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Behind County Plaint That Relations With Palm Coast “Suck,” a History of Rancor and Cooperation

| June 12, 2017

Posing aside, Palm Coast Mayor Milissa Holland and County Commission Chairman Nate McLaughlin are far from best friends, but Holland says relations with the county have significantly improved and a joint meeting with just the two boards is not necessary. Other elected officials see it differently. (© FlaglerLive)

Posing aside, Palm Coast Mayor Milissa Holland and County Commission Chairman Nate McLaughlin are far from best friends, but Holland says relations with the county have significantly improved, the implication being that now that the likes of ex-Commissioner George Hanns, left, and ex-Mayor Jon Netts, right, are in the background, the two governments have moved on. But Holland considers a joint meeting between just the two boards unnecessary. Other elected officials see it differently. (© FlaglerLive)

The last two time the Palm Coast City Council and the Flagler County Commission held a joint meeting goes back five years. It did not go well. The two sides met to resolve a dispute over money for the interchange at Matanzas Woods Parkway and I-95. They haggled, and Jon Netts, the mayor at the time, threatened litigation. It didn’t go that far, but the meeting underscores the kind of atmosphere that’s often defined county-city relations since before Palm Coast’s incorporation in 1999.

There was another joint meeting that year, over plans for a renewal of a local sales tax surcharge. It went worse, with the two sides disagreeing over how the money should be split, which led the county to go its own way. It dropped plans to take the issue to a referendum (since it was not going to have the city’s backing) and the city settled for about half a million dollars less in revenue from a surtax the county commission imposed by supermajority of the commission instead.

No wonder they haven’t tried to meet since. They almost did last year, only to retreat in the face of yet another controversy dividing them—a disagreement over ambulance responsibilities.

Politicians who hold office for a while get used to what may seem like a coldish war, though it’s not always what it seems. Politicians new to the job are startled by it, especially when they zero in on the rankle of the day. It’s what led the newest of them all, County Commissioner Greg Hansen, to declare flatly at the end of a very long workshop last week: “I’ve been in the job about three months now, and it seems to me that our relationship with the city of Palm Coast sucks. They ask us for a lot of help, and we always give it to them. They want money for their fields, they want free land over at the Matanzas interchange, we gave it to them. And yet when we want something, they stick it in our eye, and they make it hard. I just don’t understand that. I mean, is that something we can take on as a commission? I don’t understand it.”

County Commissioner Greg Hansen. (© FlaglerLive)

County Commissioner Greg Hansen. (© FlaglerLive)

There is plenty of room for misunderstandings, exaggerations and misstatements—much of which could be resolved if the two sides met periodically. For one thing, none of the council members who were part of those 2012 meetings are on the council anymore. The only hold-over from that time is City Manager Jim Landon (who tends not to hide his scorn for the county, publicly and privately, when he talks to council members individually.) The county commission has turned over, too, with just one elected hold-over from that period, Nate McLaughlin, and of course County Administrator Craig Coffey, yang to Landon’s yin in that co-dependent relationship.

And current council and commission members  speak of good relations and frequent contact with each other: Hansen talks with Mayor Milissa Holland and Steven Nobile, Nobile talks with Hansen and Commissioner Donald O’Brien, O’Brien talks with Holland, and all speak of mutual respect and effective communications. It isn’t translating into formal action for joint meetings, because different politicians interpret cooperation differently. 

Former council members such as Bill McGuire and the late County Commissioner Frank Meeker repeatedly called for joint meetings and got nowhere. Holland campaigned on improving relations and resuming regular meetings with other agencies–but not with just the commission–and so far has gotten nowhere. And Now Hansen is pushing for a joint meeting, but his colleagues and the county administrator on Monday, with startling silence, either did not clearly understand his aim or seemed uninterested. When he said for the third time in two minutes that the city “continually stick it in our eye,” McLaughlin just asked: “Anything else?”  and ended the meeting. (McLaughlin did not return a call Sunday.)

In fairness to McLaughlin and the other commissioners, Hansen never clearly verbalized his wish for a joint meeting with the city council, so his statements sounded more like a familiar complaint than an actionable proposal. He only clarified his wish for a meeting in an interview with FlaglerLive Sunday. “I’m trying to force a meeting,” he said.

He doesn’t understand why such a meeting has not been scheduled even after many attempts by previous commissioners and council members to have one. Hansen says he’s had conversations with Holland and council members Nick Klufas and Nobile, all of whom have told him they’d be willing to meet.

Meetings are going on all the time between the two governments–just not in a joint setting.

“It’s not my intention to have a meeting to discuss our relationship,” Nobile said, speaking of that relationship as not needing repair, “but to meet jointly every so often, maybe twice a year, just to flesh out things that the administration aren’t handling properly, not getting done, not getting through.” As Nobile sees it, the two administrations get it done 98 percent of the time, but on 2 percent of the issues, they get hung up in disagreements that then require intervention by their respective boards. “We nee d to push both of them in the right direction,” he said of the administrators, both of whom have Alpha-male personalities and gargantuan egos that don’t always benefit communal understanding, “and if we don’t get involved sometimes it won’t happen.”

And while Holland likes the notion of joint meetings, she doesn’t want one with the commission exclusively, but with all local government boards. 

“My approach when I first got elected,” Holland said, “I’d invited each commissioner to come in and sit down with me and talk about outstanding issues that had been going on for many years, but I also spoke to them about the opportunity of how to work more collaboratively in the future.” Holland said she loves the possibility of a joint meeting, but “I don’t think it should just be necessarily Palm Coast and Flagler County, but rather the school district and all the municipalities, to have a much broader conversation.”

Regarding the county specifically, Holland said, “We’ve been able to resolve and settle a lot of outstanding issues both on the city’s and the county’s side.” She cites the Matanzas Woods interchange and the de-annexation issue at the county airport, which Hansen sees differently. 

About two hours after the Sunday interview, however, Holland texted” I wanted to make it clear that I am always open to sitting down with the County Commission any time,” and cited recent cooperation with the county on improving patient transportation from the hospital. Asked to specify if she meant she would be willing to hold a bilateral meeting just between the two elected boards, she said, “absolutely, I brought that up in my individual meetings with each Commissioner.”

The relationship between the two sides sometimes suffers from mis-perceptions. As often happens in how the city and the county interpret each other’s actions, Hansen was overstating the county’s generosity somewhat. Regarding the money he said the county provided for the city’s fields, Hansen was referring to the two times Palm Coast got $150,000 grants to build or improve fields at the Indian Trails Sports Complex. The money technically came from county coffers and was approved by the county commission, which would make you believe that the county “gave” the money to the city. But it wasn’t the county’s money to give, nor was it county money, exactly. It was money collected through the tourism sales surtax—by the county, but part of that money must by law be distributed to local agencies for their capital improvements in projects that make the county more attractive to tourists. The sports complex’s field has certainly done that. And Palm Coast is represented on the Tourist Development Council, voting for such appropriations.

Palm Coast City Councilman Steven Nobile re-imagines a blueprint for the city. (© FlaglerLive)

Palm Coast City Councilman Steven Nobile. (© FlaglerLive)

The county was also not exactly doing the city a favor when it gave the city ownership of Matanzas Woods Parkway. Rather, the conveyance was part of the deal that resolved the matter of dollars hung up in county coffers, and dating back to the earlier part of the previous decade. The agreement also called for the city to take over all maintenance responsibilities for Matanzas Woods Parkway, which unburdens the county. (See the deal’s details here.) The interchange has since been built and celebrated jointly by the two governments.

But there’s no question, either, that the city has not made things easy for the county, most significantly over disputes involving the county airport in the heart of the city. The county had sought to ensure water utility connections at the south end of the airport, where significant development has gone up (the Army National Guard facility is under construction, the East Mosquito Control District’s headquarters just moved there). Since Palm Coast controls water connections, it could dictate terms, and those terms turned, for a few years, into something more akin to a hostage situation, with the county being held hostage to the city’s niggling insistence on untenable contractual details.

That issue was resolved, only to now turn up yet another: the county owns substantial acreage at the end of a runway at the airport. But that part of the land is on Palm Coast’s side of the city limits. The county wants to annex. The city is resisting. Through negotiations, the two sides appear ready to move toward an agreement that would enable annexation, as long as the county pledges either never to develop the land or, should it develop it, to do so within city, not county, standards. City standards are stricter. It should be a moot point either way, since the county says that not only does it have no intentions to build there, but it can’t, since it’s a crash zone: by Federal Aviation Administration rules, no construction can go up there.

Still, the two sides haggled. On May 2 the city council unanimously voted to approve an agreement—pending changes in the wording that would impose certain conditions. So that second reading has not yet been approved. It’s one of the reasons Hansen said relations with the city “suck,” and why he sees it as the county always giving in for little in return. “I just know our lawyer was not happy with it,” Hansen said. That may be news to Deputy County Administrator Sally Sherman and Commissioners Dave Sullivan and Don O’Brien, all of whom appeared before the city council just before that unanimous vote to voice approval for what, at the time, appeared to have been a compromise. 

Furthering Hansen’s displeasure, he said he asked Holland to get a couple of things accomplished for the county, and she asked for a couple of things in return. The county, Hansen said, followed through on the mayor’s requests. One of which was to make another payment in the Matanzas-impact-fees deal (the county wrote a $500,000 check, Hansen said). The other was to deed over that portion of Bulldog Drive that, as it turned out, had been county property the whole time the city had been widening it.

Hansen asked help with the city’s own debt to the county: a $600,000 payment due on the emergency communications system, which the county runs and maintains for all county and city emergency agencies. “She was not able to help on the things I wanted done,” Hansen said, though the payment for the emergency communications system is a dispute that dates back a few years, too, and where the city—Landon and the city attorney—have flatly told the county that they would not pay, because they claim the county itself reneged on terms of the agreement. (Details here.)

“Some of these are contractual relationships and ongoing discussions that have preceded all of us,” Holland said, but she doesn’t think it takes a joint meeting of the two boards to resolve them. “It can easily be achieved by just sitting down with our staff and asking how do we resolve these issues.” The technical staffs of both agencies have, Holland noted, been meeting on the matter. 

Hansen on Friday said term the term “suck” may have been “a little over the top,” but it was prompted by his displeasure over the airport annexation issue. In the end, he stresses, “It’s not a big deal. I think we need to talk more.”

None of his colleagues nor members of the city council would disagree, until you get down to the definition and setting of “talk.”

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7 Responses for “Behind County Plaint That Relations With Palm Coast “Suck,” a History of Rancor and Cooperation”

  1. Resident says:

    When they can’t agree, the citizens lose – its not about you all – its about the people who pay their taxes. Come on do your job people

  2. Lou says:

    Perhaps, Mayor Holland can drain the swamp for the benefit of the taxpayers. She was County Commissioner and now Mayor of Palm Coast.

  3. Benjamin Bartlett says:


    I love that the author doesn’t dumb-down his writing like the other print and
    electronic publications in the area.


  4. Sgt. Bootem says:

    Palm Coast would be a great place to put a missile defense system on the east coast. Hey, we can’t get jobs so might as well get military contracts. Perhaps even a new submarine base. Dredge out Matanza inlet and cut thru to Pellicer Creek.

  5. r&r says:

    Is it an ego problem between Coffey and Landon???????????????????

  6. Steve Wardrip says:

    Perhaps, a bigger vision is needed for both governments. Instead of playing chess, be the real King or Queen winning the real game. The game is the two governments’ view of the people they represent. Competitive compassionate capitalism is what works. Let’s get it on! haha!
    “Suck” denotes “amateur” and “juvenile” and if I were a public official, I would avoid using cheap language. I do think it’s a big deal. BTW “Killer” reporting!

  7. Anonymous says:

    They don’t get along huh? Every time I see them they are cuddled up together. Hmmm.

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