It was a beautiful Monday night and what better way to spend it but at the Crystal River City Council meeting.
I hadn’t attended a Crystal River Council meeting in a very long time. Years, I’m guessing.
It was a lovely meeting. Some discussion about partnering with the county to help with the parking nightmare at Fort Island Trail Park boat ramp, and the very cool renaming of 8th Avenue after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
The former came about because Crystal River is losing its city boat ramp with the Riverwalk project. City Manager Ken Frink will bring the idea to county commissioners next week, and that seems like a win-win all the way around.
The latter was the result of numerous meetings the city staff have had with residents of Knights Addition, to rename 8th Avenue between U.S. 19 and NE 13th Street. It’s always wonderful to see the government and citizens coming together for the greater good.
All in all, it looks like Crystal River is in capable hands.
And, of course, I recall when it wasn’t.
This happened long before Crystal River had the beautiful downtown area, Heritage Village, the town center and Citrus Avenue, long before Crystal River had the tourists and Three Sisters Springs, long before all that.
Crystal River was getting a well-earned reputation of chewing up city managers and spitting them out. Oh, we can go on and on about who was right, who was wrong and all that. It was just a mess, I know that.
I had managed to avoid the Crystal River news beat for a long time. I used my Inverness residency to beg off the assignment to those who lived closer to the west side of the county.
But I read the paper and saw the infighting in Crystal River. Council members sniping at each other. The city manager sniping back. Residents sniping at each other during meetings.
Lots of sniping. Very little actual governing.
One day the editor called me into his office. The reporter who had been covering Crystal River was going crazy with the shenanigans. The editor asked if I could take it over and I reluctantly agreed.
Man, I wasn’t looking forward to that. Any reporter who says he likes writing about local government turmoil needs to find another career. Sure, that’s fun at first but after a while it just gets so pathetic.
So I called the council members to let them know I’d be around. Then I told them to expect different reporting than what they were used to.
“You know how you guys say mean critical things to one another? I’m not going to write about that,” I said. “You don’t like each other, that’s your problem.”
Timing, as they say, is everything.
I joined the beat as yet another city manager was shown the door. While the city searched for a replacement, it brought in someone temporarily. The man’s name was Phil Deaton, and Phil was part of an organization of retired administrators who were hired temporarily by municipal governments in between managers.
Phil lived in Beverly Hills and he was a true pro. He cared very little about the personalities of the city council or how elected officials got along – or didn’t.
He was a calming influence. Council members liked him so much, they asked Phil to interview for the job full time.
At his interview, on a Saturday morning, I recall one council member asking a question that was designed to make another council member look bad.
“If a council member went behind your back to speak directly to a department head, how would you handle that?” the councilman asked.
“Well,” Phil began, “I’d bring that council member into my office and explain that we don't do things like that here, that the council should be speaking with me and not the people who work for me.”
Good answer, right?
The councilman wasn’t satisfied.
“You’d tell us, right? You would tell us the council member was going behind your back?”
(By the way, the council person he was trying to bait sat literally two chairs away. These were not happy people.)
Phil didn’t take the bait.
“No,” he said. “I wouldn’t tell you. I don’t think it’s your business.”
Straight talk from a professional manager.
The council hired Phil and he stayed on more than a year before retiring for good. Andy Houston followed him, and Crystal River’s dark days were in the rearview mirror.
Crystal River is such a wonderful little city. And it’ll be crazy jumping this weekend with the Manatee Festival, always a great time.
The city has its challenges. But the good thing is this city and its residents are working hand-in-hand to improve the way of life and find solutions. Having lived through the city’s difficult past, it is most refreshing to see partnerships thriving in Crystal River.
This is small-town government at its finest because citizen involvement and caring, competent city staff combine to provide the fuel for success.
Way to go, Crystal River. Keep showing us how it’s done.
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Mike Wright has written about Citrus County government and politics for 36 years.