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A Tiff, and Broader Implications, In County’s Hope of Eliminating Voter Voice in Economic Development

| October 7, 2013

County Commissioner Barbara Revels was 'appalled' that Dennis McDonald, who'd backed closing elections to tens of thousands of local voters in the 2012 cycle, would paint himself as a defender of voters' rights, as he did Monday, though Revels herself was defending eliminating the right of voters to have a voice in a key economic development tax matter.

County Commissioner Barbara Revels was ‘appalled’ that Dennis McDonald, who’d backed closing elections to tens of thousands of local voters in the 2012 cycle, would paint himself as a defender of voters’ rights, as he did Monday, though Revels herself was defending eliminating the right of voters to have a voice in a key economic development tax matter.

In November 2004 voters in Palm Coast and Flagler County approved two separate referendums that authorize their governments to give companies property tax breaks to encourage economic development. Palm Coast voters approved the measure by a 63 percent margin. Countywide voters approved it with 60 percent of the vote. The measure must be renewed in November 2014.

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Local governments can approve tax breaks on a case by case basis by simple majority votes once the referendum has passed. But such a referendum must be renewed every 10 years.

The Flagler County Commission wants the referendum requirement eliminated. The commission wants to replace the decennial referendum requirement with its own super-majority vote. That is, once every 10 years, it would give itself permission to grant tax breaks for the following 10 years, as long as at least four of its five members approve the original authority. Subsequent votes would again need only be by simple majority.

The commission, in its annual list of legislative priorities, is asking the Legislature to change the law. (Palm Coast has not taken a position on the repeal of that provision of the law, Beau Falgout, the city’s senior planner and its point man on economic development, said Monday. “City staff will recommend to City Council a voter referendum in 2014 to continue to offer tax-abatement for economic development purposes, unless there are changes to the State enabling legislation. At that time, we will provide analysis regarding this request.”)

The commission’s stance has garnered little attention. Monday morning, however, it provoked a brief and irony-laced clash between Commissioner Barbara Revels, who also chairs the county’s economic development council—and fully supports the measure abrogating voters’ rights—and Dennis McDonald, the former commissioner candidate and currently the county’s (and Palm Coast’s) loudest critic.

It also drew an odd defense of reduced voter and taxpayer involvement in economic development matters from County Administrator Craig Coffey, who went as far as calling giving voters a voice through referendum “a mistake.” Coffey’s administration’s $500,000 economic development department—entirely paid for through the general fund’s property tax revenue—was created two years ago under the banner of public participation and transparency. But it’s often been similarly tin-eared pronouncements, which come off as contemptuous of the public, that have hurt government-backed economic development causes in the county and amplified the perception of those efforts as opaque or clubbish.

Monday’s brief discussion, highlighting the measure’s political sensitivity, points to what extent the luster of “economic development” has dimmed in Flagler County since 2004. At the time, the county was still on the economic upswing, fueled by a seemingly limitless housing boom. But the economy soured in 2006 and has yet to recovery. Unemployment has remained in double-digits for the past five years. And the county’s economic development record, until last year, was dismal at best, despite the incentive program in place.

A private-public economic development partnership collapsed after several ill-fated initiatives and inflated claims of success. The county’s own economic development efforts at the county airport tallied up several costly failures. Palm Coast’s tax-incentivized deal with Palm Coast Data for more jobs never panned out. And both Palm Coast and the county ended up going their separate ways, with new economic development strategies that—helped by the somewhat more buoyant economy—have been more successful.

The success may not have been long-lasting enough to convince voters to be less jaded about government-backed economic development, which explains the county commission’s fear of having to ask voters’ permission to renew the tax-incentive referendum. It would likely not pass.

At the commission meeting Monday, County Administrator Craig Coffey portrayed the matter as a way to save taxpayer money by not having to hold a referendum—a red herring on Coffey’s part, since the referendum would be held during the 2014 general election and would in most circumstances add no cost.

Charlie Ericksen, in the foreground, won his race, Dennis McDonald, in the driver's seat, did not. Click on the image for larger view. (© FlaglerLive)

Charlie Ericksen, in the foreground, campaigned with Dennis McDonald, in the driver’s seat, last year. (© FlaglerLive)

The matter of the referendum was initially raised Monday by Commissioner Charlie Ericksen, who was uncomfortable with the proposal to eliminate the referendum requirement on two counts: it was unclear to him when the referendum authorization was expiring, and he was not thrilled about taking the initial voting authority away from voters. (Neither Coffey nor any of the commissioners knew when the original referendum was passed or when it was expiring.)

“I appreciate being able to offer this incentive,” Ericksen said. “I’ve seen it work in many of the states and the corporations that I’ve worked for, and it is a real plus. I think that my words I said last time is, taking away a voting opportunity for individuals, I understand voters today, if they do show up at the polls, are negative on more spending, which they might think would put a burden on us to better explain where this money goes for and the plusses that it provides our economic development opportunity area to afford prospects.”

“Our approach wasn’t that it was a negative as far as taking away a voting opportunity,” Coffey countered. “The reality is, in state law today, there are all kinds of opportunities. Some require votes of the people, some of them are supermajorities, some are simple majorities. And there are all kinds of taxes, fees, what have you. This is something that I’ve seen in other states that it’s, I think is almost a mistake in Florida that requires a vote of the people, in the sense that it’s a common economic tool across this country, and the fact that it requires a vote of the voters to do a common economic tool for new tax revenue, this is brand new revenue that you would be forgiving for a period of time, seems kind of funny if we want to put ourselves out as an economic state, and the folks that want to be aggressive in economic development. Yet we’ve got this tool we can’t utilize other than going through special procedure at a cost to the taxpayers to do it. If you put it, and it’s on another sheet of paper, that costs more money, and if you’ve got to do it for a special election, it costs more money. That’s the approach we’re taking, not necessarily that we’re taking something away from the voters.”

Coffey added: “Some people want to vote on every single thing and have a button in their house, and some people would have to put their trust in you, and I think that there’s a vast array of voters out there that have varying viewpoints.”

Lost in Coffey’s argument was the fact that voters in this case have not asked to vote on every economic-development package at all, but have been given a single direct hand in approving such potential packages—once every 10 years.

It was at that point that McDonald spoke of his opposition to “the idea that you’re going to take an opportunity away from people to vote.”

“You are spending their tax dollars,” McDonald said. “Mr. Coffey doesn’t quite get that. He says Florida is kind of a funny place, and the fact that he doesn’t want the tax-payers to have the ability to control how their taxes are spent directly. When you give those credits, those are moneys that essentially belong to the people that you collected them from, and I absolutely resent his comment on that, the fact that it just shows to me that he doesn’t get it, how this all works. It’s everybody in this county who contributes to the operation of it, and it’s not just five people who have the right to say that. So I would appreciate if you do not ask our legislators to, excuse me, the lobbying firm that you’re hiring, to ask our legislators to essentially vote against this the way I see it.”


Revels does not often take on speakers who address the commission. Monday, she took on McDonald’s hypocrisy, which also gave her the chance to deflect the issue and mute its voting rights’ aspect.

“I would like to speak to Mr. McDonald’s statement and tell him that I personally support this quite a bit,” Revels said, “and am appalled that you would stand before us, you who have participated in blocking a number of Flagler County residents, including myself, from voting in elections, by assisting in locking out Democratic votes, NPA votes,” that is, independents, “and basically closing out the votes for elected officials, particularly on the county commission. And I believe that you are as guilty as anyone from keeping everyone from being allowed to vote.”

McDonald is a member of two local extremist Republican clubs: the Flagler County Tea Party Group and the so-called Ronald Reagan Assemblies. In 2012, when McDonald ran for the county commission, members of the groups jumped into selected races as write-in candidates in a nakedly partisan move to take advantage of a loop-hole in Florida law that essentially closed the races to independents and Democrats. (Democrats have taken advantage of the same loophole to keep out independents and Republicans in other counties.)

For example in a primary contested by two Republicans who were not to face a general-election opponent (as was the case between Republican Ericksen and Republican incumbent Alan Peterson), the election would have had to be opened to all voters of all parties and to independents—unless there was a write-in, who would then create the impression of a contested general election. That’s what McDonald’s allies did in the Ericksen-Peterson race, which was then closed to Democrats and independents, and barely went to Ericksen as it would very likely not have without a write-in.

On Monday, McDonald’s appearance to contest the commission’s snub to voters was unfortunate, considering his history on the matter: his message, which would otherwise resonate with voters, was sucked up by his vacuum of credibility on popular voting rights.

McDonald demanded an apology in his rejoinder to Revels, saying that he himself had never been a write-in candidate. But that was one of the many disingenuous statements of the day on the matter of the referendum, and not only by McDonald.

Defending the proposal to scrap the referendum, Coffey at one point told commissioners: “You just did a tax exemption for seniors by super-majority vote.”

What Coffey didn’t tell them was that commissioners would not have been allowed to provide that tax break had voters not approved such measures in a referendum just last November.

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21 Responses for “A Tiff, and Broader Implications, In County’s Hope of Eliminating Voter Voice in Economic Development”

  1. confidential says:

    We need new people elected to the County Commission…otherwise their administrator’s instigated “feudal modus operandi” won’t stop.

    • tom jack says:

      We need term limits to protect voters rights and to eliminate these career politicians from continually living off the public trough.

  2. tulip says:

    Ms. Revels is correct—McDonald DID help make sure that thousands could not vote in certain races and the candidates in the RR club he belongs to went right along with it. I have no respect for anyone who prevents people from voting, and the government that allows such unethical behavior, and will never vote for a RR club member. Some are in office now and I wouldn’t be surprised if McDonald runs for something.

    The political goings on in Flagler County have changed for the worse.

    • Genie says:

      @ Tulip — FACTS, please. Do you have some proof of this?

      It should be noted that voter registrations HAVE GONE UP under many of these local organizations. SOURCE: Supervisor of Elections website.

      The Republican clubs, the REC and the RRRAFL elected 5 new candidates to office during the last local elections, including a new State Assemblyman, Travis Hutson, and a new Member of Congress, Ron DeSantis. Many who lost their seats were not pleased.

      Sour grapes are not facts.

  3. Jon Hardison says:

    This is so disgusting. The implication that the tax payer, who’s money is being gambled with very little success, is a nuisance to the process is absolutely unacceptable! Coffey proceeds with self assigned trust in one hand and contempt for those unwittingly granting it in the other. His lack of understanding appears to be the only thing he shed any meaningful light on.

    To take any control from the people, whether for “their convenience” or commission’s, makes impossible any future vote of no confidence by the people. We should maintain what little control we have over the process. If possible, we should be granted MORE! 10 years is too long — apparently long enough for some commissioners to forget who they serve.

    Without a vote most will choose ignorance over knowledge of failures they are powerless to resolve.

  4. A.S.F. says:

    So many special interests, so little credibility….

  5. Lin says:

    So Coffey is talking about trust and Revels is appalled at McDonald’s activities in the last election cycle for taking advantage of a legal loophole supporting the Republicans and the poor Democrats didn’t get to vote in their candidate.

    I lost my trust in the Commission after the purchase of the Plantation foul water company and the poor negotiating skills in the purchase of the old Hospital building. Trust them to make decisions with my $? NO.
    We need to vote.

    Ms. Revels, I’m appalled that what is accepted behavior legally by the Democrats albeit in other counties is not acceptable for a Republican. And Ms. Revels can publicly bring up what D. McDonald did during the last election cycle as reason to what? not listen to what he is saying now about this issue? Sour grapes, or what?

    Extremist groups, not a member, but funny characterization.

  6. Marissa says:

    Absolutely not! These people are not your friend. We need to get off our ass next election and vote these people out. There should be term limits. as well. Vote the bums out. We will be paying taxes up the wazoo for this, for that and a new City Hall.

  7. Genie says:

    The only problem with economic development in this county is that we have too many realtors and a lobbyist for the builders in elective office. You figure out in whose interest they are working…..hint, it is not yours.

    The motto of both the Commission and the Council is “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.” If you look at all the major deals around here, somebody in elective office has a financial interest somewhere.

    Anybody who doesn’t play along is considered to be an extremist. Proud to be an extremist here and thankful to Dennis McDonald for having the courage to take this on and speak out.

    We deserve better government than this, but it won’t happen unless we can get more people to vote.

    • BW says:

      Genie,

      So you are saying that Realtors area bad thing in our area and to contribute to our local government? Your point being they are all selfish people? That’s pretty offensive and 100% misguided. The only way one is successful in bringing residents and businesses to close deals is if the area is attractive to others. So, yes, they very much have a vested interest in the county improving and driven to keeping that going which is a good thing. What has Mr. McDonald done for the County and City of Palm Coast?

      Who do you think is bringing in the majority of the tax dollars into this county? Realtors. Who do you think is a major economic contributor block by their own personal spending and those they are working to bring in? Realtors.

      To say you are “proud to be an extremist” is sad. Especially in this day and age when so many have been gravely injured and lives torn apart by extremist groups. They are often hypocrits as well. Such as the local Ronald Reagan Assembly where I sat I listened to them discuss how Muslims were all extremists. So we should be concerned over other extremist groups causing real damage to real lives, but your extremist group will bring roses and cupcakes for everyone? Let’s get back to reality.

      • Genie says:

        BW,

        No, I am not. Palm Coast would not be what it is without our realtors. Nor am I saying they are selfish people. Now you are being absurd. If I had said that, you would be 100% correct in saying it was offensive and misguided.

        Read my comment AGAIN, please.

        It is a conflict of interest, to the public, to have those who benefit financially on our elected bodies.

        Guess I got to one of our elected officials or former elected officials, didn’t I? That was the intent.

        • BW says:

          Actually, no I am not an elected official nor have I ever been. What you “got to” to was a local resident who is fed up with the hypocrisy and downright lying going on in the area when it comes to local matters.

          I did read your comment . . . twice. Which is why I commented. I am quite capable of comprehending what I am reading. It’s really not that “deep” and pretty easy to see through. If your claim is that I am “twisting words”, please remember the group you are a part of and spend some time contemplating the idea of the pot and the kettle. Yes, Barbara is a builder. And, yes, Nate is a Realtor. Both are good people (no, I’m not a Democrat) and doing a good job for our County. Where is your proof they have acted with less than integrity in their positions?

          Back to logic and your “conflict of interest” statement and the narrow-mindedness of it . . . anyone who resides in the area and sits as an elected official will benefit in one way shape or form personally. Simply because the perspective and experience they bring will naturally affect change in their personal industry does not mean that the change is all for personal benefit or they will not affect change on other matters that benefit people in other aspects of life and industry. By your perspective because we want some valuable experience in our elected officials, the only ones that qualify are retired senior citizens? Or someone who has no ties to anything. Hermits make great candidates right? Your presumption that those sitting as elected officials are manipulating or even taking advantage for personal gain is a pretty big claim. Could you provide proof?

          • Genie says:

            @ BW — Which group am I a part of? I stated I am proud to be in disagreement with many of these policies. I don’t remember announcing my membership.

            I’m not criticizing the profession or the undeniable contribution to Palm Coast and Flagler. None of us would be here without that.

            I AM saying it is a conflict of interest on an elected body.

            Those who have been watching the proposals around here know that quite well. We have spent millions of our taxpayer dollars learning that lesson.

  8. Dennis McDonald says:

    Barbara is very sensitive to any conversation on the super majority vote she participated in last fall where the Voters were not allowed to decide the fate of the half cent sales tax when she assaulted our wallets. In a prior meeting about this same subject she said that if the Commission could just explain it better so the taxpayers would really understand the issue then We would be agreeable.
    Barbara the Voters are not ignorant and you work for them. Speaking down to us will not resolve this issue. I have offered a compromise to George Hanns, Commissioners run for office every two years and the Voters will concede super majority. There is a reason House Representatives must run every two years, it helps eliminate that all knowing “aire” !

    Dennis

    • Jack D. Howell says:

      Dennis,
      Well stated and you put the “steel on the target” as we military folks would say. Now to get the Palm Coast City Council to cancel the golf carts and rid itself of the tennis courts.

  9. Diego Miller says:

    STop the Coffey conspriracy now.

  10. Frank says:

    Revels thinks she is above it all and is only interested in what is going to benefit her and her business. Coffey’s comments reflect how he advises the commission. The commission has yet failed to realize Coffey works for them, and they don’t work for him. Just like a tick….bleeding us.

  11. tulip says:

    @GENIE Voter registration may have gone up but McDonald and his group went along with closing off certain races so that thousands could not vote in certain local races because they were not Republican, those are the facts.

    • Genie says:

      Tulip, as I understand it, these were REPUBLICAN PRIMARIES. Go figure… Until I moved here, I’d never heard of party primaries being open to all.

      Is this a Florida thing? If so, it wouldn’t surprise me. Nothing about Florida surprises me anymore.

      Could it be that our local pols are famous for backing one another, no matter their party affiliation? Sorry, but I don’t think we can agree on this one.

      [Fact-check: Genie, you are mischaracterizing the issue. The Florida Constitution was amended in 1998 to ensure that primaries contested by individuals who face no general election challenge should be open to all. The Constitution states: “If all candidates for an office have the same party affiliation and the winner will have no opposition in the general election, all qualified electors, regardless of party affiliation, may vote in the primary elections for that office.” The intent of the 1992 Constitution Revision Commission was to prevent exactly the sort of shenanigans local tea party and RR “candidates” pulled off by taking advantage of the loophole the Legislature has tried but been unable to close, since many of its members have been elected through the same shenanigans. Also: some 20 states have open presidential primaries, and a few other states have open primaries for their state and local elections. But that’s a separate issue.–FL]

  12. If you want to spend MY money or cost me MORE to live in Flagler don’t dare take my vote away. A proud realtor and Florida homeowner /taxpayer and VOTER don’t even try to make all my decisions
    County staff including every commissioner forget that WE is us Voters not them the public servants that is spelled PUBLIC and not spelled ” PRIVATE”!!!!!!!!!!

  13. Brain damage says:

    Would Barbara Revels rent any of her properties for what she rented ours for….Bings Fish Camp? She has been asked this question on more than one occasion, and has avoided it. Now she wants to take our vote away, and spend our money like the sky is the limit. This is a woman who looks for excuses to delay paying her own bills. Revels is not for the people. She is a fine product of Flagler Beach!

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