Unsung Hero: Retired Air Force captain uses social media to hold city officials accountable

Posted: Mar 20, 2017 10:05 AM
Unsung Hero: Retired Air Force captain uses social media to hold city officials accountable
Part 9 of 9 in the series Unsung Heroes

When Burnie Thompson sat down with CNN Politics just before the 2012 elections, the cable news channel’s host prefaced her first question by saying that she knew she was about to get a “snarky response.”

“Not snarky,” said Thompson. “Cheery. I come to bring you good news.”

Cheeriness, combined with civility, information and a sense of moral duty to speak up, has been a common thread for the retired Air Force captain throughout his 10-year watchdog career – as has the frustration he engenders from media and elected officials.

BURNIE THOMPSON: The retired Air Force captain turned local watchdog confronts the Panama City Beach city council during a public comment period.

Today, Thompson is building a new model of local government accountability using social media to ruffle the feathers the political establishment in Bay County, Florida, and hopes to one day teach others how to replicate the low-cost plan in their own communities.

But it wouldn’t be possible if he hadn’t been fired.

In 2007, Thompson landed an FM talk radio gig in Panama City Beach, Fla. Thompson’s accountability approach and gift of gab were a perfect fit for the panhandle station’s conservative radio platform.

A favorite target was the area’s congressman, U.S. Rep. Allen Boyd – a self-described conservative Democrat whose voting record record belied that description.

Thompson championed Boyd’s 2010 opponent, Steve Southerland, a Bay County businessman who had never held public office. Southerland won an upset victory, riding the tea party wave of 2010.

Then Thompson turned his accountability spotlight on Southerland

“We got in a tiff about that,” he said.

Thompson was told by management to stop saying Southerland’s name on the air in reference to his watchdog news coverage. He refused.

In 2013, Thompson began criticizing Gov. Rick Scott. The Republican chief executive had suspended Liberty County Sheriff Nicholas Finch without pay over a small town Second Amendment-related dispute.

Thompson was incensed, as were many conservative and libertarian groups throughout the state.

A deputy had arrested a local man, Floyd Parrish, for carrying a gun without a permit. The sheriff later released Parrish on the grounds that he was upholding his right to bear arms.

A state attorney levied charges of official misconduct and falsifying public records. The case became a flashpoint in a larger gun debate, and Scott appeared to side with prosecutors. A jury would later clear Finch of all charges.

When Thompson invited the embattled sheriff to share his story on his WYOO radio show, it was the last straw. The moment the show ended, Thompson was fired.

“They said I was going to end up hurting Republicans and they can’t have that,” he said.

After more than eight years on the air, Thompson was at a crossroads. After giving podcasting a shot, he eventually built a Facebook following by broadcasting a show from a rented office that he turned into a studio.

It was ideal for covering local events.

“I go to every single city council and county commission meeting and live stream them,” Thompson said.

After getting a tip that Panama City Beach Mayor Mike Thomas was using his position to bully neighbors, Thompson confronted the mayor during the public comment period of a city council meeting.

“Have you ever directed either of the code enforcers orally, in-person to drive through your neighborhood and look for violations,” he asked. “If your answer is ‘no,’ I’d like to ask you if I were to ask both of your code enforcers on record would their answer be the same as yours?”

Thomas chose his words carefully.

“I probably have,” the mayor said. “I don’t remember doing it. Have I personally directed somebody to go do something like that? Not to my knowledge.”

It was a legalistic response that gave some of Thompson’s 6,600 Facebook followers and more than 21,600 Twitter followers the impression that the mayor had made a slick admission of guilt.

When Thompson learned that the city manager’s girlfriend was allegedly slated to receive $175 an hour, and her company $23,000 from Panama City taxpayers for two presentations about how Panama City could save money, he took to Facebook and posted a 3-minute video showing Thomas refusing to hear public comments prior to the vote of approval.

“Our local officials have gotten too brazen, and it’s common in smaller communities,” he said. “If the local media would ask these questions, I wouldn’t have to.”

Thompson is striking a chord with Facebook fans, particularly in the 35-54 age group.

“I want to replicate this across Florida. What’s more powerful: Being a national radio host or local show host encouraging people to hold their local officials accountable?” Thompson said.

“That’s real grassroots power,” he said.

A version of this story first appeared in the Washington Times.