Welcome to (Ch)eatonville 

On April 13, 2001, Good Friday, an Eatonville maintenance worker named Lydia Hernandez reported to the city's police department that, during the night, somebody had broken into the office of city finance director Richard Chess. His door was apparently kicked in, and the lock on a safe box pried off. Missing from the box was $100 in cash and $93 in checks and receipts.

The strange thing about the burglary is that the front door to Town Hall was locked when Hernandez arrived to work that morning. So were the other five outside doors, none of which showed signs of forced entry. Steel bars on the building's windows were not damaged. Instead of a break-in, it appeared Eatonville police were investigating a "let-in."

On April 16, 2001, the day after Easter, Karin Dunn, the town's utilities billing clerk, reported a second Town Hall burglary. This time $600 in cash and $321 in checks from a locked cash box were taken. But the box showed no signs of tampering. Only two people had access to the box: Dunn and Chess, the finance director.

Again there was no sign of forced entry on outside doors. And, like the first burglary, there were no suspects. City workers changed the locks on the outside doors, and the town council authorized spending $3,300 for a new security system. For reasons still unexplained, however, Town Hall administrators never got around to installing the cameras and after-hours verification system they paid for.

A week later, on April 25, 2001, Dunn reported a third burglary to police. This time, several doors within Town Hall had been damaged. The door to Mayor Anthony Grant's office, and several others, were sliced open with a chainsaw. No money was taken but Eatonville police again noticed that there were no signs of forced entry to the outside doors.

By then only seven people -- all town employees -- had keys to the building. Police found a fingerprint on a computer moved during one of the burglaries, but the print wasn't clear enough to use as evidence. There were still no suspects.

Ten months later, another burglary -- another let-in -- this one for $900. Again, police had no suspects. But they did have a theory: The motive wasn't money or goods. Somebody was targeting Town Hall to purge documents. The missing money and the vandalism were a cover.

If the theory proves true, Eatonville could have a mini-Watergate on its hands. Documents themselves have little intrinsic value, but they could prove very damaging to someone or something. Lack of archives can also cripple a city's ability to go about its business. No records, no paper trail, no way to track what's gone before.

"It is interesting that these documents are suddenly missing, and Town Hall is suddenly broken into when there has not been a history of break-ins," says Louise Johnson-Wright, a former Eatonville council member who now sits on the town's Historic Preservation Board. "The missing documents were either controversial or detrimental to some action taken. A security system has not been installed to date. When a home has been invaded, a top priority is to make it secure. Self-preservation is the law of nature, isn't it?"

Look into the city's past and you'll find that Eatonville is just the kind of place you'd expect to find a mystery like this.

One hundred years of bickering

Unlike other municipalities, Eatonville's significance has never been its location, its land value or its ability to advance commercial interests. The city's importance, the reason it exists, is because of race; specifically, the race of its residents.

Since incorporating in 1887, Eatonville, squeezed between Maitland and Orlando on Interstate 4, has always been governed by blacks, making it the first government in America to be ruled exclusively by blacks. (Other cities, such as Brooklyn, Ill., incorporated with predominantly black officials and citizenry.)

Two white men, Capt. Josiah Eaton and Lewis Lawrence, sold what is now Eatonville to blacks and helped the new residents finance the first church. Consequently, the town was named after Eaton (a Union cavalry officer), and the town's oldest church, Lawrence African Methodist Episcopal, is named for Lawrence. It is unclear whether Eatonville was founded as a way for Maitland to rid itself of black residents, but Eatonville was certainly glad to be free of whites. An 1889 land advertisement in the Eatonville Speaker boasted that the town was, "all colored, and not a white family in the whole city!"

But the town has never fully capitalized on its notoriety, even though the Harlem Renaissance author Zora Neale Hurston was born in Eatonville and lived there until she left for Baltimore in 1917 to go to school. Hurston, whose father, John, was the town's third mayor, wrote about Eatonville in several of her books. In "Mules and Men" she describes Eatonville as "a city of five lakes, three croquet courts, three hundred brown skins, three hundred good swimmers, plenty of guavas, no schools and no jail house." Until the end of the 1960s, the town was not much more than a rural outpost, a town of less than 1,000 residents surrounded by woods.

Even today, the town of 2,500 has a rustic feel; of its 665 acres, 228 (or 34 percent) are undeveloped. Unlike its larger neighbor, Maitland, Eatonville has no high-rise, or even midrise, buildings. It has exactly one traffic light and a gas station that does not pump gas or offer car maintenance. Its main street, Kennedy Boulevard, is on the historic registry because it was once the only connector between Apopka and Winter Park.

There are eight churches in Eatonville, drawing Sunday worshippers from as far away as Lake County. Sometimes they arrive early enough to see the fallout -- maybe a wrecked car or crime-scene tape -- from the town's three nightclubs permitted to stay open until 4 a.m., two hours longer than clubs in the rest of Orange County.

If the city has long been a source of black pride, its government has long been a source of embarrassment. This is small-town politics at its worst. Lawsuits, recall petitions, mudslinging and police investigations have been hallmarks of Eatonville government for decades.

No one can remember exactly what the quarrels of old were about, but many centered around council members challenging the mayor's authority, or power struggles after council votes ended in a 3-3 tie. (A 1998 referendum changed the number of commissioners from six to five.) In other words, Eatonville politicians of yore were arguing over much the same things as their modern counterparts.

"We've had a history of bickering for over 100 years," says the town's chief administrative officer Eddie Cole.

"One generation dies off and another comes on but it's always the same," says Valerie Flowers, a former commissioner whose father, Mayor Nathaniel Vereen, died in office in the late 1980s. "We've never learned how to disagree politically and not take it personally."

Dirty deal, parts I and II

Historically, the person who sets the political tone in Eatonville has been the mayor. Since 1994 the mayor has been 36-year-old Anthony Grant.

The youngest of nine children, Grant is short and thin, with a diamond-shaped, angular face and a rapid-fire manner of speaking. For most of his life, until 1989, he lived in a black section of Maitland on the outskirts of Eatonville. He graduated from Edgewater High School in 1984, barely passing 28 classes (out of 84 taken), including a freshman state-and-local government course.

Right out of high school, Grant wanted to become a cop. He joined the Explorers, a Boy Scout-type organization that recruits minorities, then applied to the Maitland Police Department for a position as a part-time police officer. But the two officers in charge of the Explorers program, Charles Taylor and Fred Williams, were decidedly against an advancement for the young Grant. "He is extremely manipulative of the people around him," Taylor wrote in a memo to the officer advisory board. "He openly admits to taking advantage of the system by stretching the rules as far as he can," Williams wrote.

Maitland hired Grant as a part-time cop anyway. But when he applied for a full-time position, the police department turned him down. The agency felt Grant lied about an incident in 1984 in which he pulled a shotgun on a friend -- and former Eatonville cop -- the now-deceased Tim Mincey. Grant first told investigators the shotgun wasn't loaded, then he changed his story and said he didn't check whether or not it was loaded.

According to his resume on file with the city of Orlando, Grant worked as a bookkeeper in 1987, then worked as a summer youth coordinator for Eatonville's parks and recreation department until 1991, when he began working part-time as a seasonal recreation specialist for Orlando's Community and Youth Services Department.

Grant worked his way to supervisor level, generally receiving good job evaluations, though he has been reprimanded three times. The most serious incident involved his removing 120 folding chairs from a city recreation building without permission in 1994 and taking them to Eatonville for his own wedding. Also in 1994, he was deemed a risky driver and prohibited by the city's insurance agency from driving city-owned vehicles.

His tenure on the Eatonville council has been rocky. The day after Grant was sworn in to his council seat in 1992, Gov. Lawton Chiles suspended him due to allegations of voter fraud that surfaced during the 1991 election. Grant and his mentor, Mayor Ada Sims, were acquitted of allegations that they asked non-Eatonville residents to sign absentee ballots and failed to follow absentee voting procedures. Two years after his acquittal, Grant was voted in as mayor.

In his eight years as Eatonville's top executive officer, Grant has survived a recall petition and a state ethics probe for allegedly back dating voter-registration envelopes so they met Orange County's election deadlines.

Grant's biggest scandal, however, involved a 1994 Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigation. The FDLE looked into allegations that Grant and another Eatonville official accepted bribes to allow an adult-entertainment club on the west side of town. After claiming they wouldn't permit the club to build inside city limits, Grant and Eatonville administrator Kenneth Harley signed an agreement with the developer that carved out a place for the club in a commercial area on the northwest side of I-4 and Kennedy Boulevard. They hadn't bothered to tell the town council about the agreement.

After Eatonville and Orange County officials found out about the agreement, they blocked developers from building the club.

Meanwhile, FDLE investigators subpoenaed Grant's bank accounts from 1993 to 1995 and checked to see if his honeymoon cruise to the Bahamas was paid for by the club's developers. They found no financial link between Grant and the developers.

But the FDLE was prepared to file charges against Grant and a friend of his, Michael Johnson.

According to FDLE reports, in 1994 Grant instructed his personal secretary, Tammy Stafford, to falsify a document as part of a smear campaign aimed at a political rival named Marilyn Davis.

In her statement to the FDLE, Stafford said Davis, a former commissioner and president of Eatonville's Founder's Day, faxed a list to Town Hall of items she needed to put on the annual Founder's Day. Davis addressed the list to Eatonville administrative director Kenneth Harley, but Stafford said Grant asked her to switch Harley's name to that of one of the adult-club's developers. The idea was to make it appear that Davis was appealing to the developers for help.

Stafford told the FDLE she wouldn't switch the names, so Grant convinced his friend Johnson, a businessman who later won a seat on the council, to do it. The next time she saw the fax, it was part of an anonymously distributed political-smear campaign dubbed "Dirty Deal Part I or Part II."

Stafford said she and Grant made mailing labels with names obtained from the town's water department and sent the propaganda out. When the FDLE got interested in the goings-on, Stafford says Grant told her to say that she didn't recall Davis ever sending the fax to Town Hall in the first place.

The FDLE was prepared to arrest Grant on three counts of falsifying documents and one count of resisting an investigation. But in May 1996, Orange County assistant state attorney Roger Mallory decided not to file charges against Grant. He didn't think he could prove his case beyond a reasonable doubt.

A giant mess

Grant's legal problems are one thing. His administration of the town is another. If turnover is any indicator, Eatonville employees are none too happy in their jobs.

Exact numbers are difficult to obtain because the town hasn't kept organizational charts. But in the last four years alone, Eatonville has gone through at least five finance directors, three police chiefs, two public-works directors and three chief administrators.

And then there's the fact that the town's finances are in shambles, and its $3 million budget is about $1 million in the red.

This spring, council members discovered the city was on the verge of financial collapse and began laying off personnel and slashing salaries. But even that proved difficult because of the town's inept bookkeeping. Eatonville hasn't completed last year's audit, which should have been done last January. (Officials say they'll have the figures completed in two weeks.)

Audits from 1992 to 2000 confirm that Eatonville is a town on the brink of fiscal disaster. Year after year, independent auditors made simple accounting recommendations, such as reconciling bank accounts and customer utility accounts, and year after year, the recommendations were ignored.

The 2000 audit is an example of the quagmire: Problems include the fact that the town had no way to control how much vacation and sick pay employees get; it failed to pay $12,000 in taxes because checks weren't correctly processed; the council didn't correctly authorize money spent through the city's anti-blight agency, the Community Redevelopment Agency; the town couldn't find all its documents for the audits; and cash receipts weren't maintained. The auditor put it this way: "The `town lacks` basic accounting knowledge and experience necessary to handle financial record keeping."

Last year, the Eatonville council hired two accountants recommended by the League of Cities to straighten out the town's finances. One of them, Rose Gamba, has already quit. The other, Katrina Gibson, is now the town's interim finance director. She is said to have a solid reputation. "We have people in place that if they're asked to do anything unethical, they won't do it," says council member Theo Washington.

Eddie Cole, the town's interim administrative officer, says that when the new financial team came on last year, they found signed checks drawn on the town's bank account stuffed in drawers, discovered that auto and employee-health insurance had gone unpaid, and realized that tens of thousands of dollars in customer utility bills had not been collected.

In September, the state finally stepped in, requesting documents from the town in a first step toward oversight. The procedure is routine -- required by state law for municipalities in financial emergencies -- and in fact, Eatonville is showing signs of recovery. The town council voted Nov. 4 to reinstate salaries at precrisis level beginning Nov 17.

One of the documents they'll certainly want to see is a certified copy of Eaton-ville's charter, the record that grants town officials the authority to govern. In typical Eatonville fashion, however, it's missing. The charter was supposedly locked in a safe in the clerk's office with ordinances from 1997 and 1998. They're gone too.

Grant attributes the missing paperwork, vital as it is, to political skullduggery. "Ordinances just up and vanish," Grant says, in mock disbelief. "Yeah, right."

Next week: Recalls, lawsuits, lie-detector tests, the mysterious vanishing charter and the Town Hall chainsaw massacre; business as usual in Eatonville.


More by William Dean Hinton


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