Palm Coast Manager Apologizes for Ordering Work Without School Board Approval First
FlaglerLive | September 16, 2015
For almost a year, Palm Coast and county governments—and particularly Palm Coast City Manager Jim Landon and County Administrator Craig Coffey—have been wrangling over a water agreement to provide city water to the county airport. Both sides’ elected officials have approved the agreement, yet it hasn’t garnered the final signatures because of small details Landon says the county hasn’t cleaned up: he’s a stickler for such details. Meanwhile, the county’s plans for that end of the airport are in limbo—or “held hostage,” as county commissioners termed it.
One of those issues is over an easement. The city wanted the county to grant an easement before any construction work was done at the airport. The county was willing to grant the easement after construction and inspections were completed. The two sides then gridlocked over what seemed like a minor detail. (That issue may finally be resolved next week.)
Yet in sharp contrast to his standoff with the county, when Landon ran into legal obstacle in the city’s Palm Harbor extension project this summer over a similar issue, but with the school board, Landon ordered construction to continue unabated, without school board approval. The issue was a utility easement. The city legally had to secure it before going ahead with the work. It did not.
Tuesday evening, Landon appeared before the school board to secure the easement and apologize. He downplayed the violation as a “truly a housekeeping item,” saying “the utility line is underground, it’s already in place, it’s already finished, and we’re just trying to tidy things up.”
Board members Janet McDonald and Collen Conklin, who chairs the board, did not let him off the hook that easily.
“Why was the work done without it being approved by the board?” McDonald asked.
“That was my decision,” Landon said. “The fact of it is, we were trying real hard to get this work done before school started. We were able to get the utility work finished.” Waiting would have delayed the project, Landon said, and since the city already had an easement for the sidewalk, “it felt like just a clean-up item, so I made the decision to allow the construction to go ahead.”
The city had secured the sidewalk easement from the board in April. But Landon seemed to shift part of the blame for the missing easement on School Board Attorney Kristy Gavin, for doing what he has notoriously required city attorneys to do: “Your attorney is picky about these things and said nope, we’re only going to grant the easement for the specific purpose,” Landon told the school board. “So in that case all we needed was the sidewalk easement. Now you’re seeing a very similar easement, in this case very specific for utilities.”
Palm Coast appears to hold other local government agencies to a different standard than it is willing to follow.
“But it’s after the fact, which is a violation of what we thought we were approving as a strictly pedestrian access,” McDonald said, later adding: “My issue is we passed unanimously the pedestrian right of way in April, when this came up. I don’t think it would have been much of a concern on the board had we been approached initially. This is our legal responsibility to have everything done. As you said, in good working relationship. It’s a courtesy to make sure everyone is aware before the fact, not after the fact.”
When McDonald went on to raise questions about student safety in a strikingly speculative scenario, as if to suggest that the city would somehow jeopardize student safety, Landon turned the table.
“Ms. McDonald,” he said, “you may be able to pull that with the county but I’m going to take the opportunity to brag about our record with pedestrian access and school safety and I appreciate the opportunity to do that because since I’ve been here with the city, the city has really pout an emphasis on pedestrian safety to get to schools.” He then named numerous sidewalk projects the city carried out specifically to improve student access to schools along belle Terre and State Road 100, for example. Still, he addressed McDonald’s initial concern about flouting board procedure directly: “I’ve acknowledged that and agreed with that and apologize,” Landon said, “but that is why we’re coming back now to make sure the record is clean so it wasn’t just taking advantage. But hopefully you understand the cause or the reason behind that I think is very valid and was not intended to in any way take the previous approval and say, well, we can do anything we want on this property. Just the opposite. That’s why we’re here today.”
McDonald is married to Dennis McDonald, who’s run in several local elections and is Landon’s chief public nemesis at council meetings and, recently, in court, where he sued the city (and lost). But Landon was also chastised by Conklin.“Obviously you’ve recognized that the process should have been possibly reviewed and handled differently,” Conklin said. “I understand, given the timeline, in the start of the school-year and the need to kind of push something—and while something for you may look like common sense to move this line here, there’s still a procedure that’s in place and there’s still a process that we are required to follow. So I appreciate you recognizing that that has not taken place.”
“Yes, and I apologize for that,” Landon said.
“Understood,” Conklin continued. “But we do know that in the past, and hopefully I’m sure in the future, the city of Palm Coast has always been a very good partner with us in the development of sidewalks and right of ways for the students. We’ve still got a ways to go on some of those, but as a city is concerned, you’ve been very responsive over the years, the many years, in working with this sidewalk project. But I appreciate the recognition that the process was not followed. Again, in your world I may understand it may seem minor and a common sense decision to make that change—and please understand as board members, there’s a process and a procedure that needs to be followed.”
Landon, acknowledging the rebuke, tried to lighten the matter by reminding the board that it was a sewer line that caused the issue (“when you flush the toilet how many of you say thank you city for making it go away?”). Landon said that it was all about “building a community” together, words that the county has used in one form or another to break the logjam over the water wrangle at the county airport.
Conklin nevertheless reminded him before the board’s unanimous vote approving the easement: “Please know in the future, if we need to hold an emergency board meeting, that is something that we can do. So I’m sure we won’t have a situation like that happen in the future.”
County Administrator Craig Coffey was not surprised by the issue before the school board. “We struggle with some of the same issues of the city issuing orders on our right of way or working on our right of ways without proper authority,” he said today. “When it’s the other way around, we’re held to a different standard.”