“Congratulations, welcome aboard,” Mayor Catherine Robinson told John Sowell immediately after Circuit Judge Dennis Craig swore him in as a Bunnell County Commissioner shortly after 7 p.m. this evening. “We’re now going to have a break, have a recess.”
“No no no, we’re not,” Commissioner John Rogers objected, rising from his sea. “I’m getting sworn in.”
“What’s that?” the mayor said, genuinely surprised.
“I’m getting sworn in!”
“Ah!,” Robinson said. “No wonder you’re all dressed up. Sorry about that. We’re all going to have cake in a minute.” (“My board is very good at keeping me on task and letting me know when I mess up,” she had earlier quipped to the judge.)
It was an honest mistake. Rogers has been on the commission the last six of the 22-some years Robinson has been there, and for all the friction they once experienced in the earlier years, they’ve gotten largely used to each other, the way Rogers sometimes slumps into the comfort of his commissioner’s chair during meeting segments that don’t grab his entire attention. He walked over to Craig to be sworn in to his third consecutive term, barely holding up his right hand, and spoke the traditional words before Robinson declared open season on the yellow and white cake brought in as a farewell to Bonita Robinson, who Sowell was replacing.
Sowell, like Rogers, had worn his Opening Day best. His wife Patty, his daughter Sarah, his father Cecil and his father’s wife Bette were present for the occasion. He didn’t get a chance to speak after his swearing in—the cake break broke the rhythm of the occasion—but he’d spoken to a reporter just before the meeting to say a couple of things, other than pledging to always be prepared (he’s a reader and likes to study issues): “You know, I think when you just start, I don’t think people want to hear a whole lot about you,” Sowell said. “I’ll have something nice to say about Commissioner Robinson, and that’s probably about all. Obviously I thank my family and thank the people who supported me.”
Of Bonita Robinson, he said: “She served for three years and during that time I think the city is clearly better off than it was four years ago. It’s an achievement because the city has gone long way in the last three years from where they were.” He was referring to the period when the city was in deficit, and the commission she sat on shepherded it back to health.
Robinson took stepping down from the commission with a smile. “I won’t be missing it too much,” she said, “just the part of being inside, helping to make the decisions. But I am a resident here in Bunnell, so I will be continuing to come to the meetings and advocate for the public.” Her departure means that once again, South Bunnell, the poorer, predominantly black part of the city, is without direct representation on the commission (Robinson is a resident of South Bunnell), though city officials have been making strides in keeping the neighborhood’s concerns on its radar: Police Chief Tom Foster was late to tonight’s commission meeting because he had been meeting with pastors in South Bunnell.
Her replacement isn’t exactly a known entity: Sowell was for years a helicopter pilot for Flagler County, and he’s been deployed numerous time with the military, until his recent retirement from both. His colleagues are in a wait-and-see posture.
“I don’t really know that much about him other than the information he sent out in the flyer” Commissioner Bill Baxley said. “I spoke to him briefly just to say hi, but it looks like he’s going to be conservative, which is what Tucker and I are.” That’s Commissioner Elbert Tucker, who sees in Sowell a man unafraid to make decisions, since he flew a helicopter. Rogers described him as “a professional,” but wouldn’t guess at the kind of dynamics his new colleague will bring to the board.
Mayor Robinson has outlived an innumerable series of commissioners in her two and a half decades on the commission (she was first elected in 1994). So a new face to her is almost as ordinary as the occasional commission controversy.
“Mr. Sowell, he seems to be interested, motivated and dedicated,” she said of her new colleague in a brief interview after the swearing in. “His history kind of lends to that and I’m looking forward to that component. I’m sure he’ll bring a different perspective to the board, but I think that’s one of our strength, it’s the diversity, and that’s what I’ll miss with Commissioner Robinson, the diversity she brings and the different points of view she sees as a commissioner. She’s very strong in her dedication and opinion about some things. She’s not afraid to speak up, and I like that about her.”
Robinson was asked about being the only women on the commission (it’s not clear if it’s happened before, but it hasn’t happened in many years.) “I don’t know, I don’t see that gender issue,” Robinson said. “I just see people working together for the good of the city, so I don’t look at the male-female component.” But, she added with a knowing laugh, “I’ll hold my own.”
As the longest-serving elected official in Flagler County, she always has.