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Qualifying Ends: Tax Collector Johnston and Property Appraiser Gardner Are Re-Elected; Supervisor’s Race Will Be a Universal Primary

| June 24, 2016

jay gardner suzanne johnston

The last time Suzanne Johnston faced an opponent was in her very first race in 2004. Jay Gardner, for his part, has never faced an opponent in four consecutive elections. They were re-elected again today. (© FlaglerLive)

There was a flurry of activity at the Flagler County Supervisor of Elections’ office just before noon today. Noon was the end of qualifying for all offices on the ballot in the Aug. 30 primary and the Nov. 8 general elections.


Republican Jason France was a late arrival to qualify for the county commission seat held by Barbara Revels. He made it with only a few minutes to spare, after his printer had proven uncooperative, though Dave Sullivan, the former chairman of the Flagler County Executive Committee, had also not long before filed to run for the seat.

Ralph Lightfoot, the chairman of the Democratic Executive Committee, walked in just after 11:30 a.m., with Melinda Morai—a former candidate for Supervisor of Elections, in 2008—ready to have Morais sign up as a write-in for Supervisor of Elections, but only if a Republican pulled the same sort of chicanery several Republicans did in 2014 and in 2012 to close what would otherwise be a universal primary: the three candidates running for Supervisor of Elections—incumbent Kaiti Lenhart, Abra Seay and Kimble Medley—are all Republicans. So their primary will actually equate to a general election and will decide the winner for that office. Therefore, under Florida law, the election will be a universal primary, open to all voters—Republicans, Democrats, Independents and minor party registrants.

Had someone filed to be a write-in, it would have automatically closed the primary to Republican voters only, because that write-in would then have been on the general election ballot in November. It’s a loophole in Florida law, a loophole that was supposed to have been closed when voters approved a constitutional amendment in 1998 precisely to avoid tampering with primary elections and to ensure that when candidates of only party are running, those elections remain open to all voters.

Lightfoot wanted to ensure that if a Republican pulled that write-in trick, he would have his own Democratic candidate ready to file, just to give voters a choice in November, knowing very well that neither write-in would stand a chance.

ralph lightfoot johnston

Ralph Lightfoot with Suzanne Johnston after noon today, Lightfoot was ready to field a write-in candidate of his own if Republicans had fielded one in the supetrvisor’s race, which would have closed that primary to all but Republican voters. Click on the image for larger view. (© FlaglerLive)

At 11:45 a.m., Anne-Marie Schaffer, the chairman of the Republican Executive Committee, walked in, sending a few pairs of eyes darting all over the place to figure out if she was there to qualify for something. She wasn’t. She was tending to party and precinct business.

The minutes passed. Lightfoot and Morais paced. Even Lenhart, the elections supervisor, was counting the minutes: as any supervisor of elections appreciative of giving more voters a choice in her own election, she, too, favored a universal primary.

Finally high noon struck. No Frank Miller showed. There was a thumbs up or two. Big sighs of relief were not heard, but sensed. For the second time in six years, Flagler County would have a universal primary for an important local office: the supervisor of elections’ election will be open to all registered voters. (Six years ago the primary election between Bob Abbott and Nate McLaughlin, for county commission, was also a universal primary.)

As noon marked the end of qualifying, two major local elections were also decided: Tax Collector Suzanne Johnston and Property Appraiser Jay Gardner were again automatically re-elected, without opposition. It’s an old story with these two. Gardner has never faced an opponent in his four elections since 2004. Not even the first time he ran, when he replaced John Seay (father-in-law to Abra Seay, the candidate for elections supervisor.) Johnston faced opponents only in her very first race, in 2004, when she flattened Kerry Ellis in the primary with 80 percent of the vote, then demolished Rick McGraw in the general, with 65 percent of the vote. With results like that, seldom equaled in the county in recent memory, no opponent has dared go up against her since, though a lot more than those results has added to her popularity since: she and Gardner have a reputation for running the most efficient, most customer-oriented government offices in the county. Not surprisingly, they’re often in each other’s offices.

For Gardner noon passed without him realizing that he’d won until he was told later. He’d been on the phone, dealing with a problem in the Hammock. Johnston had been more anxious, checking the supervisor’s website several times a day to make sure no one had filed.

jason France

Jason France, a Republican candidate for the County Commission, qualifying almost at the last minute today at the supervisor of elections’ office. Click on the image for larger view. (© FlaglerLive)

And other than Sullivan’s late-breaking decision to run, there were no late surprises. All nine candidates for sheriff who’d announced their intention to run qualified. One of the four Republicans who filed to run in the District 1 county commission seat held by Charlie Ericksen withdrew (Gerald Eggert), leaving Ericksen, Ken Mazzie and Dan Potter in that Republican primary, with Democrat Jason DeLorenzo, the Palm Coast city council member, waiting for the winner in the general. Revels has no Democratic opponent in her primary either. Michael Groves, a Republican, withdrew from the Republican primary for her seat leaving Sullivan and France.

There were no changes in the school board races. In the three very busy Palm Coast City Council races, Travis Kaufman, never a serious candidate, had withdrawn from the race for mayor, leaving John Brady, Milissa Holland, Ron Radford and Dennis McDonald. The two council seat races are unchanged with their combined seven candidates. And in the congressional race, of course, Ron DeSantis has decided to return to that contest and try to hold on to his seat after dropping out of the race for U.S. Senate, now that Marco Rubio is again looking to keep his seat. (See the full list here.)

Outside the supervisor’s office just after noon, there were hugs and congratulations for Johnston, who was just leaving for lunch with Rae Nescio, her long-time deputy who, like most of the 32 tax collector employees, wears many different hats in the office.

“Congratulations, oh, I’ve got goosebumps on my legs, yohoo, and after that we’ll work on you for another four,” Donna Masse, who’s worked five and a half years at the tax collector’s office, said as she hugged Johnston. “I echo and 10 times echo” what Masse said, Leslie Jantzen, an eight-year employee, said. “She’s fantastic.”

These weren’t employees being obsequious before their boss, but genuinely happy and proud individuals who might as well been congratulating a family member for a seminal achievement. Most of the employees were at that moment secretly preparing a celebration for Johnston, with cake, to surprise her when she’d return from lunch.

“I don’t think we’ve aver fired anybody, and we never have anybody leave,” Nescio said, remembering the layoff of just two employees during the Great Recession. “We have zero turn-over rate, because Suzanne is such a great person to work force, that nobody ever wants to leave our office.” She compares the atmosphere in the office to home.

They may all be Republicans, but as things stand now, all voters, regardless of party affiliation may cast a ballot in the Supervisor of Elections race in the Aug. 30 primary, which will decide the outright winner for that office. The same applies to two school board races and to the three races for Palm Coast council, although in Palm Coast's case run-offs are still possible. Above, from left, elections supervisor candidates Kimble Medley, incumbent Kaiti Lenhart, and Abra Seay. (© FlaglerLive)

They may all be Republicans, but all voters, regardless of party affiliation may cast a ballot in the Supervisor of Elections race in the Aug. 30 primary, which will decide the outright winner for that office. The same applies to two school board races and to the three races for Palm Coast council, although in Palm Coast’s case run-offs are still possible. Above, from left, elections supervisor candidates Kimble Medley, incumbent Kaiti Lenhart, and Abra Seay. (© FlaglerLive)

As to her string of unopposed re-elections, Johnston said: “It really is because I care, care about the residents. I think that if it was my mother or father standing there needing help, I would need to see that they get the help. We treat everybody coming in here just like it is somebody that we know our mother or our father, and give them all the help they need and deserve.”

Soon she was joined by Gardner. “Jay works for me also, he does very well,” Johnston said of the property appraiser.

“What’s that show on TV? ‘Tyrant’?” Gardner joked.

“My resume is made for this job,” Gardner said, trying to explain why he’s had as much success as Johnston. “This job was made for me, that’s the way I see it. I like the job, I’m very comfortable in it, but the things I did in my past—I’ve been an appraiser for 30 years. I’m involved in the community. The different things, whether the Rotary, the Education Foundation, the Chamber of Commerce.”

“The reason you don’t have opposition,” Johnston tells him, “is because you take the time to go in the lobby and help the customers, explain to the customers, if they need to have their house re-checked you make sure that it’s done, you answer the telephone yourself.”

It’s no secret to anyone that Johnston and Gardner have the most exemplary public service marriage in the county–showing, as Gardner puts it, how government can and does work well. “I see what we’re doing as something that everybody should be doing,” Gardner said.

“Suzanne and Jay are the ideal team for Flagler County taxes,” Nescio said. “They work together well, because both offices have to get along well to make sure everything is done right. He appraises the taxes and we collect them, so it’s a big communications between them. It makes it so easy.”

suzanne johnston cake

The tax collector, post-victory, with the cake her staff offered her. (Tax Collector’s office)

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22 Responses for “Qualifying Ends: Tax Collector Johnston and Property Appraiser Gardner Are Re-Elected; Supervisor’s Race Will Be a Universal Primary”

  1. CindyD says:

    Two great people! Congratulations!

  2. Robert Lewis says:

    Anne Marie Shaffer, the most useless Republican in Flagler County. She has done nothing to benefit the Republican Party except file law suits, uncharter existing organizations and impede on development of the party future.

  3. PJ says:

    Congratulations

  4. Oldseadog says:

    You both work hard and you deserve it, Please accept my congratulations on this wonderful recognition of your merits.
    Now let’s look closely at the rest who are running for various political offices at the Flagler County level and the Palm Coast City level to elect more like you two who have set the bar for high excellence.

  5. downinthelab says:

    Two of the best. Congratulations!

  6. 107 says:

    Congratulations to Johnston and Gardner. Lenhart is the best selection for elections supervisor. If it’s not broke, then don’t break it. Electing Medley would put a person in office who basically stole from the office when applying for and accepting unemployment that she was not entitled to and was court ordered to pay back, Seay ran a VPK daycare that went bust in a short period of time demonstrating she does not possess leadership and managerial qualities. Seay also uses the School Board to sell herself when she has very little experience in her current posisiton with the School Board. She also speaks of working for Peggy Rae Border, her mother in law which is illegal according to Florida Statues here in section ‘d” under RESTRICTION ON EMPLOYMENT OF RELATIVES. But then Peggy Rae Border hired relatives (Abra Seay) and conducted illegal elections for Grand Haven and Hammock Dunes in odd numbered years instead of even numbered years as Florida Statues requires, and she allowed Palm Coast to pay for and canvass those elections when it was the countys responsibility. Border-Seay apparently didn’t follow laws either. We don’t need any more SEAY. Lenhart will have my vote and I hope she will have yours too.

    FLORIDA STATUTES
    112.3135 Restriction on employment of relatives.—
    (1) In this section, unless the context otherwise requires:
    (a) “Agency” means:
    1. A state agency, except an institution under the jurisdiction of the Board of Governors of the State University System;
    2. An office, agency, or other establishment in the legislative branch;
    3. An office, agency, or other establishment in the judicial branch;
    4. A county;
    5. A city; and
    6. Any other political subdivision of the state, except a district school board or community college district.
    (b) “Collegial body” means a governmental entity marked by power or authority vested equally in each of a number of colleagues.
    (c) “Public official” means an officer, including a member of the Legislature, the Governor, and a member of the Cabinet, or an employee of an agency in whom is vested the authority by law, rule, or regulation, or to whom the authority has been delegated, to appoint, employ, promote, or advance individuals or to recommend individuals for appointment, employment, promotion, or advancement in connection with employment in an agency, including the authority as a member of a collegial body to vote on the appointment, employment, promotion, or advancement of individuals.
    (d) “Relative,” for purposes of this section only, with respect to a public official, means an individual who is related to the public official as father, mother, son, daughter, brother, sister, uncle, aunt, first cousin, nephew, niece, husband, wife, father-in-law, mother-in-law, son-in-law, daughter-in-law, brother-in-law, sister-in-law, stepfather, stepmother, stepson, stepdaughter, stepbrother, stepsister, half brother, or half sister.

  7. Fredrick says:

    Two people who care about the county. Congrats!!

  8. Ken Dodge says:

    “Mega dittos” (to borrow a phrase).

  9. Abra Seay says:

    @107: Since you didn’t use your name I can’t properly address you as Mr. or Ms. so I apologize for only calling you 107. I respect your opinion but what I don’t respect is your reporting of absolutely false information. So here are the facts:

    My early learning center was in operation for 5 years and was one of the best in the area, with a readiness rate at 100%. After 5 years I had to decide between my teaching career and running the facility because it was very difficult to do both and I was also preparing to move into an administrative role so I knew I had to make the choice. Instead of shutting it down, because many parents depended on the high-quality care my staff provided, the ownership was shifted to one of my employees and it’s still in operation today, just as successful as when I had it.

    When I was employed by Peggy Rae Border we were not relatives, so you are incorrect again. She later became my step mother-in-law when I married my husband, after I was no longer working for her and attending college full-time. Peggy followed the statutes to a tee while in office and honorably served the taxpayers and citizens of this county for 18 years. Shame on you for trying to spread false allegations.

    Thank you for your interest in the SOE race but your post is so far from the truth, you might as well say that the sky is green and the grass is blue, that would be more believable!

  10. Brad W says:

    First, James Gardner and Suzanne Johnston have both done stellar jobs with those County Offices. We are very fortunate as a community to have both.

    Second, I personally think that the Supervisor of Elections races is one of the most important races locally especially this year. And I really hope that voters truly understand that it is decided on August 30th and truly look at the candidates objectively. Once you do, it glaringly obvious that Kaiti Lenhart choice for the position. I had an opportunity to meet her recently and spoke to a variety of people that have known her, and I have to say that Kaiti is not only the best person for the Supervisor of Elections position but she is also the model of what we need more of in local leadership. Just take a look:

    1. She was appointed in 2015 (last year) with a special election just weeks away and an Office in turmoil. That election was one of the smoothest I remember in recent years and with a decent turnout. All the while, she was 4 months pregnant at the time.

    2. Right after the special election, Kaiti was facing rolling into a major and very busy election cycle we are in right now AND having a baby. Most people would have probably just focused on getting through, but she didn’t. She looked at those things that she had been hearing, seeing, and knew needed to be improved and started tackling those things. She went out and got $147,000 in Federal Grants for new voting equipment. She put ballot on demand printers in place saving us thousands in expenses. She put the plan together to get us to beat the deadline for new voting equipment. These were all a lot of work. All while running an extremely busy election season.

    3. We are seeing an entirely new Elections Office. One that is positive, is reaching out to the community, and working to actively engage with the community. Adopt a precinct, a Facebook page, consistent and active presence in the community, so forth and so on.

    4. Every time you ask people that have interacted with Kaiti to tell you about her, they consistently brighten up. They consistently start talking about the helpful she is, the positive differences she’s made in their jobs or their lives, how honest and trustworthy she is, how committed she is, how unselfish she is, and on and on. That’s what we need not only in that office but in all areas of leadership in our local Government (and beyond that too).

    Voting for Kaiti Lenhart is the smart, and right, choice no question about it in my opinion. Kaiti to me is that rare leadership talent that businesses long for. She’s that talent that you hold on to when you have it and becomes the model for the rest of your leadership. She is by far the best choice for Flagler County Supervisor of Elections.

  11. Flagler raised says:

    As a nearly lifetime Flagler County resident, I must say that “107” couldn’t be more wrong. My vote is for Abra Seay… And here is why:

    My daughters attended her daycare and preschool and it was one of the best experiences a parent could have. We always felt that the staff was very kind, compassionate and professional. That is a direct reflection of the professionalism of Mrs. Seay.

    Secondly, I have known Abra mostly through her community involvement (youth sports, charities and community outreach programs) and she is what I would consider an asset to the community. I will continue to sing her praises.

    Thanks for all you do Abra Seay!

  12. Joe says:

    @ Brad W, the election for SOE is very important, and Kudos to Gardner and Johnston, but I have questions to ask about Leinhart that you seem to ignore. First you state she was appointed to ” an Office in turmoil “, she was part of that office in turmoil as you put it. I would think that being Weeks right hand through that term that a stand up person would have said something to someone with all the charges pending against her. I also recall reading something about bonus money and was wondering if she was a recipient of that and if she was why would a stand up type person take it if it was wrong? Leinhart may be doing the job now but I question why she kept mum and don’t try to tell me that she knew nothing! In my view, a vote for Leinhart is a vote for the same old same old and i’m want new ideas from new officials! I don’t know Abra Seay that well but I do know her well enough to vouch for her integrity and honesty, she will get my vote!

  13. Willy says:

    @ 107

    Peggy Rae Border had an absolute flawless record during her time as SOE. I’m somewhat surprised the administrator of this website was comfortable with your baseless accusations about Border and Seay.

    As a life long resident of Flagler and the father of two daughters who each had Mrs. Seay as their teacher, I can assure you won’t find another candidate with more integrity.

  14. Indo/Republi/Crat says:

    I’m voting for Kaiti Leinhart for Supervisor of Elections . I believe she is Hands down the best qualified person for the job. I know all three candidates. I’ll not get involved with the mud slinging, but there is enough mud lying around two of these candidates to supply “Bogging in Bunnell” for a year. You have heard the saying “Buyer Beware”, I say voter beware-do you research on these candidates. Seriously!

  15. Robert Lewis says:

    Blaming Kaiti for turmoil in the elections office because of Kim Weeks is like blaming the deputies for Jim Manfres unethical behavior. The Democratic elected officials in this county should not be trusted. Kim Weeks and Jim Manfre sullied the offices that they represented.

    Much credit to Kaiti for restoring integrity.

  16. Flagler County Native says:

    @107
    Shame on you for posting false information about the Seay family! We will pray for you! Congratulations to Johnston and Gardner!
    Vote SEAY for SOE!

  17. KMedley says:

    107

    Let’s get to the truth.

    Fact #1: Filing for unemployment compensation is not an illegal act; furthermore, I was advised by a trained professional with Career Source Flagler/Volusia (One-Stop Career Source) to seek unemployment compensation due to a hostile work environment.
    Fact #2: The State of Florida awarded me unemployment compensation.
    Fact #3: The State of Florida changed its mind based on testimony offered by none other than Weeks and two employees, one of whom still works in the office. Let’s just say all three found difficulty in stating the truth.
    Fact #4: I’ve complied with all requests from the State of Florida.

    For the record, I only deal in facts. I don’t deal in speculation or hearsay. Not so with my two opponents. Speculation about my campaign fielding a write-in candidate was reported to FlaglerLive by Abra Seay. When Kaiti Lenhart and Abra Seay were asked about the write-in candidate, each offered personal opinions about an existing Florida statute.

    Lenhart stated, “I believe that a person should file to run for public office only if they truly intend to do the job, which is to serve the public and provide each eligible voter the opportunity to cast their ballot.”

    Seay told reporters, “If another candidate wanted to enter the race for the right reasons (to diligently work for our community, fulfill the duties of an SOE, promote voting, etc.) then I’m all for them entering. But, if another candidate were to enter by fee or by write-in, just to close the primary then I would be adamantly against it.”

    Both of my opponents’ arguments have been made before and rejected by the Florida Supreme Court. The Florida Supreme Court stated, it is not for the Supervisor of Elections to pick and choose statutes; neither is a “crystal ball” to be used “to determine when and whether a given write-in candidate constitutes “real” or mere illusory opposition” (Brinkman vs. Francois SC 14-1899). The only question before the Supervisor of Elections is whether or not, “under the current framework set forth by the Florida Constitution”, a write-in could prevail (Brinkman vs. Francois SC 14-1899). Florida Law is clear on this matter. Unlike me, the acting SOE and my other opponent are clueless on the law. They offer opinions absent any basis in the law. Another example they do not know what they are talking about.

    Let’s look at the matter regarding political signs. Here is another prime example where both the acting SOE and my other opponent have either failed to read instructions set forth in the 2016 Qualifying Handbook compiled by Lenhart, or they just ignored them. The handbook clearly stipulates that political signs require permits and/or permission BEFORE signs are placed.

    Folks, do you want to entrust the office to someone who has blatant disregard for laws and facts, by either not reading them, finding out about them, or following them? I take all aspects of this position seriously. You can count on me to do my homework.

  18. Joe says:

    Kimberle Weeks always had good honest elections. There was never a complaint about the job she did. It is unfortunate she chose to resign. Lenhart being trained under the administration of Weeks gives me confidence to vote for her. We have had 8 years of good elections between Weeks and Lenhart and we need to keep a good thing going and not fix something that doesn’t need fixing. This is not a Democrat or Republican thing, its about trust and the ability to do the job.

  19. Anonymous says:

    KMedley,

    You sound a bit angry, but I do have a question about the unemployment issue you addressed here.

    In a recent article in the News Journal you were quoted as saying:

    “”I worked there in 2009 and essentially, I saw the handwriting on the wall,” Medley said. “It was a hostile work environment. It just wasn’t for me.”

    She said she fought Weeks when the then-supervisor asked the County Commission for more money than was necessary.”

    So you offered an opinion to your boss, and your boss disagreed with your opinion. So you quit after only 7 months of employment and feel that a person should receive unemployment compensation in that case obviously. It sounds like a pretty normal boss/employee situation. So if that is the level of incident that causes you to leave voluntarily, why should we trust you would be able to handle the stress of many others that will not always agree with you and you will not just voluntarily quit again?

  20. Joe A says:

    Thanks for making up my mind Joe, anything to do with the last regime I want nothing to do with, my vote is to important to me to gamble with, I will vote for Abra Seay!

  21. Grand Haven Resident says:

    Laws were not followed by Ms. Border when our CDD elections were held in odd numbered years. Office holders had to have their terms extend in 2009 to 2010 because then Supervisor Weeks informed us it was illegal to continue to conduct our elections in odd numbered years. Thanks for getting this straightened out and getting us on track Ms. Weeks.

    Congratulations to you Ms. Johnston and Mr. Gardner!!

  22. KMedley says:

    Anonymous

    Thanks for the question. Happy to answer. The portion of the interview with the News Journal, which stated I “fought Weeks”, refers to the time period after I resigned. That interview lasted well over 45 minutes. Weeks had requested a budget supplement of $358,000 for a Special election. The county had already increased her fiscal budget by $75,000; she now sought this amount with little documentation. I wrote letters to the County Commission, with detailed research and statistics that led to the County implementing a process that required Weeks to account for expenses to have funding released incrementally.

    Not the lease bit angry; but, when language such as “stole from the office” is used, which by the way smacks of libel and slander, it’s important to make a firm, strong statement. The hostile work environment would require a book to chronicle.

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