Belle Terre Swim Club Advisory Group Violates School Policy as It Plods Into Political Forums
FlaglerLive | August 3, 2016
The Belle Terre Swim ad Racquet Club is a Flagler County School Board club and property. It does not and may not legally get involved in political activity.
You wouldn’t know that from an email the members of the club received on July 21 that states in a bold red headline: “At the Request of the Belle Terre Membership we are having a Town Hall for City Candidates.” The email was sent out to the membership of the club—an email list proprietary to the school board—and clearly credited to the club, with a club copyright included, and this disclaimer: “You are receiving this email because you are a member of the Belle Terre Swim and Racquet Club.”
In sum, the email was portraying itself as coming from the club, therefore from the school board.
The school board, and the director of the facility, which falls under the Flagler Technical Institute division of the school board, or adult education, had no idea.
“Kristy Gavin addressed that with them. They cannot do that,” FTI Director Kevin McCarthy said today. Referring to the membership’s email list, he said: “I would not allow them to have access to that even to do direct mailing even for other membership, they would not have access to that record.”
The “they” McCarthy was referring to is the Belle Terre Swim and Racquet Club Advisory Group, an organization created last year exclusively to help save the club from closure, a goal it attained to much acclaim. The club is headed by Doug Courtney, a Democratic Party operative and a regular candidate for office. This year he’s running for clerk of court.
On July 8, Courtney, as president of the advisory group, sent emails to all political candidates running for Palm Coast City Council, the school board and supervisor of elections, informing them of the advisory group hosting town hall-type meetings—for council candidates this evening (Aug. 3), and for school board and supervisor of election candidates on Aug. 9, both starting at 6:30 p.m.
“We will be sending invitations to all of our registered members, Silver Sneakers members, and making announcements to the general public for this event,” Courtney said in the email.
“I’d never seen it. I never gave permission.It had never been discussed with me,” Kristy Gavin, the school board’s attorney, said of the invitation to candidates. Courtney was acting unilaterally.
In the email, Courtney does not mention that he is himself a candidate for office. He makes no distinction in the email between the advisory board and the school facility itself. To the contrary: when the July 21 email went out to the membership—from an advisory board member—it was unmistakably portrayed as “Belle Terre is having a candidates Town Hall just for you!,” not as the advisory group using the Belle Terre facility.
Yet in an interview today, Courtney said: “We informed the 600 members but we didn’t email the 600 members.” He made a distinction between an email list his own group gathered over time and that of the school board. “Any email we sent to the membership was the intellectual property of the advisory committee.”
McCarthy says the distinction does not apply, as all the email or contact information the advisory group gathered was in the name of the school board’s club, for the school board’s mission of keeping the club going, not for any other end. “The Belle Terre advisory committee, this is kind of a gray area, is a volunteer committee of the paying members of the facility, that’s it,” McCarthy said. Specifying his statement about the distinction between the two lists, he said, “I’m not aware of that at all,” McCarthy said. “The members are registered through Flagler schools, that Flagler schools property.”
Misusing an email list for club members and not telling school officials of the forums before sending out invitations.
Carmichael McMillan, a former member of the advisory group board who was influential in building up support to save the club, said he started one such list and turned it over to the board when it had about 400 names. McMillan is no longer on the board, but was adamant about what he saw as the recent politicization of the advisory group’s purpose.
“I don’t want Belle Terre involved in any politics. We shouldn’t have had it,” McMillan said of the political forums. “Of course not, because Belle Terre is not a platform to be used by people to try to further their political career.” He was referring to Courtney, with whom he is not friendly. “We’re getting money from the county, we shouldn’t get Belle Terre in the middle of any politics. This is not helpful in any way to Belle Terre.” (The advisory group was instrumental in securing a $25,000 grant from county government to help underwrite costs at the club, and to make that an annual contribution.)
School board policy allows political groups or forums to be held on school grounds, but only as long as the organization holding the event follows the use of facility policy, pays its fees and does not portray itself as having in any way the endorsement or support of the school district.
Courtney never asked the district for permission to hold the forum, nor did he fill out the required use of facilities application.
“We did not clear this prior to his distribution of the email, however, he has after the fact requested authority to conduct the forum,” Kristy Gavin, the school board’s attorney, said in an email on July 29. “Mr. Courtney is on the advisory board and he was given member contact information when they were soliciting for memberships this past year. He has been counseled and advised that he cannot use the directory list for political purposes. He has been advised that any use of the directory information would be a violation of our school policies. The Swim and Racquet Club (school site) is not hosting the event, but the site is being used by the Advisory Board to host the forum.”
Gavin continued: “As a side note, another forum is being conducted (not organized by Mr. Courtney) for the Sheriff’s race.” Gavin is right: the News-Journal is hosting a sheriff’s candidate forum on Aug. 8 at the Buddy Taylor Middle School cafeteria.
But the News-Journal followed the use of facilities procedure and paid a $200 fee. Courtney’s group is paying nothing for both the forums it is holding at the Belle Terre Swim and Racquet Club.
“I was not aware of them not paying because the directive they were given was to go through use of facilities,” McCarthy said.Courtney said his advisory group offered to pay, but was told that was not necessary, and confirmed it with an email from Ellen Albano, the district’s use of facilities specialist, who told Courtney on July 27: “I have confirmed that a UOF agreement does not need to be in place” for the two town hall meetings. She specified that the town hall meetings “are being run by the BTSRC Advisory Committee which has usage of the BTSRC. Please notify your members via your monthly updates and not by individual mail outs. Distribution lists are not for political purposes.”
The forums are still scheduled to go on. A district spokesman today said: “They already have a use of facilities agreement with us so they have access to that facility. That’s how it was explained to me, it’s under their prior use of facilities agreement.”
In fact, there is no such use of facility agreement. “We don’t have a formal use of facilities agreement with them for them to hold their meetings once a month, but they’ve been given permission to do that,” Gavin said in an interview this afternoon. The understanding between the school board and the advisory group was that it could hold its monthly meetings at the club, but only in so far as those meetings were within the scope of the group’s mission: to help increase the membership at the club, and to save the club.
“There is no use of facilities agreement that we have for this event. Could they have gotten a use of facilities agreement? Obviously they could,” Gavin said, herself making the comparison with the sheriff’s forum the News-Journal is hosting. But in this instance, it’s not the advisory group’s fault. “We didn’t require it of the advisory committee because they have been working with the district in promoting the swim and racquet club membership.”
Gavin added: “Do we see that we need to set parameters on moving forward? I have instructed Kevin McCarthy to request a meeting so we can clarify what the advisory committee’s purpose is.”
McCarthy said that clarity is needed to , in his words, “explain the rules of engagement here. There’s clearly some confusion on this matter. Although they are members of the facility, the board still runs the facility.”
There is little question that Courtney’s use of the forums is at least in part self-serving—if not necessarily for his own political run, then certainly for the advisory group. He made that clear in the set of questions he forwarded the city council candidates. Three of the six questions—which you can read here–are about the swim and racquet club or the advisory committee. Courtney told candidates, “You may be asked all or none of these questions as the night progresses.”
Several candidates were at a loss over how to react to the forum invitation—whether to attend an event that did not appear entirely clean of confusion or crossed purposes, or whether to skip on the event and miss a chance to address a fresh swath of people.
When Colleen Conklin, who chairs the school board and is one of the candidates in this year’s elections—and therefore one of the people invited to the advisory group’s forum on Aug. 9—received the invitation, she reacted with one word: “Weird.” She subsequently forwarded the invitation to the school board attorney for clearance.