In what seemed like an episode of the vintage TV series Wild Kingdom, the County Council ended its Aug. 2 meeting with a fierce, raucous, verbal brawl over Volusia’s Wildlife Corridor.
When the dust settled, the County Council had postponed a planned workshop on the wildlife corridor until after this fall’s elections.
The wildlife was in the council chambers. Tempers flared, voices rose, and personal and political attacks intensified as County Council members competed for dominance in the charged debate that often seemed like saber-toothed tigers going at each other.
Council Member Ben Johnson accused County Chair Jeff Brower of using the planned workshop to build support for his own favorite County Council candidates. Brower denied that, and emphasized the need to educate voters about what’s at stake for the Wildlife Corridor, before the Tuesday, Aug. 23, primary and the Tuesday, Nov. 8, general election.
In those two elections, six of the seven County Council seats are up for grabs. Brower has been vocal and public in his support for four candidates he says will overturn the status quo.
The planned workshop has such broad-based support that 200 people had registered to attend, and private citizens donated money to help bring in speakers. But Brower’s opponents say some of the money raised for the event is going to support the candidates he favors.
Council Member Johnson kicked off the fray:
“Mr. Brower, at the last meeting, you lied to me. You lied to this council. You lied to the public, the people that we represent. You have made this a political event, a cheap political stunt, to enhance your Volusia Values candidates. This is wrong all the way around!” Johnson told Brower, referring to Brower’s opposition to delaying the Wildlife Corridor program until after the general election. “You have taken a wonderful event and bastardized it. … Mr. Brower, sometimes I think you have lost your way … and deceived the people, including us.”
Johnson said he reviewed emails about the planned workshop that showed Brower wanted the event to occur before the primary to inform voters and to build support for the Wildlife Corridor.
“You’re accusing me, in the strongest possible terms, of lying,” Brower responded. “I stand by 100 percent what I wrote [in an email]. Just because it’s political doesn’t mean it has be partisan. I want the public to know what’s at stake here, so they can weigh to the candidates that are running. That’s the political system of the United States of America. They need to know what’s going on. They need the benefits of it. It’s critical that we need to move forward with the Wildlife Corridor.”
Brower said the county staff has worked to organize the event, and argued for going ahead with the Wildlife Corridor program before the Aug. 23 primary.
“You told us it wasn’t political, Mr. Brower,” Johnson said.
“Everything is political,” Brower responded. “It was not a political move to hurt anybody on this council. I want the public to know where we stand on preserving land.”
Brower continued, “You can try at every single meeting to squash this. It doesn’t need to be squashed.”
“It is political,” Johnson repeated.
The crossfire increased.
“Mr. Brower, you’re one of the sneakiest politicians I’ve ever met, I believe,” Johnson said.
Others joined in the free-for-all, as the conversation turned to whether the Wildlife Corridor program would be a county meeting or a privately funded gathering.
Council Member Billie Wheeler referenced emails alleging that private funds for the workshop would be used in the election campaign.
“How can it not be political when one of your speakers supported $20,000 to a PAC supporting your candidates?” Wheeler asked. “I have a real hard time with the county being involved with that.”
“I don’t have candidates,” Brower said.
Council Member Danny Robins decried the perceived politicization of the planned Wildlife Corridor program.
“Twenty thousand dollars for a keynote speaker,” he said, referring to some emails. “I want answers. I want an explanation. … This has put us individually, as members, staff, citizens in a bad light.”
Robins continued, “There is so much poison fruit in this. This is why people don’t trust their government. … A blind person with zero common sense can see something’s not right.”
“This is a political witch hunt,” Brower said at one point, “and if you think you are embarrassing me — you’re embarrassing yourselves.”
“All this stuff saying that the Wildlife Corridor is political — is insane,” Council Member Heather Post said. “Everything we do up here is political.”
When Robins tried to speak again, Brower overruled him.
“Danny, you do not have the floor,” Brower told him.
“I do have the facts,” Robins shot back.
As if one controversy over the Wildlife Corridor was not enough, Johnson assailed Brower for writing a letter to Gov. Ron DeSantis stating his opposition to a proposed interchange of Interstate 95 at Pioneer Trail.
The letter, written on official county stationery and dated July 27, was also addressed to Florida Department of Transportation Secretary Jared Perdue, FDOT District 5 Secretary John Tyler, and state Rep. Paul Renner.
“Nearly all constituents I speak with oppose the construction of this interchange, which will facilitate intense development into an area of Volusia County now recognized as part of the Wildlife Corridor,” Brower wrote.
“This was never talked about,” Johnson said, alleging Brower’s letter had conveyed the impression he had the backing of the council as a body.
“You are not a strong chair. You’re one vote,” Johnson told Brower, citing the county’s charter that describes the chair’s role as mostly ceremonial.
Johnson proposed sending a letter to DeSantis stating he and other members of the County Council disagree with Brower’s having taken a stance on the interchange without informing them.
“We weren’t part of the conversation,” Wheeler said.
Johnson denounced Brower’s use of his title and elected office.
“It does not give you the authority to act as an authoritarian,” Johnson told Brower. “You’re out of line, Mr. Brower.”
County Attorney Michael Dyer, when called upon for his advice, told the council members he could “see both sides of the discussion.” He would not fault Brower for writing and sending the letter in his “capacity” as county chair.
Brower agreed, however, to send a follow-up letter to the governor and the others clarifying that the previous letter spoke for him alone.
The political storm had overshadowed Wheeler’s motion to postpone the Wildlife Corridor program until after the election. When the question was finally called, the vote was 5-2 in favor of the delay. Wheeler, Johnson, Robins, Barb Girtman and Fred Lowry formed the majority. Lowry, saying he had lost his voice, attended the meeting remotely. Brower and Post were on the losing side.
The time, date and location of the workshop are yet to be determined.