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Corruption Watch: Alachua FL must reform

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I have never been to Alachua, Florida. I am writing this from Cheshire, Connecticut. But there is such a thing as "a national act, already in progress." I've got that, as does one intrepid activist, Charlie Grapski. Grapski has gotten into a tussle with officials of Alachua, and the noise and the stench from the altercation has made its way to Connecticut via the internet. The story in Alachua ought to be a slap-stick comedy; those involved would make great comic book villains.

For residents of Alachua, there is bad news and good news. The bad news is that what ought to be slap-stick antics are being passed off to you as city government. You are being governed by a shady clique which seems clearly to have something to hide. So, city corruption is the bad news.

What is the good news? --The good news is that you have Charlie Grapski, something like a caped crusader -- a man who can walk into a telephone booth and emerge with a red "S" on his chest. The result is the fireworks of a Grapski activist charge -- a treat, if you like a smart underdog who is on the side of right and justice for normal citizens and voters. Grapski is once again going to bat for "the rest of us" -- the oppressed, the downtrodden, the everyman -- people who are not public office holders.

I began my political advocacy with federal issues; I kept to federal issues until an international issue -- China's Tiananmen massacre of civilian pro-democracy demonstrators -- arose. At that time, Charlie had a group called Students for a Better World. They rose in support of the Chinese dissidents, as did I. --Students for a Better World later merged into the China Support Network, the organization where I remain active as its founder. In short, this means that I met Charlie Grapski when we were dealing with an international issue. Above, I referred to "a national act, already in progress," and the China Support Network is also that. It is America's response to the Tiananmen Square tragedy.

After 1989 when CSN started, Grapski and I went separate ways, and he has clearly taken up state and local politics, at least as a starting point for cleaning up the political system. (My focus continues on the reform of China's political system -- see about that.) Recently, Charlie endured his second frivolous arrest at the hands of Alachua officials, and on YouTube, one can witness the police chief threatening to use a taser, during an arrest when Charlie was limp and not violent. So, the city fathers of Alachua were behind this dramatic YouTube video -- it crossed my desk and prompted me to lean into reviewing the related material on the internet.

I learned that Alachua has a mayor who was appointed by Jeb Bush, the former Florida Governor and brother of U.S. President George Bush. Her name is Jean Calderwood. She works closely with Clovis Watson, who has four roles: Alachua's police commissioner, city manager, city clerk, and election rigger (excuse me, "official"). They both work closely with Alachua Police Chief Robert Jernigan, whose job it is to carry Charlie Grapski out of city meetings, threaten to use tasers gratuitously, and generally, to be an all around curmudgeon.

The saga of Alachua, and the harassment of Charlie Grapski, has become a sordid, drawn-out long story with a low signal-to-noise ratio. Before the signal becomes buried in the noise, let's focus on the election of James Lewis, a man who almost(?) lost the election to the City Commission. If only regular ballots were counted, he lost the election. However, upon "city" processing of absentee ballots, Mr. Lewis won -- by 18 absentee ballots.

The axis of Calderwood, Watson, and Jernigan is the shady clique that I referred to above. What is their connection to Lewis? --The mayor's husband, Hugh "Bud" Calderwood, was the campaign manager and campaign treasurer for Lewis. Mayor Jean Calderwood, and Watson the swiss army knife, are said to have done some electioneering for James Lewis, likely on city time and with city resources -- and despite being members of the Canvassing Board. Watson and his deputy city clerk, Alan Henderson, may have accosted voters and twisted arms in order to secure votes for Mr. Lewis. According to the news website, Raw Story, the "election outcome [was] allegedly changed by absentee ballot manipulation."

At the time of this election on April 11, 2006, Grapski was a candidate for the Florida State House of Representatives. The district includes Alachua, and Grapski was present at City Hall to witness some election irregularities first hand, and through talking with voters as befits a political candidate. Having uncovered what he believed to be wrongdoing, within two weeks Grapski and University of Florida law professor Joe Little (also a former mayor of Gainesville) filed a lawsuit alleging election fraud and contesting the outcome of the April 11 election.

The central issue and the signal amid the noise is just that raised in my headline: Should Alachua, Florida overturn the James Lewis election victory? Well, folks, for practical purposes the axis of Calderwood, Watson, and Jernigan *is* the official representation of Alachua, Florida. They of the shady clique are not likely to overturn anything voluntarily, nor even turn over public records voluntarily. A court or an outside authority must order them to do so. The charges really have not been resolved up to the present day, but the clique of Alachua city officials has an appearance of impropriety. Citizens should be demanding better, and Charlie Grapski has become the vicarious representation of those citizens who would demand better of their government. Logically, the officials should be playing defense, and should be looking to erase any improprieties; to reassure the public; and to defuse the crisis by correcting any injustices.

In order to have the best signal-to-noise ratio, my article should end right there. However, what signals have been sent by city officials, out to the public? Alachua officials do not play defense gracefully. Instead, they have tried to play offense, being belligerent with Charlie Grapski, whom they have taken to harrassing throughout the course of this episode. They have tried to turn the tables and to make Charlie into the issue; attacks have been getting personal. (Did they know that he was my co-founder of CSN, and star activist?)

Making Charlie into the issue is their mistake. Charlie gives a good speech, as a former spokesman for CSN. He gets attention and gains a following, as seen by earlier action that he has worked up in his life. Charlie is not the issue, although he becomes the pin cushion as this story continues. Blazingly obvious and naked corruption is the issue. My advice to the Alachua officials is stated above -- erase any improprieties, reassure the public, and defuse the crisis by correcting any injustices.

Well, the public record shows something else, entirely. That clique projects a dark and sinister aura that should concern the citizens of Alachua, and indeed Florida and federal authorities. On his forays to retrieve public records, Grapski has been accompanied by a video cameraman, and in this day and age of internet video, even a "blue wall of silence" can't help the officials who are caught on camera. The mere act of video recording has become the focus of the officials' ire.

On May 1, 2006, city officials performed the first frivolous arrest of Grapski, for video taping. Remember, this was while they were defendants in a lawsuit for election fraud. Evidently, a television station was also videotaping the same scene at the same time. Were they arrested? No! How politically motivated is it when this staged arrest is accompanied by press releases, from Clovis Watson to the media, and the mayor then brags about it in a letter to the editor? That occasion was of officials, being clumsy as they tried to play to public opinion. It was not a routine arrest, it was a political arrest! When further charges were filed against Grapski, he notes, "they alerted the newspaper and not me." According to the High Springs Herald, "That case was thrown out of court and the charges against Grapski were dropped."

There is a tug of war on, and the voters of Alachua are caught in the middle. The arrests of Charlie Grapski are baseless and an attempt to silence activism through intimidation. According to fellow activist Michael Canney, "Charlie Grapski has acted within the law at all times and has threatened nobody....The ongoing attacks on Grapski are also intended to teach other citizens a lesson ┬ľ that it doesn't pay to fight City Hall."

In his June 11, 2006 interview with Raw Story, Grapski said, "They then put an ad in the newspaper for the last two weeks telling people who voted absentee that if we contact them, they should contact the city so they can take legal action!" This appears as a clumsy attempt at voter intimidation, or at least an attempt to pre-emptively sway voters against assisting the efforts of Grapski's group to uncover facts. The clique has not only stonewalled against releasing public records, they have spent money in this campaign to douse a brushfire at the grass roots level.

The situation finds that both Grapski's group and the corrupt clique must play to public opinion. (Did I mention that Charlie gives a good speech? He can take them!) The clique has performed a combination of stonewalling, legal maneuvering, grandstanding, threats, intimidation, and harassment in their attempt to fight the charges from Grapski and company. Do they appear to be poised professionals? No, they give every appearance of covering up something that they have to hide. Theirs are dark and sinister ways of evasion, including the glib use of sophisticated terminology to "explain away" any onus that should rightly fall to them. The clique on the whole exudes a guilty demeanor as they display the tricks of the trade for dodging accountability.

Citizens of Alachua should demand accountability, and not be cowed into losing their rights for clean elections and above-board government. As Charlie said to Raw Story, "People that work for the city are either part of the problem or they are afraid to stand up against it." He also said, "The people in the City of Alachua are afraid of retaliation by the public officials and the police officials if they stand up to the government. People are literally afraid." Michael Canney said that officials are subverting democracy, betraying the public interest, and in many cases violating the law.

Of Grapski, Canney said -- "he has declared his intention to expose the corruption and official misconduct that has become endemic [in Alachua] and he has demonstrated a remarkable tenacity in pursuing his goal of holding public servants accountable for their actions." Of the latest (Feb. 12 '07) frivolous arrest of Grapski (in which the police chief Jernigan is trying to level felony charges, a low blow), Canney calls it "just another politically motivated attack against a law-abiding citizen whose only crime has been to hold public officials accountable to the same rules and laws we are all bound to respect."

This case reeks, even from Connecticut. According to Grapski, Alachua faced "a similar problem ten years ago, [and] the City destroyed the records and told citizens they no longer existed." Now we can have the question, were public records destroyed in a perhaps-too-convenient fire at City Hall on December 3? Evidently, that fire started days after Grapski had requested public records from city computers, and the fire is thought to have started suspiciously with computers in City Hall.

I said above that the issue is election fraud; but, after noting their behavior, I believe that the entire clique as mentioned can, and perhaps should, become the issue. In addition to accountability, perhaps citizens should be demanding that heads roll -- that this clique should step down and resign. (That's a call for the people of Alachua to make, but as I write from Connecticut, my confidence in their government is zero.) Mayor Calderwood could be voted out of office in this years' April elections. [Note. On Feb.26'07, Alachua officials disqualified all three challengers, who had filed papers to run for City Commission in the April elections. This means Mayor Calderwood will be unopposed, and cannot be voted out of office in this years' April elections, which are the same as no election at all. We could nickname Alachua's to be a "martial law government." Citizens cannot feel well about having no choice, treated like serfs on a plantation.]

Due to this episode, Alachua is getting a national reputation for the corrupt, nasty, and reptilian ways of its officials. It is high time for external officials to investigate scrupulously, and to order the repair of Alachua's broken government. And it's high time for local officials to stop the false arrests, civil rights violations, and demonization of Charlie Grapski. Their clumsy attempts are laughable and display how Alachua officials have sunk to desperation. At the end of day, this will not be an "ad hominem" case about Grapski.

Grapski has become a widely-known brand name of activism. I note that recent headlines could be short and sweet: "Grapski arrested" (per AM850). "They're attacking Charlie again" (per Orient Lodge). I believe that Charlie gets resented (by corrupt officials) because he is the smartest man in the room. If citizens help him to get through this case, he will demonstrate and establish that citizens can only be ignored for so long. Upon completion of his program, what he will leave behind is better government. Charlie was running for office (State Rep.) when this case came down. I believe that he would make a fine State Rep., were his campaign not interrupted by Alachua's shenanigans.

According to Raw Story, "On June 29, Judge Pete Sieg of Florida's Eighth Judicial Circuit Court barred Charles Grapski from entering the City of Alachua....Banning a candidate for public office from entering a city seems extreme under any circumstances. But the judge's ruling is even more shocking considering that Grapski has not been charged with any crime." This was after the first frivolous arrest of Grapski, and before the charges were dropped. One can see that an election campaign is diminished when the candidate may not set foot in a city of his district! Everyone should decry this low blow, and evident interference with yet another election.

I urge the friends of the China Support Network to consider themselves as friends of Charlie Grapski. Perhaps one day, he will fight corruption in China (again). I can tell another story from CSN. In 2005, I began a rally by re-reading a Charlie Grapski speech of 1989. Afterwards, I spoke to a woman who said, "Your speech made me realize why I am here." She should not have needed a reminder -- she was herself a student in Tiananmen Square in 1989. Here was a Chinese woman, in a Chinese cause, and it took a Grapski speech to reconnect the dots, and to reinforce her original idealism. His words of 1989 still speak to us today.
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The author was once the 18-year-old candidate for U.S. President ('84) and later the founder of the China Support Network, post-Tiananmen Square.
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