Cuckoo for Coconuts

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A hundred-and-fifty years ago there probably would have been tar and feathers involved. Pitchforks and a greased rail would have likely also come into play.

Looked at that way, Lauderdale-by-the-Sea Mayor Oliver Parker can be thankful. He's only facing a recall petition, an endless stream of insults, and the undying ire of a large percentage of his constituency.

Parker, who has been mayor of the town since 1998, may very well be the most reviled politician in Broward County right now, per capita. And if you listen to him, the conflict boils down to a couple of time-honored staples of subtropical life, coconuts and bared breasts.


Mayor Oliver Parker

Those are the first things that the mayor brings up when asked about the issue that is ripping his quaint and unique beach burg apart: The hostile takeover of the town's fire services by the Broward Sheriff's Office.

The longstanding Volunteer Fire Department was ousted from the town after BSO terminated its contract in November. Parker made the motion and cast the deciding vote to kill the 60-member VFD. The sheriff's office then locked the volunteers out of the town firehouse and commandeered their fire trucks and equipment.

The town's surrender to empire-building Sheriff Ken Jenne enraged many of Lauderdale-by-the-Sea's most civic-minded residents. Think Wal-Mart swallowing Mayberry. Darth Vader trumping Luke Skywalker. To them, the move was nothing less than a Gestapo tactic and another sign of democracy's demise in their hyphenated town of 7,000 people.

At last week's city commission meeting, several citizens lined up to berate the mayor. It's a regular occurrence these days. And a newly formed Recall Oliver Parker Committee has already procured more than 700 signatures, which, if their petition stands, is enough to force a recall vote on Parker next year.

"These people are our family; they help get us through hurricanes," five-year resident Lisa Maxwell told the mayor last week, outrage dripping from her voice. "Why did you turn away from your history?"

It's a good question, one that I posed to Parker during a phone interview last week. That's when he told me about breasts and coconuts.

"First off, I'm a supporter of the Volunteer Fire Department, always have been and always will be," said the 55-year-old Republican who missed being elected to the Florida Legislature in 2004 by a mere 12 votes. "But I believe the volunteer fire department has to be professionally trained. Back in January, the department elected a chief and deputy chief who had no business being chief and deputy chief. They had no qualifications whatsoever.

"I'll give you an example. We had an incident last October where a firefighter was cooking hamburgers for rescue workers right after Hurricane Wilma. A young lady comes up to the firefighter who was doing the cooking and says, 'May I have a hamburger?' He tells her she has to take her shirt off and show everybody her boobs. And she does it."

The horror. The woman did, indeed, flash her assets to at least some of the hungry volunteers. But the firefighter/cook in question, none other than Deputy Fire Chief Jim McIntee, who is also a city commissioner, says he didn't ask the woman to do it.

"You drive down the beach and women are flashing the fire truck — c'mon, it's South Florida," says the married McIntee, who retired to Florida after a career as a police officer and arson investigator in Buffalo. "I didn't see any boobs. She had a halter top and a throw thing on and she took it off and I told her to put her clothes back on. Apparently, she's about 35 years old and she's an exhibitionist-type person.

"The real bottom line is that this guy [Parker] has turned into an ogre. He has the town furious at him."

The mayor says he's just protecting the town, even if it hates him for it. He points to the fact that the volunteers were taking coconuts — which could become dangerous in hurricanes — down from trees as part of a paid training exercise.

Parker is most angry that they were taking the coconuts from some of their own yards.

"That's misappropriation of funds, embezzlement, and theft," Parker says. "They could have done it on town trees and there would be no problem, but instead they decided to provide a special benefit to private citizens."

Again, McIntee scoffs.

"We have taken coconuts out of all sorts of people's trees," he says. "If it happens to be a volunteer's house, well that's what we do. If an old lady asks us to take their coconuts down, we'll be there. Before the hurricane, an old lady called and said she needed help with her shutters. We had 12 guys over there to board up her house. We did this 30 or 40 times."

In other words, it's typical small town stuff, which is the way the overwhelming majority of the people seem to like it. The volunteers respond to a pet dog stuck in a canal. BSO doesn't. The volunteers cook burgers for hurricane victims and help them with their shutters. BSO doesn't.

And the VFD has been around for a half-century without many complaints. It wasn't until 2000 that the trouble began.

That year, Lauderdale-by-the-Sea, which lies just north of Fort Lauderdale, annexed a piece of beach to its north, nearly doubling its population. "New Town," as it's commonly called, had none of the charm of traditional Lauderdale-by-the-Sea, which is now known as, you guessed it, "Old Town."

New Town has sterile and imposing condos lining the beach. Old Town has little old motels with names like "High Noon" and "Sea Spray" and "A Little Inn By The Sea."

New Town has a 15-story height limit, Old Town's is a mere three. And New Town had massive contractor BSO as its fire service provider, while Old Town had just the little VFD.

The cost difference was jarring — at first, BSO was charging New Town residents five times what the VFD residents were paying for fire protection. And initially Parker vowed not to let BSO take over Old Town.

But Sheriff Ken Jenne has been a master at usurping the towns of Broward County. That's a given — and Parker eventually gave in. In 2004, he helped the five-member commission pass a resolution to put BSO in command of the VFD. Of the $2 million contract for fire service paid to the sheriff's office, it subcontracted the VFD for about $500,000.

By that time, the two agencies were already involved in a bitter turf war. And there was growing consternation about it in the town, which overwhelmingly supports the volunteers. Parker also was gaining political enmity for his growing commiseration with developers. The mayor isn't shy about the fact that he wants to tear down the old motels and redevelop the town with condo and hotel projects.

So the town, led by a small newspaper called By The Sea Times, turned on the mayor. In March, VFD leaders McIntee and James Silverstone ran for the commission against two incumbents who favored BSO, Ed Kennedy and David Wessels. The volunteers crushed the competition, gained two seats on the commission, and stunned Parker and the old guard.

In that same election, the town voted on a referendum to impose term limits. The measure, aimed squarely at putting Parker out of office, was passed by a resounding 74 percent of the vote.

The mayor responded by making Sheriff Jenne — who has been hobbled by scandal himself — the grand master of the town's July 4 parade this year.

And he still controlled a three-vote bloc majority — with commissioners John Yanni (who happens to be employed by BSO) and Chuck Clark. It was that trio that ousted the VFD in November.

The vote came after BSO terminated its contract with the volunteers, saying they weren't safe, and backing it up with a list of minor complaints.

"What BSO did was dump the volunteers and get a bonus of three quarters of a million dollars in equipment that was bought by Lauderdale-by-the-Sea," McIntee says. "[The BSO fire department] has no home so they try to steal other people's homes to exist. They will do anything they can to control what they can."

Because VFD can serve the town for about half the cost of BSO, it's commonly believed that Parker has struck up an unholy alliance with Jenne. "There is no reasonable justifiable reason to terminate the volunteers the way they did," says Silverstone, the volunteer fire chief and new city commissioner. "Terminating the contract and kicking us out of our own station and taking our equipment, they didn't need to do that. There must be some backroom politics going on here."

Parker admits he's become friends with Jenne, but says they aren't close and he has cut no deal with the sheriff.

"The sheriff can't afford to pay me enough to make it worth my while," says Parker, a multimillionaire who pumped about $350,000 of his own money into his losing 2004 state house race.

He insists he's just looking out for the town — even if it hates him for it.

"We don't need the fire version of the keystone cops," he explains. "They're incompetent, they're dysfunctional, and, in my opinion, they are corrupt. And they refuse to discipline themselves. Put it in plain English, they refuse to accept civilian control."

The volunteers are still functioning, if barely. They operate out of an office and have one fire truck left (which the department paid for rather than the city).

"We're doing community service, we're going out with Santa Claus. We aren't running away," McIntee says. "Yesterday, an individual walked in and gave us a $50,000 check on the spot and said, 'Now you have all the money you need to fight BSO.' All of this money is going to be used to drive Ken Jenne and Oliver Parker out of this town. The mayor is part of the evil empire and it's not going to stand."

Even if the recall fails, Parker's term runs out in 2008. But the mayor says he's going to run again despite the new term limits. He argues the new law is retroactive and the city attorney has agreed with him.

The townspeople are livid about it, saying he's a disgrace to democracy. Parker, who admits that his political career is probably doomed, says it's just the opposite.

"It's real simple, if the voters want me out they'll vote me out," he says. "That's what democracy is all about. I may not have any base of support for all I know. Maybe I won't get any votes next time."

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