and his colleagues are determined to avoid locally “what happened in Washington, D.C.,” an allusion to the Jan. 6 riots at the U.S. Capitol.
The storming of the Capitol by pro-Trump insurrectionists resulted in five deaths, including a Capitol Police officer, and it stalled the count of the electoral votes to finalize the 2020 presidential election.
Robins, for his part, did not mince words in his remarks upon taking office.
“I believe when we do not face our issues, the end result is exactly what we are currently experiencing at our nation’s capital,” Robins said. “Make no mistake. It can happen here, as well. Big government is telling us we can’t go to the gym … we can’t see our family on the holidays; we can’t see dying family members, and yet we are expected to sit here quietly, while being lectured on how to run our lives.”
Robins promised “to be a fierce defender of the Constitution and all of our personal freedoms.”
“I want county government to stop playing defense and start working for our citizens, not against them,” he added.
Robins applied words spoken by Jesus Christ and President Abraham Lincoln to describe the political landscape today.
“A house divided against itself cannot stand,” he said.
Brower described the divisive and hardened attitudes of people toward others as “downright hatred … in a tumultuous time.”
“We have to come together,” he said. “That is our sovereign duty.”
As they looked ahead and organized themselves, the County Council chose District 2 Member Billie Wheeler as vice chair. Wheeler promptly called for input from county residents.
“We’re all working for Volusia County. It’s important that we hear from you,” Wheeler said.
The County Council approved a 2021 calendar that calls for two regular meetings per month, with meeting dates set for the first and third Tuesdays.
Brower also suggested the council consider moving its meetings to the afternoon or evening, to enable more people who work during the day to attend. That idea may be discussed at a later date.
After setting a harmonious and courteous tone marking a new beginning for Volusia County government, there were a few moments of tension and inflamed feelings in the early afternoon. All was not sunshine, lollipops and rainbows when Council Member at Large Ben Johnson prefaced the council’s now-routine briefing on the coronavirus by assailing a colleague.
“We have a council member who regularly exceeds her authority,” Johnson said, naming District 4 Council Member Heather Post.
Johnson accused Post of criticizing county administrative staff members for allegedly not keeping her informed about events and happenings inside her district, northeast Volusia, and around the county. With the attention of the council and the audience focused on him, Johnson said Post’s complaints “sow friction and discord on our staff.”
“This has gone on far too long and needs to stop,” he added, asking other members of the council to speak if they agree with him or wished to comment.
Johnson’s remarks caught his colleagues off guard.
“Honestly, Ben, I feel that you’ve just broadsided the whole council,” County Chair Jeff Brower said. “I’m really disappointed with the broadside.”
As the shock subsided, Post said she often fails to get sufficient advance notice of matters, such as the county’s press conferences, notably one dealing with the COVID-vaccine snafu in Daytona Beach, where hundreds of people waited for the shot, only to be turned away. She called upon the Community Information staff to keep her informed “so that I don’t look like an idiot because I don’t know about things going on in my own county.”
“I don’t want to find out from the press what the county is doing,” Post added.
County Manager George Recktenwald calmed the situation.
“That is my responsibility, and I take full responsibility that there was not a follow-up on communication out there,” he told the council. “If there are issues, talk to me.”
“I’m very horrified that this is the way we are starting out the new year,” Post said.
Johnson subsequently apologized to Post for raising the issue publicly, and Post accepted his apology.
— Al Everson