It's Civil War Between Activist Groups in Deerfield

It's Civil War Between Activist Groups in Deerfield
Flickr: mcd540

Few activists in South Florida have had as much fun attacking public officials as Chaz Stevens. But now that he's become a public official himself, Stevens has come under attack.

At Wednesday evening's meeting of the Deerfield Beach Housing Authority -- Stevens' second since being appointed to the board last month -- Attorney Tom Connick launched into a diatribe against Stevens, calling upon such notable historical figures as Nathaniel Hawthorne and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to condemn Stevens as a wild, vulgar, destructive force who lays waste to the reputations of honorable, diligent public servants. Like Pamela Davis, the authority's executive director, who is also Connick's client.

Connick's remarks are the latest illustration of the hostility that's developed between two groups of Deerfield Beach anticorruption activists. On one side is Connick, blogger/activist Bett Willett, blogger/activist Jeff Sayles, and others who admired former Commissioner Pam Militello. On the other side, it's Stevens and... well... just him.

Connick began his remarks, which you can read in full here, by describing the housing authority's state of disarray in the late 1980s, when he was asked to intervene. As part of Connick's effort to shore up the agency's chronic mismanagement, he hired Pamela Davis.

Under Davis' leadership, said Connick, the housing authority embarked on major improvements. But the happily-ever-after was rudely interrupted when Stevens took an interest in the housing authority this past year. Here is where Connick saw fit to quote Hawthorne's short story The Birthmark:

A false illusion has been attempted to be created by Mr. Stevens which attempts to have the public focus on a tiny technical blemish concerning procurement instead of observing the full functioning of the Deerfield Beach Housing Authority in an effort to damage the reputation of Pamela Davis, the Executive Director. Tonight you will be hearing the truth concerning Mr. Stevens' attempted smears. Mr. Stevens, like the brilliant scientist in The Birthmark, would rather you kill the internally and externally beautiful woman by focusing on a tiny technical blemish.

Pretty dramatic, isn't he? With suspense building that Stevens will be unmasked as a charlatan, Connick continues:

Mr. Stevens is totally unfit to serve on any board in the City. What responsible City Commission would appoint to a board a mentally ill person who is so degradingly abusive to women? Mr. Stevens has repeatedly sent emails that are part of the public record that reference the City Mayor as "Peggy The Twat Noland" and "Twatster Nolan." As we all know, the word twat is a vulgar slang for a woman's vulva, which is a woman's exterior genitalia.

A housing authority meeting would seem the last place for a lesson on the finer points of female productive organs, but Connick is right that Stevens has referred to the mayor with that fairly obscene word.

But is a penchant for profanity really the basis for barring someone who wants to have a role in ensuring that the housing authority is being operated corruption-free?

It's worth pausing here to point out that Stevens was appointed to the board by none other than Mayor Peggy Noland, who should be the offended party. Instead, Noland put aside the slight. She told Juice that however ill-mannered Stevens was, he at least cared about the way the housing authority was run. And that was more than could be said for the rest of the community, who had failed to apply for the open board seats. It was more than she'd come to expect from the existing board members, whose failure to show up had caused meetings to be canceled again and again.

What's more, if Connick was arguing that Stevens predilection for name-calling made him unfit for the housing authority board, then Connick undermined his case by hurling insults at Stevens, calling him "mentally ill" and "deranged" and alleging that Stevens "manifests profound sexual degradation and abuse issues towards women."

Connick closed his statement by comparing himself to an attorney who stood up to Sen. Joseph McCarthy and asking Stevens' fellow commissioners to answer every Stevens query with the same call for "decency." Said Connick:

This grizzled Irish American attorney will defend this wonderful African-American woman who is justifiably a role model to the women of Deerfield Beach, the African-Americans of Deerfield Beach, and the entire community as a whole, from an attempted internet reputation lynching by Mr. Stevens. I ask Mr. Stevens and request that each member of this Board ask Mr. Stevens when you listen to what he requests, "Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?"

On a personal note, I've met Connick recently and have talked to him in the past. I've found him to be a very honest, decent person. But my sense is that he's picked a case that is so personal, it's caused him to lose judgment.

Stevens -- whom I've talked to on the phone but never actually met -- may be vulgar, occasionally obnoxious, and egotistical. But I've never known him to be duplicitous. I think he just loves to catch bad guys, and sometimes his enthusiasm leads to cussing and name-calling.

There's so much political apathy in South Florida that we can't very well demand our activists be both engaged and polite. However venemous Stevens can be, his is unquestionably political speech, the variety that's most sacred to the First Amendment. That he cares about his city government is an estimable quality, and the city's better for it.

Now maybe the rivalry between the two groups started with Stevens hurling invective in the general direction of the activists aligned with Connick. It hardly matters. If those activists care about the big picture of bringing accountability to local government, the polite thing to do is to give Stevens a measure of credit for his role, if not for his tactics.

I called Stevens for comment. Striking a far milder tone than he does in his blog posts and comments, he said:

"Mr. Connick is entitled to his own opinion. However, my record and conduct since becoming a commissioner has been exemplary. In fact, I've pushed through a code of ethics policy, which is the first in its history for commissioners. And Mr. Connick should be pleased with this."


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