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The Internet War on Terrible - 05/27/07

Deerfield Beach would be a different place today if it were not for the Internet and related technology. The Net can be used to mobilize political action quickly and is the base for a new breed of political journalism.

Imagine if most information concerning the city commission and city administration in a city of 70,000 or so residents had to be disseminated by telephone, by the regular post, or by personal contact. How many people would be informed and how complicated would it be to organize an effective challenge to City Hall?

For the first years of Larry R. Deetjen's secretive regime as city manager, a tightly controlled local news organization held an effective monopoly, and from Deetjen's perspective, an accommodating one, over the dissemination of local news and opinion. It is partly for this reason that such proposals as the LÚpine plan and Ocean Park were able to advance so far without public knowledge or vocal opposition. If this were still the case, a potential scandal over the use (or misuse) of taxpayers' money to build a public works facility and "MOC" might never have come to light.

Of particular significance in an advancing reality of local politics is the widespread use of electronic mail by activists, which enable them to dispense information to a fairly large group of people, for example, about the city manager's new plan to turn city-owned beach property over to a developer, and to move quickly to oppose such proposals.

We find ourselves in the formative era of a brave new world of news and punditry based on the Internet, which operates outside the traditional constraints and self-serving ethics of the regular Establishment media to fight terrible ideas and terrible people. Because the economics of the Internet are different, and do not necessarily require the massive capital outlays of the print media, radio, or television, this emerging form of journalism can exist independently of any source of funding that implies protection or influence. Consequently, in the realm of politics and social criticism, Web-based writers are freer to expose corruption where they find or suspect it, and to call bullshit, bullshit, if that's how it smells.

In this article, we will present a few examples which directly concern Deerfield Beach.

Deerfield Beach Insider

A new blog has hit the Internet in the last few weeks. The writing can be rough and R-rated, but Deerfield Beach Insider or DFI, for short, makes for interesting reading on local issues. It is definitely not soft-soap. It is not conventional journalism. It is controversial. But this kind of punditry and exposÚ, merging reporting and activism, represents a phenomenon which has already begun to reform the way political news and commentary are published, and by whom; who reads it, and how it impacts public policy decision models at the local level.

The web site you are reading now, as another example of Web-based political writing, is almost an antiquity, at nearly seven years old. This site is more conservative and theoretical in its commentary than Deerfield Beach Insider. During its lifetime, we have seen the golden age, and end, of Larry R. Deetjen in Deerfield Beach. For the greater part of his tenure, City Manager Deetjen seemed chiseled in stone, immovable, venerated and protected by the most powerful people in the community. The average citizen may have been satisfied with Deetjen, because city government seemed to operate effectively. These were things they could see with their own eyes. What the average citizen did not see clearly were the backroom deals with developers, the plans to remake their neighborhoods and beaches, how this would impact the community, and even the possibility they themselves would eventually be displaced by such ambitious redevelopment.

You may wonder why this web site writes so much about Larry R. Deetjen. We know that he, now that he is the former city manager, is seeking new employment in a number of places and researchers looking into his history are finding this web site in their quest. If the researchers look through the 100 or so pages that comprise this site, they will find scores of articles about Mr. Deetjen. Most -- basically all -- are critical of his administration of the City of Deerfield Beach.

This web site is about the politics of redevelopment and the ethics of politics and local government. These subjects are inextricably related. Deerfield Beach, under Deetjen's administration, is a good case study, because it illustrates how aggressive land-use policy agendas corrupt public ethics and civic values. This is why we wrote and still write about Deetjen, who was at the core of this movement. It is not about Deetjen's employment in another city; we are happy that he is no longer city manager of Deerfield Beach; we think this city will move forward now with an administration that is more honest and open to the citizens.

Jefferson said, "We in America do not have government by the majority. We have government by the majority who participate."

When this site flickered onto the Internet seven years ago, the World Wide Web was only seven years old. In 1993 (Deetjen became city manager in Deerfield Beach in 1994), there were 130 web sites on the World Wide Web. By 2003, there were more than 35 million. There are now close to 120 million sites. In October, 2000, there was no other Internet site like this one in Deerfield Beach.

In fact, if a person wanted to publish his opinions for the public to read, there were few options in the year 2000 short of starting a newspaper or web site. The most practical choice for most people was a letter to the editor of the local paper. Like it or lump it, the publisher of this paper, J. David Eller, and his editor at the time, Judy Wilson, could pick and choose what news and commentary they printed. They could sanitize news unfavorable to the city administration. The paper itself rarely criticized Mr. Deetjen. The local paper was hot on Deetjen and his redevelopment vision, almost to the end, and this showed in both the news and opinion sections of the paper. They did their utmost to discredit those who challenged Deetjen's redevelopment agenda, at one point equating them with terrorists.

The Internet has changed local news media and politics. Now almost any person, with a little learning and a few bucks, can publish, with the potential to reach almost everybody in the world. The best thing is, they do not need Judy Wilson's or J. David Eller's permission. The local paper claims a circulation of 30,000. This web site, as an example, and the blogger Deerfield Beach Insider, could claim a circulation of millions. Meanwhile, the publisher J. David Eller is also the subject of a number of blogs. More about that later.

There are over a billion Internet users on planet Earth today. There are 233 million users in North America alone. Nearly 70 per cent of North Americans have Internet access. Every person who connects to the World Wide Web can read this web site, or any other. Add to this e-mail, discussion groups, Usenet and the ubiquitous blogs.

Weblogs, or blogs as they are now commonly called, cover just about every subject, including politics, social policy and news. This means that more information and opinion can be disseminated without censorship or external control. They are user-friendly, easy to set up. (Okay, we'll write it: Even a caveman can do it... and probably a few have.)

Yes, there are negatives. Ignorance, myths and false information can spread through the Internet as fast as truth. Idiots, liars and bad writers can also blog, develop web sites, or do mass e-mailings. So can extremists and fringe groups. There could be information overload, that is, too much from too many different directions.

On the other hand, there may be a "natural selection" process at work as well. Web sites and blogs will come and go, therefore, and evolve for better or worse. Meanwhile, smart people will get smarter.

Democratic institutions are grounded on the theory that there is an informed citizenry to make important decisions, as to who shall run the government and the direction of public policy. The Internet, HTML, fast electronic mail and blogs have enhanced the possibility that there will be in fact an informed public and that the people will still ultimately rule and preserve their liberty.

The optimistic view is that this new world of Internet communications will expand the number of active, informed participants in the body politic and that "the majority who participate" will be better participants.

Larry R. Deetjen

When Larry R. Deetjen was hired as city manager, the Internet was in its infancy. Almost all information about city government and civic matters was filtered through the local paper. The regional papers also cover local news, but the news of hundreds of towns. Small matters are less likely to be reported. This might include small matters like the idea developer RenÚ LÚpine had for the beach area, to build a hotel complex on the city-owned parking lot adjacent to the beach. Who knew, before the LÚpine proposal finally became public knowledge, the radical plan that Mr. Deetjen and the developers had concocted for remaking the beach area?

As stated at the beginning of this article, the fact that information flow was largely confined to a publication sympathetic to the plans, plus the fact that the commission had no dissenting member to expose the plans either, explains partly why the LÚpine proposal and later Ocean Park went so far in the political process with the public mostly in the dark. It is possible that either or both of these plans could have passed easily except for the ability of the beach activists quickly to spread the word and organize. A fairly new technology at the time, instantaneous electronic mail on the Internet, vastly increased the capacity of ordinary citizens to move for a cause.

The local paper, supporting the plans for redevelopment of the beach area, criticized the activists as a teeny-tiny group of malcontents, not representative of the community at large. What flew by the local paper was that it did not matter. The forces that supported the plans were also a small group of people, not a mass movement as the elections would eventually prove, but just more powerful. The difference between these microscopic groups was that one of them organized and went to work; while the other one smirked, assuming that the herd would follow.

It was at the time of the Ocean Park Referendum that this web site entered the fray under its original name, SaveOurBeach.com.

There is no way, of course, precisely to measure the impact of SaveOurBeach.com or if it had any impact at all on the outcome of the Ocean Park referendum. However, the same thing could be said of the local paper. One thing was certain: Ocean Park went down to defeat in the November election, 2000.

Any dummy -- that is, except the people who sat on the city commission and apparently the city manager Larry R. Deetjen -- could figure out from the results of the two elections -- the 1998 referendum that effectively rejected the LÚpine hotel scheme and the 2000 referendum which defeated Ocean Park -- that city residents were not in favor of large scale development on city-owned beach property. Perhaps emboldened by the incongruent results of city elections and the fact that only months after the Ocean Park Referendum, the commissioners that supported that plan were re-elected to office (District 1 Commissioner Peggy Noland declared that her narrow re-election was a great victory for the commission's vision for beach redevelopment), Mayor Capellini proposed to be built a huge parking structure on the very same land. To get an idea of how big this garage was to be, look at the other parking garage, the commercial garage since built on north A-1-A, and envision a building four or five times larger.

One of the "little details" of Ocean Park not stated before the referendum election was who was going to design and build the project. A friend of the mayor, perhaps? The design contract for the new proposal, after a supposedly competitive bid process, went to Capellini's close business associate, Gallo Architects. The local paper did not investigate or expose the connection and it was not explained to the commission before their vote. It was this web site that revealed that the mayor's company and Gallo shared the same office address and that Capellini and Gallo were partners in a development project at Deer Creek. These facts were gleened from readily available public records (available on the Internet), found without intense investigation.

As for the other parking garage, the commercial garage referred to above, Deetjen and the original developers secretly negotiated an agreement that would have partnered the city in that project. The public did not know about it -- there was considerable and vocal public opposition to the project at this point anyway -- and the commissioners supposedly did not know about it either until Deetjen submitted the nearly consummated deal for ratification, which Deetjen must have figured would be granted readily. It was this web site that argued that this secret arrangement violated the law, as well as earlier directives of the commission that Deetjen was not to strike deals with developers without their knowledge; the local print publication typically was silent. It was also this web site that first called for Deetjen to be fired for insubordination. This web site continued the theme, the "secret government of Larry R. Deetjen," for some time after this.

Meanwhile, the beach activists, known as the Original Save Our Beach (OSOB) since they regrouped to fight Ocean Park, started another referendum drive to put an end to the parking garage proposal for the Main Beach Parking Lot. The gist of it was to amend the city charter limiting the size of any parking structure built there and to prohibit commercial development there. (It was suspected by some that once the parking garage design was submitted, even though it did not have the commercial features of the earlier Ocean Park proposal, the plan would be amended eventually to include commercial features.)

An opposition group was formed, the so-called Citizen Opponents, which first filed suit to stop the referendum, and failed; then continued the action to overturn the charter amendments that were ultimately approved by the voters in the referendum. The group consisted of five persons, at least four of whom were known to be friends of the mayor. It did not take a genius to figure out that the Citizen Opponents were acting as proxies of Capellini and possibly Deetjen. Then it was reported to us by a confidential, but usually knowledgeable source, who also was a member of the Chamber of Commerce, that the director of the Chamber told him that Larry Deetjen had solicited the Chamber to help the plaintiffs in the law suit. Bear in mind that the city was a defendant in this suit. This was in turn reported on this web site to its readers. The local print media never picked up on this potentially volatile story, because it did not want to. Later, when Deetjen was suspended for inappropriate conduct the first time, a search of his office computer files uncovered evidence that he had given considerable assistance to the plaintiffs in that lawsuit; corresponded with the opposing counsel, letting him in on the legal advice given to the city by the city attorney; and even tried to whip up additional plaintiffs and financial help. It was this terrible breach of the public trust (and probably unlawful actions) that eventually led to the downfall of Larry R. Deetjen.

E-mail

While this and other web sites and blogs have had their impact on local politics, there is probably no better tool than good "old-fashioned" e-mail when it comes to getting the word out fast. E-mail not only permits rapid communication one-to-one, it facilitates low-cost mass distribution of information. An example is Brad Chalker's e-mail group, started during the first suspension of Larry Deetjen. What Chalker does is reprint media reports (including articles from this web site) and sometimes adds his own comments. It is important to note how this operates to increase attention to others writing about local politics: We, for example, publish an article on this web site; Chalker redistributes it to his subscribers, thus bringing more visitors to this web site. If one studies the Internet, he will see how blogs and web sites with common views often link together, thus increasing exposure of each individual site or blog. This linkage also helps sites get higher positions on search engine results. If you Google "Larry Deetjen," you will find high ranking results pointing to this web site. This may be due, in part, to the numerous links and hits to these particular pages.

The Deetjen saga continues, unfortunately, even though Larry R. is no longer city manager. The developing story is the Public Works facility approved by Deerfield Beach voters in two bond issue elections (opposed, incidentally, by this web site) and still under construction. The construction is said to be terrible, the design poor, and the funding mismanaged and possibly illegal. The details on this scandal, which may also extend eventually to the Mitigation Operations Center (MOC) project approved in the same bond issue elections, are being provided mostly by the blog, Deerfield Beach Insider, with a scattering of newsy, but not investigative, coverage by the regular media. The local paper, meanwhile, has all but ignored the story as a news item, but it did publish a guest editorial on the subject by ex-Mayor Jean Robb. It's not clear whether the local news publisher finds this story not newsworthy, certainly a decision he has every right to make, or is protecting, for whatever reason, those who are implicated in this mess; the chief person in that respect would be Larry R. Deetjen.

J. David Eller

As for the publisher, J. David Eller, he is also a subject of numerous Internet writings, mostly authored by bloggers monitoring the recovery efforts in New Orleans. Eller and his company, MWI, which is based in Deerfield Beach, are the subjects of a developing story which will not be found in the local paper.

Who is J. David Eller? One view: Eller is the high school kid who thinks he's the coolest dude because his Dad is rich and his family goes back generations in the town. But not everybody is impressed with J. David Eller, especially not local activists, who have a long-standing disagreement with the local paper. What Eller is, basically, is a local businessman with -- maybe -- political ties to George W. and Jeb Bush. Eller owns the local newspaper, which has been the principal media champion of Larry R. Deetjen and beach redevelopment; and he runs the family business, MWI, which makes and installs pumps of the sort that are supposed to help protect New Orleans from flooding. The bloggers think MWI got the New Orleans contract because of his connections with powerful (Republican) politicians.

Eller is a GOP insider. Our correspondence with party people suggests that J. David is mostly a contributor, and that his supposedly cozy relationship with the President and former Governor Jeb Bush may be exaggerated, given that Eller entangled Governor Bush in a business deal that turned out to be a thorn in the side for the governor.

Whether he is a big-shot, as believed by the New Orleans bloggers, or not, J. David Eller probably does not dominate the dinner conversation at the table of most Deerfield residents. A lot of people don't know or care that he exists. A side of him may want to be visible, venerated, respected. He has written about Deerfield Beach history in a series of articles in his paper as if it were the equivalent of the Eller family history and himself. His paper urged passage of the Ocean Park Referendum to honor the Ellers (the plan included a band shell that was to be named for the Eller family). He was behind the PAC that supported the referendum, but not the point man.

When it comes to local politics, then, J. David mostly operates through front people like former editor Wilson and William E. Bucknam, nominal head of Eller's inaptly named "Save Our Beach" PAC. When Eller does make the news, it's often not good and it's not in his paper. Among other items, MWI has been accused of bribing Nigerian officials to buy pumps that were not appropriate for their intended use. This is the deal in which Governor Bush was involved for a time. Recently, questions have been raised about MWI pumps supplied to New Orleans to pump flood waters back into the Ponchatrain in case of another Katrina. The charge is that Eller's MWI pumps were defective and improperly installed.

You will find this story in the conventional print media, but the most comprehensive coverage appears in blogs and web sites such as Facing South, maintained by the Institute for Southern Studies, based in Durham, NC. The author, Sue Sturgis, is a free lance reporter, according to the web site.

The bloggers have raised enough ruckus on this subject to start a Congressional inquiry. The MWI pump contract was awarded through the Army Corps of Engineers, and the bloggers charge that MWI got the contract because of Eller's close ties with the Bushes. Anyone interested in a thorough, technical discussion of this matter must look to the Internet. Matt McBride provides an analysis on his blog, Fix the Pumps, which probes deeper probably than anything you will read in the newspapers. We might add that McBride, who was the guy who popped the lid on this deal, makes a convincing case to the layman that does not look good for the hometown boy.

Conclusion

To return to the thesis stated at the top of this article, politics in Deerfield Beach have been transformed in the past seven or eight years in both good and bad ways. In part this was because of the once all-powerful Larry R. Deetjen, a compliant political structure and sympathetic media. On the other side of this, the activists stopped Deetjen dead in his tracks on several proposals for the beach; and Deetjen himself, of course, fell from power.

This may not have happened if the activists had to rely solely on telephones, personal contact, and the local so-called newspaper. Perhaps it could have been done in Mayberry. But Deerfield Beach, for all its small-town politics, is not a small town physically or logistically. E-mail and Web-based alternative information sources helped make it possible for the activists to mobilize as quickly and effectively as they did. Along the way, these same technologies broke the news monopoly once firmly held by J. David Eller and Judy Wilson's paper.

Moreover, we are only now at the cusp. There's more to come in this Internet war on bad people, corruption, and terrible ideas.

Links

Facing South

Fix the Pumps

Spocko's Brain



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