The New Pistolero in Town
Based on his solemn bearing, his unblinking, unsmiling demeanor, one might guess Bryan Caletka to be the director of a funeral home rather than what he really is: the biology teacher at Davie's Western High School and the young, gun-slinging rookie on the Davie Town Council.
He's not bombastic, and he lacks the media charms of your typical grandstanding politician, portraying himself as just a novice driven by the cold conviction that Davie government is rife with incompetence, waste, and corruption.
Caletka won election last March after a campaign that promised to engineer the ouster of Town Attorney Monroe Kiar, whose name had come to be associated with a corruption scandal. Last week, it was Caletka's motion that delivered the coup de grâce.
For this March's election, he hopes to check another name off his hit list: Town Council member Susan Starkey. "I decided she really would not be a good leader for the town," Caletka says matter-of-factly.
It's a brash statement, considering that Caletka is just 29 years old and that he's speaking of an official who was elected five years before he was. But this is Caletka's style: quiet, methodical, and relentlessly confrontational. He recently launched a political action committee, blandly called "For a Better Davie" but touting the bold mission of "opposing incumbents," a move that didn't exactly endear him to his more tenured colleagues on the council. That's a lot of chutzpah for an official who's yet to reach his one-year anniversary.
With its horse corrals and the Lincoln-log, ranch-style façades lining the main thoroughfares, Davie with a population of almost 90,000 keeps up Old West pretensions. But the arrival of a real Westerner Caletka comes from Texas has been a major shock to the town's political status quo.
Starkey, a beaming, immaculately coifed blond who came to the mid-December council meeting in a red Christmas sweater with white frills and dancing reindeer, makes an unlikely adversary. When asked how she became Caletka's enemy, Starkey says, "I truly don't know why other than it being political. He wants to be in control, I guess."
Starkey remembers a pre-Caletka council that acted "like we're one big Davie family." Council members didn't always agree, but they were tactful about expressing disagreements. "It's kind of unheard of to act this way," Starkey says of Caletka, adding, "This man will leave no bridge unburned."
Certainly, there's a ruthless quality to Caletka's pragmatism. It seems he had his political idealism shattered at an early age 18, when, as a high school senior, he ran for City Council in Plano, Texas, a suburb of Dallas. Caletka, who learned his party affiliation (Republican) by asking his father, then tried to campaign with nothing but his own $500. He was throttled.
Caletka would soon find himself swayed by the Democratic Party platform, especially after leaving Texas for graduate school in Rochester, New York. But though he switched his affiliation, Caletka says he had no ambition to run for office until he'd settled in Davie.
The catalyst was crime. It started in 2004 with the first of two home burglaries. Then thieves broke into Caletka's car to steal his airbags twice. After Caletka bought alarms for his car and home, someone put a bullet through his home's back window. "Crime was out of hand," he says. "I was angry at the District 1 council member for allowing that state of affairs."
That council member was Lisa Hubert. Caletka attended a Town Council meeting, to size up Hubert and the rest of Davie's leadership. "I just wasn't really impressed," he says.
Having resolved to challenge Hubert, Caletka this time bought a book, The Newcomer's Guide to Winning a Local Election, which gave him ideas for fundraising. His campaign set an aggressive tone: The first knocks were on the doors of Hubert's neighbors. As he campaigned through the rest of the district, Caletka says, residents complained about Hubert's paying disproportionate attention to her low-income, mobile-home-dwelling constituents. (Hubert pleads guilty to that charge. "Lower-income people, they needed the help more," she says.)
Caletka says that Hubert "has a big heart" but that he doesn't think she pushed hard enough for more police patrols, a point that Caletka has made a recurring feature in his council meeting remarks.
At the same time, December 2005, a tempest was swirling over the indictment of Town Administrator Chris Kovanes on charges he stole $460,000 from the town's coffers. Hubert was the only official who voted against placing Kovanes on paid administrative leave, pending the town's own investigation. "In this country, you're innocent until proven guilty," Hubert says of her reasoning.
The town attorney, Monroe Kiar, a former mayor of the town, got pulled into the scandal too, for failing to disclose his having done private legal work for Kovanes. Under questioning, Kiar claimed to have little memory of what kind of work he did for Kovanes and how much he was paid. Kiar did not return calls from New Times for comment.
Kiar also assisted Kovanes' effort to invest $275,000 in town funds in an annuity, a transaction brokered by former mayor Harry Venis. Based on the town charter, the deal was not a legal investment, according to an attorney hired by the town to research the matter. Kiar also did not inform the council about private legal work he'd done for Hubert.
All of this dovetailed neatly with Caletka's claims that Starkey's "one big Davie family" was riddled with corruption and cronyism. It didn't hurt his reputation as a maverick when, in January 2006, after one of Caletka's Town Council speeches, Martin Kiar (Monroe's son) and Andre Parke, both assistant town attorneys, followed Caletka into the parking lot and allegedly called him a "son of a bitch" and a "piece of shit" while also making a thinly veiled threat of violence.
Caletka (momentarily relinquishing his pistolero image) says he feared for his life. "Last year, the town paid [Monroe Kiar's] firm $389,000," he says with a touch of hyperbole. "That's a lot of money, maybe enough where [a critic] ends up in a ditch." He filed a police report, but Caletka only once heard back from an investigator, months after the incident, and he doubts charges will ever be filed. Martin Kiar, who has since won election to the State Legislature, was traveling and could not be reached for comment.
Kovanes was fired last January, but the case had already inflicted terminal injuries to Hubert's reelection bid. She lost to Caletka by a 3-to-1 margin.
Since the issue of runaway spending catapulted him into office, Caletka has brought a missionary's zeal to budget-cutting. He began by making forceful arguments about how the town paid a hefty price to the town attorney's firm for legal advice that, as history proved, turned out to be faulty or incomplete. Still, it took until last week before Caletka could win the council majority he needed to fire Kiar. In the intervening months, he went after other parts of the town budget, like the take-home cars Davie gives to its officials. "[The town clerk] sits in his office and takes public records requests. Why does he need a take-home car?"
It surprised Caletka when, after being elected to office, the town gave him a credit card to be used for expenses incurred in conducting town business. As the champion of fiscal conservatism, he resolved not to use it, but he wondered if his colleagues on the Town Council had the same discipline, so he made a public records request.
"And I wasn't exactly happy with what I saw," Caletka says. "It looked like meals were being purchased, and in the case of Susan Starkey, she did quite a lot of traveling around Florida on the taxpayers' dime."
A study of Starkey's expenses found that they were all legitimate costs she encountered in her role as a board member on Broward County's League of Cities, plus traveling expenses that came through her interest in environmental issues.
"He was way off-base on that one," says Mayor Tom Truex, who takes an avuncular tone on the dais but speaks tersely when the subject is Caletka. Truex believes him to be penny-wise and pound-foolish. "It's a good soundbite to say 'I'm watching out for people's nickels,'" Truex says, "but you can't be distracted from the big-ticket items."
Truex cites Caletka's interest in annexing the unincorporated neighborhood of Broadview Park and in the town's paying for the relocation of mobile home residents displaced by developers (positions that Caletka denies taking).
Although Truex accuses Caletka of "micromanaging" town government, council member Judy Paul the only other Democrat on the dais says that's exactly what's been missing. "Had we 'micromanaged' the budget three years ago," Paul says, "we probably would have found the companies that Kovanes started." The former town administrator is accused of funneling town funds through shell companies and into his own pocket.
Paul, whose nine years on the council make her the body's most experienced member, is retiring in March, a fact that gives even more urgency to Caletka's fledgling, anti-incumbent PAC.
Even as he seems to have been winning battles on the Davie Town Council, though, Caletka's opponents look better-equipped to win a war of attrition. Caletka admits he's already exhausted.
"I never promised anybody I was going to run for reelection," he says. "It sucks your life; it really does. I've had council meetings go to 3 in the morning. I've had to go home just to go to bed for a few hours before waking up to teach class. I'm still in my 20s, but two hours of sleep doesn't cut it anymore."
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