Missing Key Ingredient—“People”—Charter Review Storm Evaporates as Quickly as It Came
FlaglerLive | May 19, 2015
It was nothing more than an early-summer storm, dissipating as quickly as it gathered.
Palm Coast City Council member Steven Nobile had claimed last week with as much insistence as conviction that “the people” wanted Palm Coast’s charter reviewed. He said he’d even bring the people to the council to make their case, and got help from two local pressure groups—the tea party and the Ronald Reagan Republican group, to the right of the tea party—to spread the word ahead of this morning’s council meeting.
But this morning, no people showed up.
None, if by “people” one means the sort of sizeable group that would suggest interest in making something happen. There were all of 34 people sitting in the council meeting this morning, including city staffers and regular audience members at these meetings. There were a few Nobile supporters, to be sure, but if body language spoke pro forma, that was their loudest message of the day. By the end of today’s Palm Coast City Council meeting, even Nobile sounded as if he was ready to be rid of the issue: “We’re not going to be talking about this at the next business meeting, I hope,” he said.
He was discovering one of the first lessons almost every novice politician discovers soon after an election: elected officials don’t move mountains. They can barely move someone to pay attention, unless an issue has a direct impact on people’s finances, their property or their pride. Ideology and opposition for the sake of opposition isn’t enough.
But that’s what Nobile’s charter-review initiative came down to. His colleagues on the council pressed him to clarify last week what he had in mind, regarding a review. He couldn’t say. Nor did he say today. The most he did say was that other cities do it, so why not Palm Coast. It was a call for a charter review for the sake of a charter review. Council members were perplexed, wondering why trigger an involved, costly and political process—ahead of a colossal election year, no less—when nothing in particular compels it. Nobile tried to portray the council as standing in the way of people’s wishes, but that fell flat in the absence of people, and the absence of concrete issues that could bear a charter change.
It was left up to Jack Carall, the council member emeritus who, despite his age—he was already 5 years old when Herbert Hoover was elected, and is old enough to be the 72-year-old mayor’s father—continues to attend every meeting, to deconstruct the last seven days’ charter convulsions: “Mr. Nobile,” Carall said, “you made a few comments at the workshop. You said ‘people’ want it. Well, I don’t see the people. Now, when somebody wants something, they come in with their shirts, the green shirts, the blue shirts, and they ask for it. Now, you’re saying that the people want it. But I don’t hear the people. I don’t see the people. You get two people that came up, out of 56,000 people. It just gets to me that you’re saying ‘people’ but you’re not saying anything. You’re saying they want to change but you’re not telling us what they change. You’re just saying the people, the people, the people. I’m part of the people, and I don’t see anything—the real change I would prefer is more city council members. Instead of five, seven. That’s one. But you’re saying people want it, and you’re not telling us what they want. You took up a lot of time, I’ll tell you that. But I want to hear specifics.”
He added: “Let’s see a face and let’s see someone come up and say this is what I want.”
Two people did. The first, Vincent Ligouri, a one-time member of the tea party who left it in part when it got too extreme even for him (as many others did), just wanted to set the record straight on his time on the home rule commission before Palm Coast’s creation, and propose two charter changes: that the percentage of petitions necessary for a charter change initiated by the public be dropped from 25 percent to 10 percent, and that the council be expanded to seven members. Steve Wolfe, a member of the Reagan group, also spoke on the matter, but most of what he said was to compliment the council. And what he said of the charter was that a review was a good idea, though he had no specific proposals. “This is the city council that is proactive enough to do that and is strong enough to withstand whatever may be suggested,” Wolfe said.
A seemingly controversial matter deflated as effectively as a Patriot football.
Three other people spoke in favor of a charter review, one of them suggesting ideas that are not in the charter’s purview, and another speaking in more general terms. Carol Mikola, a bane of the Reagan group, criticized the manner in which Nobile presented the issue. Without diminishing the value of charter reviews, she said, “I would have expected that any council member bringing this up would have done some research on the topic and would have been willing and able to respond to other council members without getting agitated.” (In his defense, Nobile said his demeanor had been mistaken for agitation, when it was, in fellow-council member Jason DeLorenzo’s word, mere passion. “When you come to my house you think everybody’s fighting but it’s really just a conversation,” Nobile said.)
The charter matter did serve to clarify one thing: Palm Coast’s charter does not, on occasion, know its left hand from its right. Put simply, the charter leaves readers with the impression that it takes 25 percent of the registered electorate’s petitions to trigger a charter proposal initiated by voters. That’s what it says explicitly: “At least 25 percent of the qualified electorate of the City shall have the power to petition the Council to propose an ordinance or to require reconsideration of an adopted ordinance, or to propose an amendment to this Charter.” And that’s what this and other news services have reported.
But it’s not really what it says, city attorney Bill Reischmann told the council. Or at least it’s not what it should say, because that wording is in conflict with state law, even though it appears to be what Palm Coast’’s founders wanted it to say.
“In 1999 the folks or whenever it was that did this felt it was appropriate for 25 percent of the electorate be required to get together to do those three things,” Reischmann told the council, referring to initiating a charter change, recalling an ordinance or proposing one. (None of the three has ever happened, because the 25-percent threshold, which, to the council’s convenience, is what people have always thought it to be, has always been insurmountable. The council has never thought to correct people’s perceptions.)
“But the charter also says, with regard to charter amendments, you have to look at chapter 166,” Reischmann said, referring to that section of state law. “Chapter 166 is very clear, says that municipality may amend its charter pursuant to this section, notwithstanding any charter provision to the contrary.” Reischmann never explained whether that “notwithstanding” provision meant that the local charter’s wording had precedence over the state’s, though generally state law precedes local law. “For purposes of adoption of an amendment, or consideration of an amendment, 166.031 subsections 1 and 3 can only be read, with our charter, to require 10 percent,” he said.
“So what you’re saying is the current charter is out of line with Florida Statute and should probably be reviewed to correct these differences, in correct statements,” Nobile said. “Because what we have is a charter where the newspaper and the media think it’s 25 percent, but in truth, it’s 10 percent. Is that true or not, Mr. Reischmann?”
“I didn’t say–that is my legal opinion–that the charter needs to be reviewed,” Reischmann said. “It’s definitely 10 percent.”
“But the people in Palm Coast are being misled by reading the charter and by our media who read the charter,” Nobile said, seemingly seizing on a life raft for his original review proposal. “So a charter review seems in line.”
The likelier approach, the one Reischmann proposed to the council and the one the council will likely adopt, is a scrivener’s correction to the city charter, changing the 25 percent provision to 10 percent—but also putting that change to referendum at the next election.
The proposal to expand the council to seven members got as tepid response from the council, with Netts speaking of the complications it would cause, including changing the charter and redistricting, the possibility of having one or more existing council members lose a seat for being districted-out.
By the time it was Nobile’s chance to speak, the charter-review matter was as deflated as a Patriot football. “But I still do not understand the reluctance of allowing for what a very large majority of cities already do on a regular basis, which is a charter review, which is done by the residents of that particular city,” Nobile said. “That’s all I have.”