Mulligan: County Re-Enacts Beach Dredging Meeting It Had Closed to the Public in July
FlaglerLive | September 10, 2012
A citizen had complained in July to the Flagler County Commission about a closed-door meeting on beach dredging proposals between the county administration and the U.S. Corps of Engineers that had nevertheless included three elected members of the Flagler Beach City Commission. Monday’s meeting was a redo for the public’s benefit.
In mid-July County Administrator Craig Coffey and his staff held a meeting with engineers and planners from the U.S. Corps of Engineers to discuss a possible dredging project for the Flagler shore. Coffey termed it a staff meeting. But two Flagler Beach city commissioners and the Flagler Beach mayor attended, and Coffey turned away a private citizen interested in the issue—Dennis McDonald, who was running for a county commission seat at the time.
McDonald raised a ruckus over the closed-door meeting, subsequently complaining about it before the Flagler County Commission, several of whose members termed themselves uncomfortable with the closed doors. Coffey defended his actions saying, correctly, that staff meetings are typically closed to the public. But the invitation of several elected officials from the same panel muddied his case.
When two or more members of an elected government panel gather in the same room for official business, especially business that their government is dealing with, the assumption is that the meeting is public. Strictly speaking, the law does not forbid elected officials from attending staff meetings as long as they remain silent and do not, before or afterward, speak with each other outside of their own public meetings. But the appearance of impropriety, and the sense that the public was excluded from a matter of great interest, made Coffey’s position more difficult to sustain. And the county attorney advised that he try again.
Monday morning, Coffey, the Flagler Beach officials and the same half-dozen Corps of Engineer staffers gathered at the county’s Emergency Operations Center for what was literally a re-enactment of the July staff meeting. This time the meeting was advertised. The public was welcome. Minutes were kept. And the staffers around the table went through the motions of what amounted to a formal mulligan.
“I didn’t really feel the need to have it again but we did,” a clearly uncomfortable Coffey said after the meeting. He explained it as “an abundance of caution,” and legality: “We talked with the attorney,” he said.
The meeting itself was not remarkable. It lasted 37 minutes. The original meeting, according to Jason Harrah, the Corps’ project engineer who led both meetings, lasted 37 to 40 minutes. Virtually the very same people were sitting around the table, including Bruce Campbell the Flagler Beach city manager, Linda Provencher, the Flagler Beach mayor, and Kim Carney, the Flagler Beach city commissioner. Commission Chairman Jane Mealy had been at the original meeting but wasn’t at this one.
McDonald was in the audience, half-satisfied that his initiative got the meeting re-enacted, and half-skeptical that the exercise was as transparent as it appeared.
“I saw a condensed version of what went on from back in July. They told us what they wanted us to hear,” McDonald said. The reason he was able to make that judgment? He’d acquired Carney’s notes from the original meeting, and saw disparities between the two. “What I do know is that having gotten Kim Carney’s notes from the city clerk in Flagler Beach, there was a discussion about the fact that the cost-benefit ratio did not work, so they couldn’t do the project. In other words the zip code 32136 wasn’t valuable enough to save according to their modeling.”
There was a lot of technical talk at Monday’s meeting—about dune extensions, the segmentation of the Flagler shore into four sectors, or “reaches,” each with its own projected costs—and the presenters were clearly going through motions, as a favor to the county, rather than engaging in earnest work. But it came down to laying out a timetable of mere possibilities rather than certainties.
The heart of the matter is a study of the dredging project, which has been slow-going, but that the Corps is now accelerating. Seven reviews of the study will take place concurrently rather than consecutively, so the study will be made public by February, for public review, with a meeting scheduled then to discuss what tentative plan may be adopted and what environmental impacts it might have, Harrah said.
As always, who will pay what, should it come to dredging, remains in question.McDonald has more than a personal interest in the matter: his wife Janet is involved in save Flagler Beach, the organization backing a proposal by Dick Holmberg of Holmberg Technologies to install underwater “stabilizers” along the beach that would, according to Holmberg, rebuild the beach naturally. The Flagler Beach City Commission has voted to give Holmberg Technologies a try—assuming the commission can get the $50,000 necessary for a study of Holmberg’s project (Holmberg himself is requesting the $50,000). And assuming that Holmberg cooperates with local governments’ requirements of detailed explanations of what he would do with the money. So far, Holmberg is not cooperating fully: the information he’s sent Flagler Beach and the county falls short of answering either government’s questions.
The Corps of Engineers doesn’t like Holmberg much, either, and is unlikely to permit his project, even if local governments approve or fund it, though to McDonald it’s the more viable alternative to dredging.
“We can’t afford to wait, we can’t afford their prices, and we can’t afford the devastation,” McDonald said of the Corps’ very lengthy process of getting its projects through, and the project’s’ big price tags. “We’re in favor of anything that brings back naturally the beaches.”