Public Money, Public Purpose, Closed Doors: Enterprise Flagler and Chamber Carry On
FlaglerLive | August 4, 2011
Last week County Administrator Craig Coffey presented a new economic development plan to the Flagler County Chamber of Commerce board. The plan doesn’t have the county commission’s endorsement, though it has the support of some commissioners. Nor has it been presented to the commission in an open meeting. Coffey briefed each commissioner separately, then took the plan to the chamber, though almost the entirety of the plan rests on at least $400,000 in tax dollars.
- With or Without Palm Coast, County Would Lead New Economic Development Council
- The Ottati-Enterprise Flagler Plan
- Craig Coffey’s Economic Development Council Plan
- In Day of No-Shows, Latest Economic Summit Slouches Toward Enterprise Flagler
It’s not clear at what point the public will be involved in the discussion. Previous economic development initiatives wrecked as a result, in part, of their lack of transparency and contempt for public input, even as the same initiatives presumed to favor the public interest. The contradiction remains unresolved as government or private sector officials involved in those initiatives continue to defend the secrecy, always promising transparency at a later date.
The chamber leadership was receptive about any plan that would move economic development forward, but was non-committal about the Coffey plan’s particulars: it wanted to explore it further, and examine its implications with Enterprise Flagler, the public-private economic development partnership (many of whose members are also chamber members).
The Coffey plan would be modeled after the Tourist Development Council, with a nine-member board representing all major local governments (except, curiously, the school board, the single-most potent economic development force in the county and its largest employer by far) and selected sectors of private industry. It would place Chamber President Doug Baxter in an executive role over the staff of the proposed economic development council (EDC), and eliminate Enterprise Flagler. Public funding now supporting Enterprise Flagler would be redirected to the new council. Local governments are not keen on subsidizing both entities. Palm Coast is on the verge of abandoning its $90,000-a-year commitment to Enterprise Flagler, and appears uninterested in paying to be part of Coffey’s EDC idea.
None of those discussions have happened in the open. No open discussions are scheduled: county-wide economic development “summits” have been canceled twice, and not yet rescheduled. Closed-door discussions continue, though the discussions involve almost exclusively public dollars and a public purpose.
Enterprise Flagler had floated its own plan in June in a secret meeting of its own. That plan, crafted by Enterprise Flagler President David Ottati, would cut the Enterprise Flagler board in half and increase its funding. Bunnell and Flagler Beach officials were angered: the plan appeared to sideline the two cities’ voices. The plan was quickly amended to assuage the two cities: they’re back at the table, and that issue has been resolved. Enterprise Flagler has also opened all its meetings since, and was willing to hold an open meeting today, Ottati said, but he was not in control of the chamber meeting.
The Coffey plan introduced a new wrinkle in the equation—and for Enterprise Flagler, nothing short of an existential dilemma. The two plans appear mutually exclusive.
Meeting on Wednesday, the Enterprise Flagler board was, unsurprisingly, mostly cool to the Coffey plan. Enterprise Flagler wants to stick around, and wants its plan heard. Board members were particularly uninterested in an economic development structure that would place the chamber in an executive role. Baxter clarified: the structure would be similar to the tourist council and its contractual relationship with the chamber, through whose offices Peggy Heiser, a chamber vice president, leads tourism issues on behalf of the government-funded tourist council. “It’s not as if I’m standing over her every day telling her what to do because she’s very good at what she does,” Baxter said of Heiser.
Lea Stokes, who chairs the Flagler chamber, last week had scheduled a 4 p.m. meeting today between the two boards—Enterprise Flagler and the chamber—to discuss the Coffey plan. The meeting, she told the Palm Coast Observer and FlaglerLive, was closed to media. By late morning today, Stokes said the nature of the meeting had changed: it would not be a meeting of both boards, but a presentation by representatives of Enterprise Flagler, including David Ottati, to the chamber board. Stokes said she had changed the nature of the meeting after a conversation with Ottati this morning.
“Based on that conversation there doesn’t appear to be a need for a joint workshop meeting between the two entities,” Stokes said. She said she’d know more after today’s 4 p.m. meeting.
There is no sunshine issue involved here: the chamber is a private organization, it may hold closed meetings just as it may hold open meetings. The Enterprise Flagler board’s make-up, however, includes elected officials and representatives from every local government, and is almost entirely funded with public dollars, making it subject to the sunshine law, with some exceptions (as when board discussions involve private companies prospecting in the area, and requiring confidentiality.) A meeting of the joint boards would have compelled openness, although even in the meeting’s original format, the chamber, whose members, being from the private sector, have an instinctive predisposition against openness, was intending to close it. By crafting the meeting as a special meeting of the chamber where members of Enterprise Flagler happen to be invited to make a presentation, the chamber is maneuvering around the constraint.
The meeting, however, is focused on the county’s economic development plans, public money and public purpose, raising questions about the motive behind its closure whether the strict letter of the sunshine law is applied or not. “If this is how they’re going to treat us now, how are they going to treat us when they have power?” John Walsh, the Palm Coast Observer publisher, said. Walsh has himself floated an economic development plan similar to the one Coffey presented in almost all regards, with a key exception: the chamber would not have an executive role over the economic development council.
County commissioner Barbara Revels, Flagler Beach Commissioner Jane Mealy and Bunnell representative Mick Cuthbertson, all of whom intend to be at that meeting, said they were not aware of the closure.
Ottati, who is also the Florida Hospital Flagler CEO, was in Jacksonville for part of the day today, receiving a CEO of the Year award from the Jacksonville Business Journal.