Welcome to (Ch)Eatonville

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Since its incorporation in 1887, Eatonville, population 2,500, has been a haven for blacks wanting to escape the oppression of Deep-South, white-controlled governments. But the town's government falls far short of that heritage. Town leaders have been known more for their back-stabbing, political animosity and legal maneuvers than for the benefits they've delivered.

Eatonville's current mayor, Anthony Grant, has been no different. His 11-year legacy as council member and mayor has been marred by allegations of voter fraud and an FDLE investigation by the state for accepting bribes and participating in a smear campaign against a political adversary. The town he governs is only now recovering from financial collapse. Employee turnover is high, the town borrowed money years ago for a still-unbuilt library, and the fire department is undermanned and demoralized.

Mayor Grant's administration has also been criticized for failing to respond to a series of burglaries in which a number of documents are alleged to have been stolen.

Because of poor record keeping, no one can say exactly what's unaccounted for. But there's a sizable hole in the town archives, and a town official is quite possibly the burglar.

This report is the second of two parts.

Anyone familiar with inter-family quarrels should understand how Eatonville politics work. Like brothers and sisters who shift alliances on a whim, political enemies in Eatonville sooner or later become friends, then enemies again. "Family fights are the worst fights in the world," says Louise Johnson-Wright, a former council member who now serves on the town's Community Redevelopment Agency. "They just don't get exposed."

In 1994, for example, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement was called in to investigate whether Mayor Anthony Grant had accepted bribes from developers of an adult-entertainment club. Grant came under scrutiny for saying publicly he opposed the club, then signing a document "designating" a site on Lake Destiny Drive "for use as an adult entertainment establishment."

The investigation found no evidence of wrongdoing, but an FDLE agent was prepared to issue charges against Grant and his then-friend, Michael Johnson, for allegedly conspiring to smear the reputation of council member Marilyn Davis.

Davis was off the town council for a few years, then won re-election and returned in March. Her victory was given a boost by Anthony Grant and his brother, Tony.

On the other hand, Michael Johnson, a round-faced, broad-shouldered man, was elected to the council in 1995 and supported Grant until last year when their personal and professional relationships soured. Grant, Johnson and another commissioner, Theo Washington -- friends since their days at Edgewater High School -- were once so close they campaigned together and formed a voting block against Grant's political nemesis, council member Bruce Mount.

Johnson -- whose grandfather, Augustus Johnson, was the eighth mayor of Eatonville -- and Washington also had business ties to Grant. The two were self-employed contractors who bought and distributed hair products from Tony Grant, Anthony's brother. Anthony Grant even supervised Washington, 36, and Johnson, 35, when they were seasonal employees at the city of Orlando's Community and Youth Services, where Grant has worked for 11 years.

But last year the friendships dissolved. Johnson got angry over what he describes as a failed real-estate venture with Grant, and led Mount and Washington in passing resolutions that altered the power structure of the town's government. (Pro-Grant observers consider Mount and Washington to be Johnson's "puppets.")

Together, the trio stripped Mayor Grant of his authority to sign checks and his ability to fire and suspend employees. Grant responded by filing a lawsuit and complaining to the media that the council had neutered him to the point that he couldn't even get paper clips without first asking the town council. (Grant's critics say he's responded childishly -- failing to sign resolutions, pick up his mail or attend council workshops.)

Grant also struck back at Johnson via an age-old Eatonville tactic: the recall. A petition circulated in Eatonville claimed Johnson said "bullshit" and "damn" during a May council meeting, signed a $24,000 check without authorization, and gave orders to town employees that were not his subordinates. (Mayor Grant faced recall in 1998, but the petition failed because it fell short of the required number of signatures.)

Johnson, though, had the last laugh. He resigned his seat on the town council Nov. 4 and took a salaried position as executive director of the town's Community Redevelopment Agency. Before resigning, he led the council in publicly censuring Grant, saying the mayor failed to notify council members of Eatonville's fiscal emergency, created a hostile work environment and generally displayed poor leadership. Then he called for an investigation of Grant by an outside law-enforcement agency.

"This thing has turned out to be something I never, ever thought it would turn out to be," says Johnson, who also threatened to sue Grant over allegations made in the recall petition.

Johnson now says he regrets being too lax on Grant. "I supported him unconditionally. I had a `full-time` job, and I counted on the mayor that he had done due diligence. Ask me that now, and I'd tell you I was an idiot. I was being hoodwinked. I started learning and finding out things on my own."

Councilman Theo Washington turned against the mayor because of the way he says Grant treated his sister, 33-year-old Natalie Washington. Theo Washington says Grant punished his sister, who has worked for Eatonville for four years, to the point of public humiliation.

Natalie Washington considered herself an ally of Grant's -- until she asked him to waive the $25 utility cut off fees for Eatonville residents delinquent on their utility bills, she says. Coincidentally, the mayor's request came around election time.

When she failed to cooperate, Natalie says, Grant moved her from job to job, then turned to drug testing to have her fired. When she failed two tests for marijuana, he demoted her from a town clerk to the person who picks up litter from the side of the road. One of her job requirements was to collect serial numbers from garbage cans.

In May, Grant asked the council to suspend Natalie for insubordination. Instead, the board reinstated her by a 3-2 vote; Natalie Washington is now the town's code-enforcement officer.

But her brother, Theo Washington, didn't recuse himself. Grant quickly pointed out that Washington violated the state's conflict-of-interest law. "I got frustrated," Washington says. "I didn't care because I was pissed off. The mayor was being vindictive."

When Grant filed suit against the town council in Orange County Circuit Court in August, he used Natalie Washington as an example of how the council was illegally by-passing his authority. "The old me would have locked everybody out of City Hall," Grant says. "But I don't think that's healthy. I decided to take the legal approach and let the judge define the role I have."

On Oct. 30, Orange County Circuit Judge William Gridley sent the case to mediation, advising Eatonville council members to "get the matter resolved between you so that people will have faith in you."

Trouble runs deep

Another source of animosity around town is Grant's sour relationship with Eatonville's interim administrative officer, Eddie Cole. The two live across Lime Street from one another and their children play together. Yet they have a long, acrimonious history.

When Grant became mayor in 1994, he asked Cole, then the town's recreation supervisor, to resign. (Cole eventually did, in May 1995, writing in his resignation letter, "I have received more write-ups and harassment from your administration than any of the other ones put together.")

As a council member in the 1990s, Cole was the mayor's most vocal critic, blowing the whistle when Eatonville consultant James Andrews billed the city and the federal government's weed-and-seed program for the same work. Consequently, Andrews had to repay more than $10,000 to the feds.

In 2000, Cole stepped down from his council position to run against Grant.

Grant says that by hiring Cole as the interim administrative officer, the council essentially slapped him in the face and missed a chance to hire a professional manager. "He doesn't have the ability, skills or experience," Grant says. "He doesn't know what he's doing."

Like Grant, Cole has a high-school education and a working knowledge of Eatonville's politics -- and problems. "I've worked with `Grant` and been on the council with him," Cole says. "Those are experiences no college degree can help you with."

For the past 13 years, Cole has coached women's basketball at Rollins College and written $1.2 million in grants for his nonprofit youth-counseling group, Every Kid Outreach. Friday evenings, he opens the gym at Life Center Church so Eatonville kids, including Mayor Grant's children, can take refuge from the streets, playing basketball and eating pizza.

Since stepping in as interim administrator, Cole has taken credit for slashing the bi-monthly payroll from $70,000 to $40,000 and collecting thousands of dollars in outstanding utility bills. "Am I the right CAO for the city?" Cole asks. "I was a former recreation director, former commissioner twice. I've seen all the mistakes. I've seen all the policies and procedures not in place."

Nonetheless, he stresses the "interim" part of his title, saying his intention is to resign as soon as Eatonville operates like a normal government. "I know there's somebody out there who can do the job," he says. "But even if you bring the best administrator into this environment, they won't stay long because they're not used to it. This is a dysfunctional government that we have to get functional. The problems are even deeper than I thought."

The politics of burglary

Perhaps the biggest problem of all is the town's missing documents.

Between April 2001 and February 2002, Eatonville's town hall was burglarized four times. Whoever was responsible took small amounts of cash. But there's a theory around town that the burglars were really after documents in the city's archives. One big clue: The burglaries were "let-ins," as opposed to break-ins. In other words, whoever entered Town Hall after hours had a key.

The official word from Eatonville police is that no documents were stolen in the burglaries. But that finding comes with an asterisk. The town's record keeping was in such disarray at the time that police have no way of determining what was stolen and what's been misplaced.

"We don't know what was taken," Eatonville police Chief Dave Thomas says. "It's impossible to determine because the records weren't even inventoried. They were thrown in a room."

But make no mistake, says Thomas. The records are gone. "Plenty of documents are missing. We just can't verify where they were taken from, or why, or who had them, or anything else."

Even that's a political sore point. Grant's adversaries say the paperwork was stolen. Grant says it wasn't. "What documents and where were they dumped?" he questions. "They don't show up in any police reports. It's a theory. It's a belief."

When Eddie Cole became the interim administrator five months ago, he took pictures of the sloppy record-keeping. Then he had a clerk clean up the storage room, filing records in white cardboard boxes. The re-filing helps, but it doesn't restore the integrity of Eatonville's archives. According to Cole, town employees still discover missing legal, building and financial records, usually after someone requests them.

Yet Grant claims Eddie Cole is misrepresenting the problem for political gain. Grant even suggests that the pictures Cole took were staged. "The back `storage` room was not in shambles," he says. "I did not see records in shambles. Some idiot, some dummy, would have had to put them in shambles to take a picture just for the purpose `he` got it for."

The mayor acknowledges that records are missing; ordinances passed in 1997 and 1998, for example, can't be found. But those documents were kept in a safe, separate from other records that disappeared, says the mayor, who notes that he doesn't have the combination. "The ordinances weren't laying on a desk or file cabinet."

If Grant is right and employees or council members are destroying documents, then they are breaking the law. Florida statutes prohibit municipalities from destroying documents unless they comply with the state's disposal procedure and receive approval from the Bureau of Archives and Records Management.

More important is the fact that the missing records cripple the town council's ability to govern. Without archives, there is no historical and legal precedent to settle disputes.

For example, when Grant says he's been stripped of his mayoral powers, and the commission feels otherwise, the matter could be settled by referring to the town charter. "You cannot change the powers and duties of the mayor except by a vote of the people," says Grant.

To bolster his case, Grant points to a copy of the charter he used as evidence in the court battle fight to regain his mayoral power. It says the mayor "shall be the executive and administrative officer of the town."

But Michael Johnson says that charter isn't the one he helped revise in 1998. As Johnson remembers it, the town charter didn't include the words "and administrative officer."

"It's not the document he and I authored," Johnson says.

Unfortunately, Eatonville's official, certified charter is missing, making it impossible to say who is right, and who is playing politics.

Seven suspects

On the evening of the April 24, 2001 Town Hall "let-in," Anthony Grant's brother, Kennedy Grant, dropped off a chain saw at Town Hall just before the offices closed for the day. A clerk stowed the chain saw, rented from Home Depot, underneath a desk in a small office in the front of the building.

Whoever let themselves in that night found the chain saw, fired it up and cut through the mayor's door on the east side of the building. They also sliced open other doors inside town hall, then left with the saw.

No one reported hearing a chain saw running in Town Hall after hours. The vandals stole nothing.

Mayor Grant rented the saw in his own name. The city reimbursed him for $276 after it was taken, even though the town never officially used it.

That doesn't bother Grant. Council members authorized the repayment, he says, and the Florida League of Cities reimbursed the town for it. (The repayment drives up the town's insurance rates, already astronomically high from at least six wrongful-termination suits the town lost during Grant's tenure). "I asked them to repay me for the chain saw stolen from Town Hall," he says. "They opted to do it. If they now have a problem with it, talk to them about it. They are the people who opted to sign the check."

Grant, however, was one of two council members who signed the reimbursement check.

By the time of the last Town Hall burglary in February 2002, only seven employees had keys to Eatonville Town Hall. Six of them took a lie-detector test. Eatonville police cleared all six.

The lone holdout was Anthony Grant, who says he scheduled a test with Chief Thomas, then canceled because he didn't think he should have to take one.

"I've been in office for 11 years," he says. "I could have let myself in at any time and removed a file, and nobody would have known about it. Why would I want to steal $100 and some checks worth $300 that nobody can even cash? I'd have to be the dumbest mayor in the world to do all the stupid things they accuse me of back to back to back. I'd have to be an idiot to continuously do that."

But by failing to take the test, as other town employees have, Grant leaves doubts that he isn't revealing everything he knows about the let-ins. "A title doesn't stop you from telling the truth," Eddie Cole says.

Grant flatly denies he had anything to do with the burglaries: "That is immoral and illegal," he says. Clues collected by the FDLE and Eatonville police rule him out, he adds. "They found a footprint that was a size 12," Grant says. "I wear a size eight."

Besides, Eatonville police already caught the Town Hall burglar after two burglaries of Eatonville's community center, he adds. "He had a key. There were no signs of forced entry."

But details about the two incidents at the Denton Johnson Community Center don't match Grant's assertions.

According to Eatonville police reports, someone burglarized the center during a weekend in February. Burglars entered through an unlocked window, took four computer play-stations, some snacks and $120 cash, then left through the front door. They didn't use a key. Eatonville police have not made an arrest.

Also in February, Eatonville police arrested a former town employee on theft charges. That employee didn't have a key either. According to reports, he collected more than $650 from people who wanted to rent the community center, but he failed to deposit the money into a town bank account. In May, the Orange County state attorney's office dropped the case.

Vote for Grant?

Despite the town's problems during his tenure, Grant is looking forward to his next term as mayor of Eatonville. One of his political enemies, Bruce Mount, has already declared he'll run in the March election. But Grant doesn't think Mount is much of a challenge.

"The image people have of me is very, very negative," Grant says. "People say I'm vindictive, like I'm the worst thing to hit Eatonville. But people don't know who I am and what I'm about. That's what they can't understand, why I keep getting elected. Man, at home, I'm popular. People in Eatonville know what I've done. They know my record. People in Eatonville aren't naive or dumb. They see I'm hands-on. They see my struggle. They know who does what. That's why I enjoy the support of the community. I welcome Bruce Mount or Michael Johnson or anybody else to run against me."

Grant and Mount have squared off before in the 1996 election. A year after that race, with Mount again running for council, Grant worked with Michael Johnson (still his buddy at the time) to paint Mount as someone who had absconded with "thousands" of dollars from the town's Martin Luther King parade. In fact, Mount was investigated and cleared by the FDLE of allegations that he failed to deposit $480 into a parade bank account.

But Mount's return to grace came months before, when parade organizers asked for his help with the MLK event in spite of the allegations.

Throwing mud at your opponent during election time is nothing new in Eatonville. And the town's lack of candidate forums or organized debates means candidates can say virtually anything and get away with it. Which means that candidates who take rhetorical risks often win races at their neighbor's expense.

"People get elected without saying what they want to do when elected," says Johnson-Wright, the former commissioner. "Let's get business out in the open. Documents are not the only things missing in Eatonville. Open forums are missing. Common expectations are missing. Mutual concerns are not shared."

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