FIGHTIN' WORDS

THE MEME TAKES ROOT

In defense (sort of) of Alvin Brown in the midst of an overhyped scandal

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It seems that every week finds Alvin Brown 
 losing control of the political narrative. 
 Last week's City Council audit of his travel expenses from a couple of years back provided further evidence that the mayor's political enemies are calling the shots.

The local media, in headlines across what passes for the political spectrum in these parts, made the audit out to be some watershed moment. First Coast News and WJXT said it "slams" the mayor. The Times-Union used the more restrained word "scrutinized." Action News said the report claimed Brown "violated the law." And so on.

All of the pieces are more or less the same: a high-level overview of the 
document, treating it as some sui generis example of a Mayor Gone Wild, styling and profiling like Ric Flair across the global landscape on the taxpayer dime. As if the Council auditor (who just so happens to work for the Council, which doesn't get along all that well with the mayor) doesn't have an agenda in releasing this audit now, just as the Rummell Inc. juggernaut starts to pick up momentum.

See, the travel expense audit is an old game, something long-toothed pros around here understand. It's been dredged up, with varying degrees of impact, for at least a few decades — Travelgates were used to impact the Koch administration in New York City, the Poppy Bush administration and various mayoralties across the land. Handled well, they can wreck an incumbent, or force the resignation of an underling, as happened with John Sununu under Bush 41.

Those scandals tended to be egregious, with obvious patterns of excess and power-drunk politicians making it rain like Ben Bernanke working quantitative easing. What happened in our mayor's office, in comparison to the more extreme Travelgates, is really nothing — old news, and not particularly interesting at that.

The mayor did not fly coach sometimes. There were times when he and his entourage may not have stayed at the cheapest hotels available, in accordance with municipal code, which apparently expects this mayor to sleep at a Motel 6, and not one with Magic Fingers. There were moments when it would take more than five days to file an expense report. (Scandal!) And, most damningly, there were occasions when the mayor scrawled his initials instead of the required signature, something the audit tells us is "contrary to travel documentation for all other employees."

I talked to Bill Bishop, former Council president and current mayoral candidate, and even he recognized the weirdness of the release's timing: "Everything is considered political," he told me. Still, Bishop points to these old travel issues as an example of "lack of stewardship of public funds," advocating for more transparency and clarity of reporting.

In an email, Lenny Curry, the putative Republican frontrunner, said pretty much exactly what you'd expect him to say: "This report on travel expenditures, the legal questions surrounding the water taxi purchase, and the recent Moody's downgrade all fit a consistent pattern of fiscal mismanagement."

And that is the root of all this: yet another attack on Mayor Brown's competence, another weapon for his challengers to use against him. The meme put forth by the city's Republican establishment is that the Brown administration simply cannot manage. Those who read the entire audit will notice that the mayor's office agreed with all findings made by the Council auditor, and gave explanations (and resolutions) for most of the apparent discrepancies — but those weren't headline-worthy to our local press.

This is all just inside baseball, far from the election. The problem isn't this moment alone, but in combination. Taken together, the travel discrepancies, the water taxi fiasco and the lingering pension problem boost the impression that Brown doesn't know what he's doing. None of them is of itself a decapitating blow. In tandem, though, a pattern emerges — death by a thousand paper cuts, the time-honored way to take aim at an embattled incumbent who seems to be past his sell-by date.

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