PAHOKEE — In a closet at home, Chandler Williamson keeps a box of bloody clothes, medical records and court files from an accident 13 years ago that inspired him to become city manager.
“I probably should have tossed it, but I keep that as a reminder and I keep photos on my phone as a reminder of my commitment to others in public service,” he said.
But his version of how he was injured — after rescuing a child on a go-kart track — is cloaked in ambiguity, very much like that which surrounds his rocky tenure as Pahokee city manager.
On Dec. 1, 2007, nearly eight years before he arrived in Pahokee, Williamson suffered fractures to his jaw, nose and clavicle when he was struck by a go-kart at a Boca Raton arcade.
He said he doesn’t often talk about it. But when he does, he describes a heroic act of self-sacrifice: He got hurt after exiting his kart to push out of harm’s way a small boy whose vehicle was stranded on a dangerous part of the track.
Public records from two agencies offer a less-heroic version. A Boca Raton police report and a state Bureau of Fair Rides accident investigation both indicate Williamson was hit after he got out of his go-kart, in violation of track rules, to retrieve a phone or camera on the track at the Boomers arcade.
No one disputes that Williamson had an accident that resulted in multiple surgeries to reconstruct his face and months of painful rehabilitation.
But the debate over exactly why he walked onto the live track that day underscores his willingness to break the rules — whether it’s an alleged act of heroism 13 years ago or, more recently, questionable spending decisions that have sparked efforts to fire him from his job as city manager.
Amid a raging national debate over racial inequality, Williamson is a Black leader in a majority Black town controlled by a majority Black City Commission. He insists he’s a selfless public servant who has brought positive change to the small rural community where more than a third of the 6,300 residents live in poverty.
He’s often confronted by a mostly white vocal minority suspicious of his motivations, saying he’s not a rising leader for people long seeking leadership but a rogue who maneuvers behind the scenes for personal gain.
They point to three inspector general critiques in a 13-month span, among the most findings issued against any city official since the county created the IG’s office in 2010, and chronic problems with the city’s most distinguished amenity, a marina on Lake Okeechobee, as failures that hamper the Pahokee’s ability to move forward.
One longtime critic, Sam McKinstry, was arrested Aug. 27 for allegedly threatening with violence and harassing Williamson and other Black city leaders. McKinstry has been perhaps the most vocal among a group of residents in condemning Williamson and the city’s leadership.
Mayor Keith Babb, who is Black, said he considers Williamson’s performance “a mixed bag” because of critical IG audits that trail him like “a cloud over his head.”
But the mayor said he thinks a lot of the vitriol aimed at Williamson and others has erupted from white residents who don’t like the fact that their city is run by Blacks.
“You hate to put race in there but it’s clearly that way, especially those main critics,” said Babb, who said the group might include as many as 30 residents.
“That’s kind of the pitch of our country right now in some areas. We know we’re not immune to it, but it’s just unfortunate that it’s happening in such a small community where everyone knows everyone.”
Whites make up about 10 percent of Pahokee’s population, Blacks nearly 59 percent and Hispanics 31 percent, U.S. Census estimates show.
“It shouldn’t have anything to do with color,” Williamson said. “But they’re making it about color. Have for a long time.”
And just as adamantly as Williamson dismisses his critics, he insists there’s no dispute over the events that placed him in the path of a speeding go-kart that Saturday afternoon in 2007.
“I have metal plates on both sides of my face,” he said, running his fingers over his cheeks. “It’s from a major accident trying to save someone’s life 13 years ago.”
A confidential settlement from a lawsuit he filed in 2009 against Boomers prohibits him from sharing details, he said. But, regardless of the two investigations that faulted him, he considers the accident a turning point that ultimately led him to Pahokee in April 2015.
“It took me five years after that accident to figure out exactly what I should be doing in life,” he said, sitting at his City Hall desk. “This happened for a reason, and how do we utilize this moment in time to help others?”
Three audits ‘not a joking matter’
Williamson, 50, can be both unfailingly polite and brash. A sharp dresser with close-cropped hair, he exudes confidence, as evident with the unusual but snappy fashion accessory he’s known to wear — bow ties made of wood.
“Better and cheaper than expensive ties,” said Williamson, who makes $127,000 a year.
After nearly 5½ years as city manager, Williamson considers himself a rising municipal star. Others have a different take.
The Pahokee City Commission this summer debated whether to fire or suspend Williamson for using his city-issued credit card on nearly $6,000 in personal travel since 2015, including a first-class airplane ticket to Atlanta and $500-a-night hotel rooms in Las Vegas.
It was the third time in just over a year the county’s watchdog found fault with Williamson’s handling of public money. But Carey hasn’t been the only government official to raise questions.
Palm Beach County Commissioner Melissa McKinlay is calling for an audit of $2.3 million in state grant money given to Pahokee since 2016 to renovate the city’s marina complex, which has not been fully operational since 2012.
Williamson admitted he needs to be more careful about documenting his spending. But he has tried to downplay the IG audits, characterizing some as “nickel-and-dime stuff” and insisting they only found mistakes — not actual malice.
Publicity over the audits, he said, has unfairly overshadowed the city’s accomplishments under his watch — from securing more than $12 million in grants and attracting new investors to installing $135,000 in new turf for a community football field and overseeing a $1.7 million county-funded renovation of the old city gymnasium.
“I tell people there are two things that are guaranteed about me,” he said in an interview. “I’m going to finish a project each year and I’m going to get you an IG report.” He laughed, then quickly clarified, in a serious tone, “That’s a joke.”
‘Bow tie bandit’
Some people in town aren’t amused by the pattern of scrutiny.
“Three IG reports in 13 months is not a joking matter,” Commissioner Regina Bohlen, Williamson’s most vocal critic on the commission, said in an interview. “That attitude is a big part of the problem.”
Bohlen, the commission’s only white member, said her concerns have nothing to do with race. The audits “show a pattern,” she said, and may be “just the tip of the iceberg.” She said the city manager should “be a lot more humble about it and a lot more concerned.’’
A petition with 136 signatures, gathered in early August, calls for the commission to fire Williamson. A meme circulating on social-media shows the city manager’s image with the words, “Bow Tie Bandit: Wanted for theft of city funds.”
Bohlen has tried to fire Williamson twice this summer. Both motions were voted down.
A majority of commissioners seem to agree that Williamson should at least be disciplined as a result of the latest audit. But they want to wait for the State Attorney’s Office and the county’s Ethics Commission to complete investigations before voting on whether to punish or fire him. That could take months or even years.
Williamson also may have gotten a reprieve from the coronavirus pandemic.
“I say this not as an excuse for not terminating or disciplining the city manager, but we need to take into consideration during this COVID pandemic (the challenge of) identifying someone who can step in,” Babb said after casting the deciding vote against firing Williamson on Aug 11.
Williamson told The Post he has not been questioned by any law-enforcement officers. And he doesn’t expect to because he has not committed a crime.
“We’ll see where it goes” he said.
In an interview, Williamson started to characterize the first two audits as “very meager” before adding, “I wouldn’t say meager, but I thought they were nickel-and-dime stuff.”
Carey took offense with those characterizations. The three audits “took hundreds of hours of research time” and were done in compliance with strict national inspector general standards, he said.
“Thousands of dollars in taxpayer money to provide across-the-board bonuses in violation of state law, that’s more than nickels and dimes to me,” Carey said about his first audit.
That report, in May 2019, faulted the city manager for improperly closing City Hall for several days and spending thousands of dollars to give city employees paid holidays without commission approval.
In the second audit, Carey flagged a $150,000 check the city manager cut from state grant money for work that was never done on the city’s marina. The report, released in February, also found Williamson violated state law by not requiring the contractor, Technomarine Construction, to secure a payment and performance surety bond.
The city fired the contractor, which has since gone out of business, but was unable to recoup $125,000.
“The one with Technomarine, we’re talking about $150,000 in taxpayer dollars. That’s well more than nickels and dimes,” Carey said.
Williamson was more contrite about the latest IG report, which flagged $5,800 in personal flights, car rentals and hotel stays over the last four years charged to his city-issued credit card and another $16,000 in improperly documented charges.
Several trips, the IG noted, were to the Atlanta area, where Williamson’s family lives, and to Columbia, S.C., during homecoming weekend of his alma mater, Benedict College.
“Professionally for me there is a blemish there,” Williamson said. “Reading that report, I lost a little support from friends. People close to me questioned the integrity. That’s difficult.”
He blamed it on innocently pulling the wrong credit card from his wallet. He said he paid back the $5,800 within a day of the audit’s release.
“I can do better as an administrator as far as documentation of our day-to-day business. It was a lot about that, not that anything was sinister,’’ he said before chastising himself in the third person: “It’s just, you need to do your documentation better, Chandler.”
‘Deteriorating financial condition’
Another big bone of contention around town is the sluggish pace of renovations at the marina complex on the southeast shore of Lake Okeechobee.
Considered Pahokee’s crowning jewel, the marina was rebuilt in 2009 with $12 million largely from state and federal grants. Since the last operator left in 2012, the city has struggled to find a new tenant to operate the marina and campground site.
In 2018, the city’s external auditor found the Marina and Campground Fund in “deteriorating financial condition,’’ said McKinlay, whose commission district includes Pahokee.
Last year, the state approved a sublease between the city and Everglades Reserve Holdings, a private company, to manage the complex. At the time, Williamson told county officials the new marina restaurant would open by October 2019.
But that never happened. And in June, the City Commission rejected the sublease, undoing three years of negotiations with ERH.
Robert Lambert, an ERH partner, said the city still hasn’t completed many repairs and the property is not up to code or in compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act, leaving it uninsurable.
One city official who tried to shine a light on the marina problems wound up losing his job.
In May 2019, Gary Brandenburg, the city attorney at the time, planned to raise concerns at a commission meeting about raw sewage leaking into Lake Okeechobee from a since-repaired broken marina sewer line. He also planned to call out Williamson — nine months before the IG did — for cutting the Technomarine check for work that was never done.
But before Brandenberg had a chance to offer his report, commissioners shuffled the agenda and fired him. Bohlen cast the lone vote against the move.
Brandenburg, the Palm Beach County attorney from 1985 to 1988, accused Williamson of violating the state’s open-meetings law to orchestrate his firing. The city manager has denied those accusations.
“I have never in my life run into a guy that is as nefarious as this guy,” Brandenburg, who would not comment for this story, said in 2019.
‘A breath of fresh air’
Williamson said he has worked hard to resolve the marina problems, which pre-date his arrival as city manager in April 2015. The complex could use another $5 million for renovations, he said.
But the campground and boat slips are operational and the restaurant can open as soon as the city finds a qualified company to manage it, he said.
One of Williamson’s biggest supporters is Jonathan Mann of JPDT Holdings, a company whose officers include three NFL players who grew up in the Glades.
“Without a doubt, he has been a breath of fresh air to this deprived city of Pahokee,” Mann wrote in a June letter urging the commission to “please send a resounding message to any naysayers that you stand firm with your support of Mr. Williamson.”
On June 5, less than three weeks before the City Commission severed ties with Everglades Reserve Holdings, Mann and his partners formed a subsidiary called JPDT Restaurant Group.
Lambert, the ERH partner, said he wouldn’t be surprised if JPDT Restaurant Group ends up with the marina’s restaurant contract.
“And now the big question,” Lambert said, referring to the grant money McKinlay wants the state to audit: “Where did the $2.2 million go? It didn’t go into the marina project.”
McKinlay said the county’s lobbying team was largely responsible for securing the grant.
“It will be harder for us to go back and ask for things for the county and particularly the Glades with legislators looking at us, ‘Well, we gave a city in your county, at your request, the funding for this marina and we still haven’t seen the benefits of that funding, so why should we give you anything else?’ That’s my concern,” she said.
“We put those chips on the table and now I feel like we’re getting played.”
‘A country boy’
Although Williamson lives in Wellington, about a half hour’s drive to Pahokee, he said he’s “a country boy” who can relate to the citizens in the small rural community he manages.
Born in Norwalk, Conn., he grew up in Coward, S.C., “a town smaller than Pahokee,” he said. He said he was 13 when he learned to drive a tractor and worked “in 100-degree weather” in tobacco fields.
“My mom made me do that,” he said. “She said, ‘Listen, there’s nothing wrong with agriculture, but if you don’t get a good education, this is where you’re going to end up.”’
On a visit to South Carolina in 2015, a few months after he was hired as Pahokee’s city manager, he said his grandmother told him their relatives decades ago used to travel to Pahokee to pick beans. Some ended up staying. “Some of these folks are my relatives and I don’t know who they are.”
Williamson said he never knew his biological father. He said his mother named him after her father, Chandler Williamson Sr. Her brother is Chandler Williamson Jr. Pahokee’s city manager is the third one with the name and his own 8-year-old son is the fourth.
Williamson said a guiding force in his life was his step-father, Carl Matthews Jr., who served in the Air Force for 20 years. Matthews, who died in 2011, instilled discipline and persuaded Williamson to enroll in the Air Force ROTC in high school.
“That man was special. Without him and my mom showing me the examples of what hard work looked like, I probably wouldn’t be sitting here today,” he said.
He moved to South Florida in 2001 for warmer weather and a change of scenery. Settling in the Fort Lauderdale area, he got a job at the Urban League of Broward County then in 2005 went to work in Tallahassee as an aide for state Sen. Mandy Dawson.
Dawson, a Democrat who left office in 2008 because of term limits, later served time in federal prison for fraud and for using cocaine while on probation for federal tax evasion linked to a pay-to-play political corruption case. Williamson said he spoke to investigators.
In December 2008, a year after his go-kart accident, he was hired as community relations director for the Housing Authority of Fort Lauderdale. He was fired less than two years later after being placed on probation following a poor performance review.
On his Pahokee application, he listed his reason for leaving the housing authority as: “Relocated to Georgia for family and to complete advanced degrees.’’
‘I like helping people’
He earned his master’s degree in public administration at Valdosta State University in 2012 and started working on a doctorate.
Two years later, he applied for the Pahokee job, which he said he did at the recommendation of a friend whom he would not identify.
Despite having no experience in municipal government, Williamson was chosen over two other finalists — former South Bay City Manager Michael Jackson and Lary Coppola, a former strong mayor for Port Orchard, Wash.
Williamson said Pahokee, described by one city commissioner last year as a neglected “stepchild,” has made strides under his watch. He has big plans for the future.
He wants to find $5 million to convert the old Pahokee High School building, built in 1922, into a new City Hall with a museum. He envisions a boom in ecotourism at the marina and jazz concerts on the lake.
“We have in front of us significant projects that will change the landscape of Pahokee forever. I’m excited about that. I want to be part of that,” he told commissioners minutes after the latest motion to fire him died on Aug. 11.
Each year since 2016, Williamson said, he has used his personal money to give one graduating high school student a $1,200 college scholarship.
“Public service has always been in my family. It’s something I gravitated to,” he said in an interview. “I like helping people. And that’s probably why I have this metal in my face after a major accident trying to help someone.”
‘A good Samaritan’
Since coming to Pahokee, he said he hasn’t told many people about his go-kart accident. But those he has told, including close friends like Assistant County Administrator Todd Bonlarron, heard how Williamson was injured after rescuing a small boy.
“Had I not put myself in harm’s way, he would have lost his life,” Williamson said.
But it’s nearly impossible to corroborate that account. For one, there was no video of the accident.
And while the Boca Raton police and the state Bureau of Fair Rides both said Williamson was struck after he exited his go-kart to retrieve a phone or camera from the track, the police report makes no mention of an attempt to help a stranded boy.
The state investigation includes a statement from the boy’s father, apparently the only adult witness to the accident, who said he saw Williamson walking on the track toward his son’s stranded go-kart just before he was struck.
Williamson, though, never actually rescued the boy because he was struck before he could reach the stranded go-kart, the boy’s father, John Reback of Jupiter, told The Palm Beach Post.
Reback said there’s a chance Williamson, before trying to help the boy, may have pushed a different stranded kart to safety, on a section of track Reback couldn’t see.
“He was definitely being a good Samaritan,” Reback said. “I saw him walk toward the stranded kart, but he never made it.”
In his lawsuit against Boomers, Williamson said he passed the stranded kart at least twice while he was racing. He said it looked as though the boy was becoming “agitated” and frustrated that he couldn’t move his kart, which had gotten jammed on the inside rail of the track.
Worried the boy might try to get out of the kart and put himself in danger, Williamson said he decided to stop and help.
He “was able to successfully free the little boy’s go-kart and was then in the process of returning to his go-kart when he was struck by another go-kart driven by a little girl that had come around the blind corner,” the lawsuit said.
Citing Florida’s rescue doctrine, Williamson’s lawsuit blamed Boomers for “allowing a dangerous condition to exist; the child was in a position of imminent peril and Chandler Williamson acted reasonably in rescuing the child which resulted in his injuries.”
Ed Ricci, one of Williamson’s attorneys in the suit, said he never doubted Williamson’s version.
“My belief is he was trying to help a kid who was stranded,’’ said Ricci. “I didn’t think it was something he was trying to spin to make himself look good.”
In a deposition, Jeffrey Johnson, a lawyer for Boomers, asked Williamson if he ever considered slowing down at the pit area to alert track operators about the stranded boy, instead of stopping to help the boy himself.
He said he did not. “I’m racing,’’ he replied.
‘Penguin in the room’
While Williamson said he keeps that box at home with his bloody jeans and shirt and medical records, another memento sits on his City Hall desk — a pen shaped like a penguin.
The pen was given to him at the hospital by a nurse in the aftermath of the accident so he could write on a pad to communicate with people while his jaw was wired shut.
‘’That pen reminds me of the challenges and struggles I’ve had physically to come back and sit here before you today,’’ he said. “It guides me in everything I do.’’
He said he’s thought about writing a book about his experience “and calling it ‘The Penguin in the Room’ because it explains my entire life story moving forward from that moment.
“It helped me communicate with the outside world and it reminds me of my commitment to others. Public service, for me, I don’t take lightly. I can’t put into words what it means to work for this city the last five years,’’ he said.
“We can’t rebuild this city overnight. But with the right staff and the right administrator, we’ve been able to achieve so much in a short time. For me that’s what the penguin in the room is about, performing under the greatest challenges.”
Staff researcher Melanie Mena contributed to this story.