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Ormond Beach Observer Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2022 6 days ago

County Council Chair Jeff Brower accused of lying over 'political nature' of upcoming Wildlife Corridor workshop

The council voted 5-2 to postpone the Aug. 13 workshop after an hour of arguing on the dais.
by: Jarleene Almenas Senior Editor

When it came time for the Volusia County Council's closing comments, Councilman Ben Johnson was prepared with three issues — all against recent actions committed by Volusia County Council Chair Jeff Brower. 

The result was a tense hour of council members speaking over one another, making motions and hurling accusations and biting remarks. 

The first issue brought forward by Johnson dealt with the county's Aug. 13 workshop at the Ocean Center on the Florida Wildlife Corridor, which the council later 4-2 voted to postpone until after the November elections. Brower and Councilwoman Heather Post voted against. Johnson accused Brower of lying to him when he asked him at the last council meeting if the workshop was "political." Brower had replied that it wasn't, but Johnson, not convinced, put in a public records request for emails between one of the presenters and Brower. The presenter suggested the meeting be postponed until after the elections, as they "could create a shift in the targeted constituents within the county." 

Brower opposed the presenter's opinion, saying that the event was needed "before the elections so the public is better aware of what is being proposed and how it will work, then the public can let their representatives and candidates know if they support the corridor or not," per the email. 

"You have made this a political event," Johnson said. "A cheap political stunt to enhance your Volusia Values candidates. This is wrong all the way around." 

Brower, who is the only sitting council member whose seat is not up for election, has been endorsing council candidates that he feels line up with his fiscal and environmental platform. The "Volusia Values" candidates include Doug Pettit (at-large), Ted Noftall (District 3), Ken Smith (District 4) and Julio David Sosa (District 5).

The council chair argued that the event is political, but it doesn't have to be "partisan." The Volusia County Council races are all non-partisan. 

"Everything is political," Brower said. "It was not a political move to hurt anybody on this council. It's what I wrote in that sentence: I want the public to know where we stand. The public deserves to know where we stand on preserving land or not, and you can try every single meeting to squash this. It doesn't need to be squashed."

The half-day workshop was supposed to "bring together non-governmental organizations, members of the public, agencies, policy makers and local stakeholders to share information on the value of the corridor to people, wildlife and the economy," according to a county press release announcing the workshop. The Florida Wildlife Corridor is a statewide network of public conservation lands and private agricultural lands that provide a conservation area of nearly 18 million acres, of which 10 million has been permanently protected. Volusia County has over 434,000 acres in the wildlife corridor, of which 55% has been permanently protected through Volusia Forever and other partners, the county stated. 

Council members Billie Wheeler and Danny Robins sided with Johnson, with Wheeler stating that one of the speakers contributed $20,000 to a political action committee in support of the Volusia Values candidates. 

"The people deserve the truth and what came out is not the truth," Wheeler said. "... There were things behind the scenes." 

Brower said this was a "political witch hunt," and that he couldn't control if members of the public support PACs or candidates.

Robins said there was "so much poison fruit" attached to the workshop because of the email. 

"A blind person with zero common sense can see that something's not right," Robins said. "I'm not going to come out and make a flat-out accusation, but I've been around long enough when I could tell you — God almighty, this isn't good, and I am sick and tired of things being twisted around on this council and the level of untruthfulness."

Post said she'd never seen a "bigger circus" coming from Robins, and other council members, to which Robins said it was a point of "integrity." Post called it having a "holier than thou attitude."

"This holier than thou attitude that four people on this council have suddenly devised or come up with that everyone has to fall under the standard except them," she said. "It does not show integrity, and I'm a little offended as a resident of Volusia County. We're having all of these different discussions that we've been having over ridiculous stuff."

In addition to the workshop, Johnson also found fault with Brower sending a letter to the governor concerning I-95 Pioneer Trail interchange where he represented himself as the chair, saying that it alluded to the whole council agreeing with his position. The council voted 4-3 to send an additional letter to the governor to clarify that Brower's letter was his opinion alone.

The last issue Johnson brought up involved a recent meeting in Seminole County where Brower said Volusia was looking at the "toilet-to-tap" initiative to fix its water supply issues. He played a recording of Brower, and again claimed Brower lied when a few minutes earlier, he'd said he had mentioned the initiative was Daytona Beach's, not the county. Brower said Johnson was asking him "gotcha questions," in hopes he wouldn't remember the exact wording he used in the meeting. Toilet-to-tap has been a concern in the broad Volusia community since Daytona Beach first proposed it in 2018. There has been no new movement on the initiative. 

Brower said Johnson, Robins, Wheeler and Councilman Fred Lowry — who attended virtually — were damaging an event staffed had worked on, and a topic supported by both the state and the governor.

"You think you're embarrassing me?" Brower said. "I think you're embarrassing yourselves."

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