In contrast to the conflict-ridden Kimberle Weeks era, when that supervisor of elections turned canvassing board meetings into partisan circuses of grievances and unreason, meetings on Supervisor of Elections Kaiti Lenhart’s watch have been calm, civil, uncontroversial and remarkably transparent. Even as problems have arisen, as with the missing mosquito control district race on some ballots in the current election, Lenhart has immediately revealed the problem, solicited advice from varied legal sources, board members and other interested parties, and reached a solution, which the board approved on yesterday.
So it was startling that at the end of that hour-long special meeting of the canvassing board Thursday afternoon, matters suddenly and inexplicably deteriorated as if in a Weeks time-warp, though Lenhart was not involved. The clash—and that’s exactly what it was, in tone and substance—took place between Ralph Lightfoot, chairman of the Flagler County Democratic Executive Committee, and County Judge Melissa Moore-Stens, who chairs the three-member canvassing board.
Lightfoot took Moore-Stens to task over her seemingly hurried management of the canvassing board meetings and openly and repeatedly criticized her, with little heed for her position or, to some extent, for the accuracy of what he was saying: first he criticized her for hurrying things along that shouldn’t be hurried and leaving meetings to the alternate at times, then, in a patently unfair and inaccurate attack, he criticized her for not giving room to public comment.
As they clashed, canvassing board members Lenhart and Nate McLaughlin, the county commissioner, along with board alternate Nicole Williams, attorney Sean Moylan and Aynne McAvoy, one of the two candidates for the blind-spotted mosquito control race, along with one of the supervisor’s staffers, sat mute around the table, some of them likely stunned by the abrasive spectacle. The judge, however, who’s had her time as a defense attorney and is no rhetorical lightweight, methodically countered Lightfoot’s criticism to the point that in the end, both agreed: the county judge seat in Flagler needs an additional judge. That, of course, has been a frequent complaint behind the doors of the Seventh Judicial Circuit, but rarely has the issue spilled out so publicly, or been entangled in so sensitive a matter as a ballot crisis.
In an interview today, Lightfoot wondered if he owed the judge an apology, but then said he stood by his criticism of her not giving meetings enough time, and of giving the impression that she has to be elsewhere.
McLaughlin, also interviewed today, at first said the matter was between Lightfoot and the judge, but then saw value in both of their positions.
The Full Lightfoot-Moore-Stens Exchange[media id=411 width=250 height=150]
“As a public comment the public can say what they feel they want to say. it’s appropriate for the public to be open and honest,” McLaughlin said (though notably, Lightfoot had jumped in when the judge had reached the “old business” portion of the meeting, not yet the public comment segment: Lightfoot, as a member of the public in attendance, was technically speaking out of turn, though the judge did not stop him.) McLaughlin said Moore-Stens runs “a tight ship” when she chairs meetings, a style he’s encountered with fellow-Commissioner Barbara Revels, which he doesn’t fault: it’s the chairman’s responsibility to move things along.
Lightfoot today was almost of two minds over the clash, saying important matters like the ballot issue should not be moved along if all aspects of the issue had not been exhausted. “She never seems to have enough time to listen to the issues,” he said. “I understand she has a tough schedule. Maybe we need to look at lightening her workload a little bit. But she’s always trying to speed up the process. She never has patience enough to discuss the issues.” Moments later, he added: “Maybe I was wrong.”
Here’s how it happened.
When the canvassing board met on Wednesday to canvass mail-in votes, Lenhart informed the board about the missing race from ballots distributed to voters in three precincts. She had a solution in mind but she needed to speak with Moylan and the Division of Elections, along with another lawyer who represents supervisors of election across the state. The board discussed the issue but at one point the judge, seeing no ready solution just then, moved the meeting along because canvassing takes hours: in fact, the board had met at 10 a.m., and wasn’t done canvassing until after 5 p.m. Sometime around 2 p.m. Moore-Stens left to attend to a court hearing, leaving Williams, the alternate, to take her place: that’s not unusual, in this or previous canvassing boards. That’s why there’s an alternate.
Since the board didn’t have all the answers to the ballot problem, it scheduled a special meeting for Thursday to revisit and presumably resolve the issue (as it did). That discussion took one hour yesterday, with every aspect of the problem analyzed from various angles, redundantly, so that by the time the hour had passed, all questions seemed to have been answered and a solution put in place.
That’s when Moore-Stens moved to “old business” on the agenda, and when Lightfoot jumped in.
“This voting is a serious matter. If you don’t have time to do it, you need to find somebody else,” he said point blank to the judge, who was sitting across the table from him.
“If who doesn’t have time to do what?” a startled Moore-Stens answered.
Lightfoot: “You. You.”
Moore-Stens: “When did I say I didn’t have time to do it?”
Lightfoot: “You said it earlier. ‘We have discussed this ad nauseam,’ right?” he said. But it was true: the boartd had discussed the issue ad nauseam. “The other day you said to Nate, ‘Let’s move on, we’ve got to get in here and start canvassing. This is an important process.”
The judge explained why it had been unnecessary to keep discussing the issue without key answers from lawyers and disagreed with Lightfoot that she was rushing things along. To the contrary: she’d pressed for a special meeting Thursday.
Then Lightfoot took a completely different track, as inexplicable as the first: “If you don’t want these meetings open to the public, then don’t invite them. Don’t invite the public,” he said, though it’s not the judge’s choice: the meetings are public by law.
Lightfoot: “If you don’t want the public to say anything, don’t invite people to the [meeting].”
Moore-Stens: “I haven’t even gotten to public comment yet,” the judge said, “and I always ask for public comment, and I’ve never told anybody that they could not.”
Lightfoot: “Yes but you act as though, you know, there’s a fire and you have to get out of here, OK?”
Moore-Stens: “Well, I have the largest docket of any judge in the entire state of Florida.”
Lightfoot: “There you go, exactly.”
Moore-Stens: “So, I do have a lot of places to be at one time.”
Lightfoot: “Exactly, so we need to fix the process and get somebody who has time and don’t have to run out and go back to court. That’s all I’m saying.”
But Moore-Stens is not the only canvassing board member who sometimes has to absent herself, particularly during day-long meetings. Most members do, as does Lenhart, who, at the peak of an election cycle, has innumerable things to attend to, in and out of the office, though no canvassing board member has had the kind of gall Weeks did when she suspended one such meeting in 2014 to do a radio interview.
“There’s only one county judge and I’m statutorily required to be the chair of the canvassing board,” Moore-Stens reminded Lightfoot.
“Then we need to do this on a day when you don’t have any other appointments,” he said.
“I don’t have a day like that,” the judge said. “If you want to advocate for a second county judge, then I’ll have a lot more time on my hands, but I am doing the work of one and a half or two judges everywhere else in the state of Florida.”
“We need to fix that, then.”
“I agree with you,” Moore-Stens said. “When I have to be at work at 7:30 in the morning to do my job properly, and work late until the evening hours and work four weekends in a row, I agree with you that I am overworked.”
This morning, Lightfoot said finding a second judge for Flagler should be an issue to work on.
“She is swamped, that’s why she wants to move things along,” he said sympathetically today, but in retrospect, only half accurately.