Cuckoo for Coconuts | Bob Norman | South Florida | Broward Palm Beach New Times | The Leading Independent News Source in Broward-Palm Beach, Florida

Cuckoo for Coconuts

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.

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."

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Journalist Bob Norman has been raking the muck of South Florida for the past 25 years. His work has led to criminal cases against corrupt politicians, the ouster of bad judges from the bench, and has garnered dozens of state, regional, and national awards.
Contact: Bob Norman