Why We Can’t Have Nice Things
What do you do when you have enormous influence on city and county government and tons of money backing you but you can’t silence every voice of dissent?
Apparently, it’s de rigueur these days to whine that you’re actually the oppressed ones and if only you had even more influence and these pesky environmental regulations went away, you could help the poors. At least, if you look closely at Grow Tallahassee and 4Tallahassee, as well as the campaign rhetoric of Chamber city commission candidate David Bellamy, that’s what you’ll find as subtext.
Meanwhile, we have a real problem in local government of lack of accountability—and it speaks to systems-level issues of little transparency and what feels like the growing arrogance of senior city and county staff that they know the right way to do things and even elected officials should just go along with it.
This might be why, from 2018 on, Tallahassee has rejected several establishment candidates—sending Elaine Bryant and Bryan Desloge packing, for example. People have begun to notice that every year the voice of the people is heard less and less in local corridors of power—and they want to reverse that trend.
Shouldn’t You Have an Actual Voice in Local Government? Don’t We Deserve Accountability?
Last time I checked, we elect commissioners to be our voice, as part of series of checks and balances, not to be a rubber stamp on staff decisions. But with the erosion of their power, sometimes all commissioners can do is inform the public about projects seemingly greenlit before they even come up for a vote. This occurs in part because of the slow chipping away at even basic things—like commissioners’ right to have time to debate huge projects—and voting blocs that ironically work to squelch the commissioners’ own authority. An increasingly pro-development staff that schmoozes with Grow Tallahassee and Chamber leadership doesn’t help.
Projects like $27 million for the FSU stadium are rushed through, with the help of ribbon-cutting fetishist Mayor John Dailey, and no one can actually even say where the idea even came from.
Is it possible the Jesus of Local Governance walks amongst us, product of Immaculate Conception? No. What’s happening is that the city manager and the county administrator, with the help of the Mayor, continue to consolidate power. There’s even a lawsuit that will determine whether meetings between the city manager and city administrator should fall under Sunshine Law or are also under the laws of Immaculate Conception. Nor is it clear why the Mayor suddenly wants to amend the charter or why he met with representatives of Florida Power & Light this year.
From a systems point of view, all of this is an unfolding long-term disaster for the people of Tallahassee. The point isn’t that every decision and every project the city manager and county administrator support is a bad one. That doesn’t have to be true even a quarter of the time for Tallahassee’s future to be severely compromised by a system that more and leaves out communities, ordinary people–allowing special interests, by this very lack of transparency, to have massive amounts of sway behind closed doors.
Did you want a longer period to decide if an Amazon warehouse was a good fit for Tallahassee and that the location made sense rather than just being the whim of a crackpot with an antique car museum? Curious about whether these planned airport projects have any environmental side effects and want to research what climate crisis experts have to say about the future of airports in general? Wonder why the county is trying to redesignate Upper Lake Lafayette as a wetlands? Well, good luck getting any of that information.
You certainly won’t get it from the Tallahassee Democrat, who under editor-in-chief Skip F–… I mean William Hatfield… has some of the worst economic development and environmental coverage of any newspaper in the state of Florida. (Funny how we all had to find out from a NextDoor post about an environmental regulation violation by the company demolishing Northwood Mall.)
The Echo Chamber Rejects Self-Reflection
A lot of these issues became visible during the FBI corruption trial of Scott Maddox and JT Burnette. It became glaringly obvious that the Tallahassee Chamber of Commerce leadership, allied with large developers, had formed a kind of shadow government, an overlay over the government of elected officials, and they had done this, in part, through allegiances with local government staff and sometimes elected officials. Our Tallahassee has a great article I co-wrote about that aspect of our problems. (Full disclosure: I helped found OT, although I’m no longer there.)
The Maddox trial became the flashpoint for a lot of things, but mostly for those in power (shadow or otherwise) to say “this was an isolated incident” while folks who care about Tallahassee entire said “no, this is a systemic issue that requires a systems solution.”
The wariness with which I view the former stance is caused by knowing from the literary world and prior day job experience that you do not want organizations, companies, governments, to rely on the individual daily heroics of individuals. In other words, the systems in place should nourish and support transparency, diversity, fairness, a level playing field, positive communication, and high ethical standards. This is how you protect against bad apples, people who want to game systems, people who have a narrow view of what “community” means.
Elites in control in Tallahassee had several options in front of them after Maddox and Burnette’s convictions. One of them was to support, or even just allow systemic reform, and possibly affect short-term profits, but in a context where no one was going to be putting the Chamber out of business any time soon.
But this would mean admitting some measure of responsibility, given how the Chamber had so much juice in the game with regard to Blueprint (which spends our tax dollars on huge projects), the Office of Economic Vitality, etc. That would also mean ‘fessing up to having done little for poor people over the past two decades.
So, of course, this didn’t happen. Worse, when city commissioner Jeremy Matlow rightly pointed out the systemic problems in local government—including restricting the power of elected officials while not overhauling local government processes—the Chamber had a kind of meltdown at their annual retreat.
Instead of having any sense of self-awareness and contrition for at the very least contributing to a situation in which systemic corruption was able to take hold, the Chamber and its allies decided the problem was the messenger. From the level of vitriol, you would’ve thought Matlow was a felon throwing bags of kittens into Lake Ella rather than a respected local business owner asking for some accountability and best management practices.
But because Matlow had the gall and audacity to point out the obvious, we’ve been subjected now to more than a year of attacks on Matlow and others who have pushed for reform. We’ve seen the Chamber, sometimes using organizations like Grow Tallahassee and 4Tallahassee, put forward their own slate of candidates and use PACs, etc., to funnel hundreds of thousands of dollars toward defeating Matlow and other reformers. As I pointed out in an editorial the Democrat would not run, there’s nothing community-minded about these attacks and people like former county commissioner Mary Ann Lindley, who used to be respected in this community, ought to be ashamed for being involved.
These attacks, most discouragingly, have been echoed in the Tallahassee Democrat and bring to mind the question of whether another media outlet needs to investigate the Democrat and editor William Hatfield’s interference in what should be a more balanced approach to coverage. A further “both sides” impulse at the Democrat has been applied lazily in place of actual analysis of various progressive and conservative organizations reporting on local politics.
What Happens When You Think Systems Are the Problem
In this context, what happens when denialism metastasizes? You get organizations founded and funded by the crowd in power like Grow Tallahassee and 4Tallahassee. At a systems level, both of these organizations are born of a need to validate shaky positions—which is to say, both want to reject the idea that we have systemic problems in local government.
But, beyond that, they want to valorize or make decent and just the idea that there are no systemic issues and, further, that the obscene amount of influence special interests have on local government is not only not a problem—it’s a good thing. It’s an ethical thing. It’s going to lead us to a bright and shiny future where that sound you hear isn’t elites pissing on the heads of the ne’er-do-wells down in the trenches but trickle-down economics. (I don’t doubt that there are sincere people involved in GT who want to be of use, but it’s again a systems issue: If your system is effed up, individual heroics and positive progress occur in spite of the org.)
We’re back to the really distasteful part of all of this: People in power with lots of money who whine about actually being the oppressed ones. People who had influence all of this time who suddenly talk, like city commission candidate David Bellamy, about ending poverty and dealing with the poors. It is not enough to be in power and to have influence and money. They must also be so firmly in the right that the other side is a pack of rabid socialists infiltrating our unblemished city who somehow are going to re-form Tallahassee into some hellish post-apocalyptic version of Denmark—instead of simply people who want reform of systems that are more and more unfair.
This is how we devolved from Chamber- and Grow-Tallahassee-backed David Bellamy starting his campaign in an oh-shucks-just-want-to-better-serve Tallahassee… to talking to supporters at a recent party in vainglorious terms about how he’s gonna save this city from the rabble. Also, from Bellamy talking about civility and leadership, but then running one of the most negative campaigns this city has ever seen.
But, yes, Bellamy’s gonna fix the problems of the poor for sure this time—if only we can clear out that inconvenient rabble asking those inconvenient questions. (In one debate he said he’s for babies not trees, although no one’s ever suggested we’re sacrificing babies on the altar of trees. Total straw baby.)
Meanwhile, pro-growth elites have gotten almost every project they wanted over the past few years, but the very fact anyone is speaking out about how hey you know that project as conceptualized is not well-suited for this landscape or that place… it’s just too much for them. They must now not be asked to suffer the slings and arrows of honest critique. One person told me that a developer “attacked me personally on Facebook when I lived [near one of his proposed developments] and dared to question something…Very creepy, researched my background and tried to use it against me. Then deleted his comment.” People in affected neighborhoods sometimes even face the threat of lawsuits from developers, just for wanting to have that discussion.
Those with the most power must be the heroes of their own stories. Forever and ever. Even when, like Bellamy, they voted for DeSantis and contributed to the campaigns of sleazebags like Matt Gaetz. Because, make no mistake about it, Bellamy is a right-wing candidate. Certainly, his right hand, Tina Johnson Reason made this clear with her offensive recent retweet of the White House Press Secretary in clown face.
The Onus is on Developers to Prove They Care About Tallahassee’s Quality of Life
Scuttlebutt about discussions at the recent Chamber/Grow Tallahassee candidate meet-and-greet at World of Beer is that vainglorious claims of being for “sustainability” were juxtaposed with grousing over drinks about “environmental regulations” being too tough. Why couldn’t we put this Starbucks here? Oh, these outdated regulations that were put in place so nearby neighborhoods wouldn’t be flooded, that’s all. The intel on the sheer inanity and irony of the conversations at this event is wearying. It suggests that instead of Steve Ghazvini being a wee little bit sorry about illegally cutting down trees as part of his Canopy development, he’s a lot bit sorry that it was illegal to do so in the first place.
Grow Tallahassee’s first PR flack, Jared Willis, who attended the event, was so unprofessional, even for a political hack, that his allies have recently looked askance at him. He was also really bad at connecting with the prols, given the silver spoon and all. His obsession with commissioner Jeremy Matlow is so intense that his entire twitter feed could be titled “The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Whiner.”
Willis’s biggest accomplishments might be to get a Matlow hitpiece, possibly ghostwritten, to run at Florida Politics plus two half-arsed editorials in the Democrat about how it’s undemocratic to ask questions about candidates backed by huge special interests. Outrageously, he also gamed the Democrat into running a hit piece on progressives without revealing the source of the information was his sister. Meanwhile, Grow Tallahassee itself has a pleasant “young professionals” homepage and then a raging cesspit for an opinions page, a bit like opening a tin of caviar to find maggots inside.
I had hoped the new face of Grow Tallahassee, Bugra Demirel, might be different. Bugra told me in a facebook email that Grow Tallahassee would only support smart development from now on but when I asked him if that meant GT would also publicly come out against stupid development—maybe even back some conservation projects—I got crickets. Not a single question I asked him was answered. Instead, I got platitudes and buzzwords like “Strong Towns.”
When I posted the original version of this article to twitter, Bugra Demirel had a meltdown that included leaning into being an apologist for genocide, which is just odd, and then deleted his account after several harassing comments. Thankfully, there’s a compilation of the “highlights”.)
Grow Tallahassee’s involvement with incumbent commissioner Dianne Williams-Cox, who has taken lots of developer money, also leads to questions about the influence GT exerts in local elections. (Demirel serves as both treasurer of Grow Tallahassee and chairman of the Grow Tallahassee PAC.)
Recently, too, truly offensive campaign texts to voters attacking Matlow originated from the Demirel-owned SoMo Walls address on South Monroe. I’m sure those texts were accidentally sent by a mouse living in the walls of the as-yet unbuilt complex.
Nor, all of this sound and fury, is there any evidence that Grow Tallahassee will ever not love all development—served up on a dinner plate with a side of more development and a huge glass of development to go with that, and an enormous slice of development for dessert.
4Tallahassee’s Clockwork Prune: Your Granddad’s PoliSigh Rants
Aligned with this faction is 4Tallahassee, which is kind of a political hit squad against reformers that reads like if your granddad sent you some disjointed paranoid texts about how the country’s going to pot because of some damn hippy somewhere. It’s run by Skip Foster and Bryan Desloge and should have the tagline of “slouching toward Bethlehem since 2022.” The immediate devolution of their messaging is exemplified by their About Page stating “We don’t want this to be a hyper-partisan, political endeavor” but their latest article being a petulant (untrue) piece about supposed violations at Commissioner Matlow’s restaurants.
A Trump supporter and long-time friend to big developers, Desloge was soundly defeated in his reelection campaign for county commissioner in 2020, and certainly his constituents made the right decision considering several sources say he had “Fuck You” napkins made for voters following his defeat. Desloge regularly had dinner with former mayor Scott Maddox, now in prison on corruption charges, and, according to sources, disliked county commissioner Kristin Dozier and actively put roadblocks in front of her regarding leadership roles on the commission, because she was a woman who “talked too much.” Dozier is now running for mayor and one of the subjects of 4Tallahassee’s negative articles.
Foster, meanwhile, is the former publisher of the Tallahassee Democrat and reportedly still has a strong connection with Hatfield, the current editor. 4Tallahassee is run out of the same address as the Mayor’s campaign and Bellamy’s campaign. One of the very first people to follow 4Tallahassee on twitter, before the public announcement of the group’s existence, was the Tallahassee Democrat’s advertising director.
Should I also mention that Skip Foster is a big climate crisis denier? Which would explain why all of his ideas for the future sound like he came up with them at an Orange Julius in Governor’s Square Mall in the late 1980s and just never looked back. Foster is also a guy who used astroturfing to shut down a homeless shelter during the COVID pandemic. Which is to say, this is the kind of “leadership” that creates eye strain due to all constant eyerolls you sustain reading his shtick.
Like the Chamber crowd at large, Foster is oppressed… by the fact people call him out on his problematic issues. This would explain why the storytelling on 4Tallahassee has become more and more unhinged. Gems of their recent forays into commentary include this doozy (below), which implies that local folks who speak out against bad development ideas are possible murderers.
Meanwhile, after having done a lot of Dad pieces on “civility” and why “civility” is important and, oh my we might get the vapors if we engaged in a little blunt communication about substantive issues… after doing these lecturing civility pieces that sound like a somewhat obtuse parent had gotten hold of a topic and been told it was urgent to incompetently relay it to a child… after all of that, 4Tallahassee pivots to a boatload of nasty negative advertising and posts that read like Steve Bannon ghostwrites for them. This has included attempts to equate the January 6 insurrection with a handful of progressives winning a few seats locally.
Which tells you just how frivolously they take the attempted overthrow of our government.
Civility, then, is a one-way street, and if that street is Tharpe, it probably has no sidewalks. Civility is something people in power use so they don’t have to have uncomfortable discussions about why their house is a former plantation. Civility is something weaponized to snuff out opposing ideas and to silence people.
Civility is, at the end of the day, as expressed by 4Tallahassee and the Chamber, a smile that’s actually a hyena’s snarl.
What You Can Do
There is more—so much more—but for now I’ll stop and say that there are many great candidates running this year that, except for retaining Matlow, there’s no excuse for voting for incumbents who have supported the status quo. Our voting guide is now up and it gives you some analysis of candidates in addition to our recommendations.
In addition to many other calamities, we are in danger of completely erasing our urban-rural divide and creating an era of sprawl similar to the problems Jacksonville has experienced—just as we need climate change resiliency the most. This is irresponsible development, without a plan–and documented in the Tallahassee portion of my Current Affairs article on Florida.
The squandering and poor management of our natural resources should be a source of alarm for anyone who cares about future generations of Tallahasseans.
As for ethics and the people’s voice, nothing tells us how little Mayor John Dailey values your opinion than how he has orchestrated deflecting from the subject of ethics or just simply shut down debate during meetings—in essence silencing your elected representatives.
So please research who is running and vote in reformers so we have systems that support actual ethics and transparency, not the whims of the few. We cannot have a sustainable future or a good quality of life in Tallahassee without systemic reform of local government.