There’s little question that Victor Barbosa, the Palm Coast City Council member, is part of that new breed of distasteful politicos who have no interest in governing and less capability of doing so. They confuse their video ejaculations on Facebook with leadership. They mistake getting elected with a mandate to act like pricks. They speak in ideological talking points as incoherently misapplied to local governments as if they talked Klingon. And they wear their imperious ignorance as a badge of virtue, though in that regard they do reflect a constituency–those citizens “proud of that achievement of ignorance which is so easy to come by,” as Sinclair Lewis described them as far back as Main Street a century ago–that has no less a right to be represented than anyone else.
The rookie Barbosa has role models on our local elected boards, those circuses increasingly stocked with similarly incendiary insurgents who prattle on about god-gun-and-country, in that order, through one orifice while desecrating the Constitution through another. Let’s not forget that Barbosa was among the Jan. 6 horde summoned to the capital by the fallen fascist, his modelo supremo, to fuel the fabrication of a stolen election–the same election that gave us Barbosa. Call the gathering peaceful all you like: it massed on false pretenses and lit the fuse of the armed storming of the Capitol. Even its ostensibly peaceful participants have the credibility of methane. Barbosa was among them.
That said, he was duly elected, if by the contrived circumstances of a special election: he got 38 percent in a field of four, making him the elected official with the smallest constituency on the council. Had it been a normal election he’d have had to go into a run-off with his next-best opponent and clear the 50-percent margin. In other words this isn’t a guy with a mandate. He knows it. Barbosa has already decided that the council is too small for his man cave, or maybe not remunerative enough (it pays $11,710, including car and communication allowance). He’s running for County Commission, where he can make $58,400 and presumably add the Mondex to his code enforcement vigilantism.
Which brings us to the matter at hand. After he was elected Barbosa decided to become his own code enforcement police. He went around neighborhoods looking for messes, taking video, firing emails, texts and phone calls to the city manager to get this and that property’s violations addressed. It’s not as if Palm Coast’s code enforcement army–a little less armed but not one bit less efficient than your standard National Guard unit–needs help, least of all from a vigilante councilman. I thought those days were over when Bill Lewis (rest in peace) left. Clearly, not, though Lewis’s intentions were pure. He was a card-carrying mysophobe. Barbosa’s motives should be put in their proper context.
First, last year Barbosa had his own code enforcement issues with the city, among them violations alleging he was parking his pick-up, emblazoned with the commercial insignias of his “Man Cave,” at his home. I’m actually with Barbosa on this one. The city’s ban on worker vehicles of the sort is an offense to working people and undue deference to those who think our streets should ape the Versailles gardens. Let’s not be that stuffy or anti-labor. But that’s a discussion for another day. Barbosa worked out his issues with the city before they went to the code board, but was quite upset by them, as he made clear in one of his Facebook ejaculates.
Second, Barbosa in February, channeling another Joe (McCarthy), claimed he had a “source” at the city’s code enforcement division who was feeding him information, which in itself has Barbosa flirting with a violation of the city charter. It bars council members from meddling in the administration. Barbosa used that “source” as leverage against City Manager Matt Morton, as you can see from this email, prompting a sharp and appropriate retort from the city manager: “This is inappropriate conduct for City Staff and for you,” Morton wrote him. “This is not helpful nor productive to our City’s organization and is likely a violation of Palm Coast City Charter and your Oath of Office.”
Morton told him he will not “operate on ‘back room’ information.” The email fell on deaf ears. Or maybe Barbosa didn’t expect his employee to stand up to him–as any self-respecting employee does or should to a boor of an employer. Barbosa’s vigilantism stepped up after that. (For McCarthyism affictionadoes, City Rep’s “The Crucible” opens at the Palm Coast Arts Foundation in Town Center this weekend.)
Third, Barbosa is (or was) working in concert with Alan Lowe, the candidate for mayor in 2020 and self-styled inventor, one of whose re-inventions is himself. No Walter Mitty, Low had previously abjured his citizenship and the Constitution. He based his campaign on slandering and defaming Milissa Holland on the basis of zero evidence and with reckless disregard for the truth (and stealing pictures from FlaglerLive to illustrate his slanders). Lowe is now running for a council seat. Lowe, Barbosa and now-Council member Ed Danko had run as a block, what looked to me like the horsemen of the apocalypse. Lowe and Barbosa had a falling out with Danko, or Danko saw the light on the road to his Damascus (at least there’s hope for him), leaving Barbosa and Lowe to carry on their mercenary campaign against the city. Holland having won re-election, Morton became their punching bag. (I’m told Lowe to may have had a falling out with Barbosa too, though each is doing the other’s bidding regardless.)
So to call Barbosa’s code enforcement vigilantism disinterested is a stretch. And when Barbosa (or Lowe) now claim that someone is corrupt, we’ve learned to pinch our noses and wait for the stink to pass, because that’s what it’s been: more methane.
That’s the context of last Tuesday’s eruption.
At the end of that City Council meeting Tuesday evening, Barbosa called for Morton’s firing. He called him “corrupt.” The essence of his claim is this: Morton directed Barbara Grossman, the code enforcement manager, to “tag” code enforcement complaints coming from Barbosa. That is true and at first appears troubling.
Barbosa then claimed these three points: that Morton was having all such complaints tagged so that the code enforcement violation document handed to a property owner bore Barbosa’s name as the complainant; that Morton was doing so on purpose to hurt Barbosa politically, by making property owners angry at Barbosa; and that Barbosa had “proof.” Barbosa then didn’t call just Morton corrupt, but accused other council members of condoning corruption if they did not support him in firing Morton.
There are two different issues here. Barbosa’s method, and Barbosa’s claims. His method was despicable. It was rude, amateurish and, at least based on the evidence so far, defamatory. He turned a City Council meeting into one of his Facebook gigs, the difference being that on Facebook most of us know to avoid red-light dimwits. But it is our right, and for some of us our duty, to follow council meetings. So we had as little choice as Barbosa’s fellow-council members to sit there and take it (in my case three times so I could be certain of my transcription). In that regard alone, he should not be surprised that neither Holland nor her colleagues, with the teetering exception of Danko, had any interest in entertaining the matter then and there. Barbosa had used a guerilla tactic, dropping his bomb then accusing council members of being either with him or for corruption. Of course he didn’t get a second. (Danko wasn’t interested in seconding, but spoke of discussing the matter in the near future.) Barbosa then went off in his Facebook corner again and sulked for 20 minutes about how the council shut him down.
Nevertheless, taking Barbosa and his method out of the equation, all three claims are worth taking seriously, because Morton’s email about tagging complaints is indisputable. It raises questions in a system where complaints may be made anonymously. The council should discuss the matter openly and absolutely should get to the bottom of it. It had every right not to do that on Tuesday. But it has no right to sweep this offscreen and not deal with it. Barbosa remains a council member. If not him, the seat he represents is owed deference, however despicable the methods of its occupant.
In any case, getting to the bottom of this should not be hard. It’s a very, very shallow bottom, and a preliminary examination of the records strongly suggests that as with most things Barbosa, there’s no there there.
I obtained the documents and “proof” that Barbosa distributed Tuesday. I interviewed Morton at length. I posed a series of questions to Grossman, which she answered. Barbosa alone, not surprisingly, refused to answer questions, sticking by his hit-and-run tactic. People who call someone “corrupt” and demand his firing should not be so cowardly.
Let’s take the four Barbosa claims in turn.
1. While it is accurate that Morton asked Grossman to tag Barbosa complaints, Morton says he was doing so because he was overrun with complaints from the councilman, did not want to lose track, and certainly did not want to drop the ball on some of the complaints from a councilman who’d already shown himself to be extremely prickly with his demands. Morton wanted to stay on top of things. But he could not direct Barbosa to lodge his complaints directly with code enforcement, since that would be even more inappropriate than what Barbosa was already doing.
“He had been sort of a self-appointed code enforcement czar,” Morton said, “at least seeing that that was, you know, one of his primary roles on Council. And I was getting emails, phone calls, text messages, multiple, a week with code enforcement complaints.” But it had to go through Morton, as do all council members’ inquiries. That’s the law. So for Morton’s own purposes he had Grossman code the stuff “or put his name on it,” Morton said, “because I need to be able to report back to him. He wants information back. He wants to know what the resolution was.”
Before getting to the claim of ulterior motives, it’s clear, from Barbosa’s way of doing things, that Morton may have felt he had no choice. Morton was addressing Barbosa’s motives, not his own. His explanation appears not only credible but, given the constraints Barbosa had placed him in, it is at least a logical explanation.
2. The claim is not just that that Morton was having all such complaints tagged. It’s that the code enforcement violation document handed to a property owner had to bear Barbosa’s name, and that Morton ordered Grossman to have her inspectors write that name in. There’s no evidence of that. There’s also no evidence that the tagging at the homeowners’ end was anywhere that systematic.
Either way, I asked Grossman if inspectors usually include names of complainants on documents issued property owners. “In most cases, no,” Grossman wrote. “There are times when complaints come in and do not go through an admin to be entered first (i.e. urgent matter, the specific address/addresses are not provided, or the inspector is already in the field). In those cases the inspector makes notes in the description area which may include the complainant’s information.”
But the notion that all code enforcement complaints are anonymous is false, or at least a common misconception among residents. It may be anonymous. It often is not. As Grossman describes it, “the complainant’s name could appear on several different documents and be received in a number of different ways, such as in writing on letters received via US Post Office, PC Connect, e-mail or verbally, by phone or walk-ins. For example, a resident submitted a list of specific addresses for potential code violations at a City Council meeting, action orders were opened prior to the inspection process and the name of the complainant appears in the action orders.”
None of that protects the complainant’s name from being disclosed. It’s public information. (There’s a bill pending in the Legislature that would end code enforcement complaint anonymity altogether.)
There’s also another way for code enforcement complainers to make their complaints public: they can be a narcissistic, voyeuristic city council member addicted to Facebook and “the persecuting spirit” as they go about posting videos and pictures of unkempt properties to publicly embarrass tenants of their own city. As Barbosa, model and faultless neighbor that he is, does. There’s nothing private about those shamings. His name, his face and his role as a council member are all over them. He is the one advertising his complaints way more publicly than a measly city document could, again and again and again.
If anything, the city would risk violating public record disclosure laws if it did not follow suit and make sure that, since Barbosa is so intent on publicizing his role in shaming others, his name appeared on follow-up complaints. If a council member is going around town pretending to be a ministry of one for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, I want to know about it, and if the city isn’t documenting it, it damn well should. Instead, the tagging of Barbosa’s vigilantism appears haphazard and unsystematic, enabling him to claim free reign to publicly shame anyone he pleases in the city’s name then claim anonymity when it suits him. That’s a problem. Palm Coast isn’t Kandahar, councilman.
3. Maybe Morton saw an opportunity there. If he was having to do so much for Barbosa, with whom he clearly was not getting along, why not hurt him in the bargain? Barbosa claims Morton orchestrated the tagging to hurt him politically and keep him from getting votes. Even assuming Morton had that in mind, I don’t see how Morton getting three, four, or even 20 Palm Coast residents upset with Barbosa would be an efficient way of going about keeping him from getting votes. For starters, it’s a mathematical probability that 12 of those residents wouldn’t have voted for Barbosa to start with. Seeing his name on a complaint would confirm the judiciousness of their vote. Assuming the other eight got really upset with the councilman, well, that’s eight angry people, or six potential voters (given the city’s turnout rate) out of the 17,600 who voted for him.
I realize Morton can be a bit touchy and heavy-handed in protecting himself and his staff, but I don’t know him to be an idiot. Barbosa isn’t running for council again, so that throws out the theory. If he still wanted to hurt Barbosa’s county bid, going through all that administrative time-wasting and putting his complaints ahead of the line–now, there’s a problem–so Barbosa could go back to his Facebook harem and say, see what I did for you? hardly seems the most efficient way to lose him six votes. Barbosa is much more efficient at doing that on his own.
4. Finally, there’s the matter of Barbosa’s “proof.” He submitted two code enforcement complaints that supposedly reveal Morton’s smoking gun. I saw his name on one of them, scrawled almost indistinguishably near the bottom of one. His name is not on the other one. So one document. He called that “proof,” and from that he extrapolated the rest of his protocols of the elders of zany theory that Morton and Grossman are out to get him (he wanted her fired, too, according to Morton).
The one document he called “proof” (or 20, if he has them) perhaps raised legitimate questions, but questions that should have been raised civilly, procedurally and logically. The answers were as readily available to me as they would have been to him. But Barbosa wasn’t interested in answers. He was interested in scoring a coup, and he went at it with the brutality of a fanatic, at the expense of a city manager’s and city council’s reputation. There is no “corruption” here. Only defamation.
“Freedom of expression destroys democracy when it becomes an oft-used freedom to lie and to defame,” the late French philosopher and journalist Jean-Francois Revel wrote in 1988, ironically in criticism of the ideological left at the time. “It remains faithful to the old principle of fanaticism: that a just cause–and what cause is not just in the eyes of its partisans–justifies unjust proceedings. Does it not understand, will it never understand, that democracy is the regime where there is no single just cause, only just methods?”
Barbosa’s method reeked.
I did find one weakness in the city’s response to my question about the specific ways inspectors follow up on code enforcement complaints, and whether a policy or written procedure spells out if and when complainants’ names may be included. There are no such procedures. Grossman wrote that “Code officers follow State Statutes, local laws and follow training procedures.” Perhaps some procedures can be made more explicit, if only to prevent dopes from fabricating scandals where there ain’t none.
A final thought: I learned this week of something that touched me directly in Barbosa’s methods. It has to do with his attempt to fire Steve Garnes, the Palm Coast Fire Police captain who’s been with the agency for 15 years. Garnes is on call 24/7. He hasn’t missed an emergency call in 15 years. Weekly he cooks for one of the fire houses, along with Chief Jerry Forte, in a tradition of camaraderie. As an unsung hero who daily and nightly risks his life on highways for our safety, you won’t find many like him.
Barbosa pushed Morton to fire Garnes after Barbosa got in a crash. FlaglerLive reported the crash and ran pictures. Barbosa accused Garnes of passing the pictures to FlaglerLive. Even if he’d done so, it would have been perfectly legal, and required, that he do so, if we’d asked him: he’d have taken the pictures on the job as a government employee, automatically making them public record. But he didn’t. Barbosa was proffering a blatant lie. They were Sheriff’s Office pictures, credited to the FCSO in capital letters in the article. Barbosa apparently doesn’t read. “Steve the fire police [sic.] is the name of the person that gave flagler live the pictures,” Barbosa texted Morton, insisting that action be taken–again, an inappropriate, if not an illegal, move on his part. Morton unnecessarily contacted Forte. Forte debunked the councilman’s lie.
When I was trying to get an interview with Barbosa, he said he’d interview “when you learn to write about the truth not your opinion.” That was rich. And I’ve never seen the two as mutually exclusive. My opinion is meaningless if it’s not grounded in evidence. I wish I could say the same of this man playing the role of a councilman.
So I’ll close with my message to Barbosa, this alleged friend and advocate of ordinary workers, texted to him yesterday, which I think sums up the kind of credibility and character we’re dealing with here: “Incidentally Victor I learned that you tried to get Steve Garnes, the Palm Coast Fire Police captain, fired, over your false allegation that he sent FlaglerLive pictures of your crash. The pictures ran with attribution to the sheriff’s office. I’m on record requesting the images from the SO. You could have–you should have–stopped right there. Going after a fire police captain–who hasn’t missed a call in I don’t know how many years, day or night–over a fabricated assumption is dirty pool and morally odious. Not to mention your implicating me in a lie. If that’s how you operate to get your ‘proof,’ don’t be surprised if we seek to look at and question what you call ‘proof’ more skeptically. Of course, you don’t want to answer questions. But dropping IEDs then claiming to be a victim is a damn strange way of fabricating your reality at the expense of other people’s name and livelihood.”