Saturday, April 16, 2011

Plugging the leaks when Punta Gorda palm trees lose the will to live

Charles 'Dave's not here' Wallace
Another in the "stuff that was never published for reasons that defy logic and gravity" anthology. "We love it!" they chorused. "We're not printing it!" Seems the focus is on "happy news." Seems the publisher wants to be able to attend Rotary meetings without people yelling at him. Seems he chose the wrong business. It's a little outdated. No charges (surprise!) were filed. But they found their leak. It was them.

Looks like the secret is out. And Punta Gorda Mayor Harvey Goldberg is the one who tipped over the bean jar. Thanks, Harve.

Goldberg shattered the carefully crafted mystique that the county's wascally wabbit double-ought media spooks are Astin-Martin driving, CIA-worthy deep cover operatives. Covert special ops clones who routinely black bag information from their network of moles artfully burrowed deep in the bowels of city government.

Hizzoner Harvey
Call it the Charles Wallace Affair. In the early morning hours of December 17, a palm tree apparently threw itself in front of city councilman Wallace's car near his girlfriend's residence on Park Beach Circle. Suicidal palm trees tend to be a problem in these parts, especially at 3 a.m.

If you haven't been following this tale of international intrigue, it seems police - who mysteriously cracked the state's complex license plate secret code and traced the abandoned vehicle to the councilman - eventually found Wallace at his girlfriend's nearby condo.

After repeatedly yelling "nobody's home" to the cops standing just outside the door, police eventually saw through the councilman's clever ruse and managed to get Wallace to not cooperate with their investigation into the palm tree's final moments.

Clearly grief stricken by this senseless loss of a decorative non-native species, it appeared to police that Wallace had possibly sedated himself with a few stiff ones as he struggled to cope with the kind of post traumatic stress that all of us who have plowed into palm trees at 3 a.m. can understand.

Thus it began.

Larry 'The Plumber'
City councilman Larry "The Plumber" Friedman immediately sniffed trouble when accounts of Wallace's early morning encounter with Florida flora began to surface in the local media.

Somebody, Friedman deduced, had talked. Not only was the city short one palm tree, the whole story was now out there for just anyone to oggle. And they were oggling before he, and the rest of council, had been given first oggling dibs.

In the mind of Larry Friedman, there could be just one explanation. It was the wrong one, of course, but no sense letting the facts get in the way of a good spy story.

When palm trees lose the will to live there is a routine police traditionally follow when it comes to breaking the news to the public and the next of shrub. The routine is spelled out in Chapter 119 of the Florida Statutes. It's called the Open Records Law. And for those keeping score, the notion that public records are public records can also be found in the state's constitution.

To avoid large fines and lengthy jail terms, Florida's police agencies long ago reckoned that playing along with this public record statute thing was probably a wise choice. Accordingly, departments throughout the state log just about everything that crosses their path on what's commonly known as the police blotter. There are exceptions. Deceased palm trees aren't among them.

Anyone, repeat, anyone can stoll into their nearest "cop shop" and ask to see the thing. Odds are it's right there on the counter. We're not talking launch codes here. Find something interesting? The nice officer will be happy ("happy" might be a stretch) to turn over everything ("everything" might also be a stretch) they have on just about anything.

But for Friedman and some of his colleagues on council, the idea that some time on or after 3 a.m. December 17 the Palm Beach Circle Plant Life Massacre was routinely added to a host of other stuff cluttering the Punta Gorda police blotter was far too obvious.

Friedman somehow managed to convince three other council members that Wallace and the palm tree were victims of a municipal conspiracy to "leak" public information to the public before it was leaked to them. City Manager Howard Kunick was tentatively tasked with launching an investigation aimed at (1) bringing the culprit or culprits to light and (2) removing any doubt that council had taken collective leave of its senses.

Enter Mayor Goldberg, who had initially signed on as one of Friedman's merry band of plumbers. Goldberg effectively ripped away the cloak of intrigue journalists keep neatly folded next to their decoder rings and Ian Fleming action figures.

It was Goldberg who revealed the ugly truth. The sorid story of the palm's demise was referenced in that pesky police log the department keeps in its lobby for everyone to see. News reporters, he explained, routinely check the log, a practice that pretty much dates to the days of Gutenberg.

"There may not have been a leak in the first place,” Goldberg said. Cue gasps of disbelief. Hizzoner also noted that it's possible council had "become distracted and mired down" in its crusade to shed light on the police department's seemy practice of making the public's information public. Really?

Fortunately for those of us in the news business, Friedman isn't about to settle for an explanation as obvious as the obvious. He intends to see to it that our children continue to hero-worship us as the modern day descendants of Mata Hari and Bond. James Bond.

Incredibly, Friedman publicly urged his fellow members of council to privately “give me a call or send me an e-mail” so he can covertly dish the dirt away from the prying eyes of those he was elected to serve. The same folks whose rights are enshrined in the language of F.S. 119. The same F.S. 119 that, coincidentally, sends public officials to jail for making the phone calls and sending the emails Friedman suggests.

But that's another investigation for another day. And, I reckon, another police blotter entry. Meanwhile, make mine shaken, not stirred. Or is it the other way around?