Palm Coast City Council member Steven Nobile found out for the second time in two weeks this morning what it’s like to be Milissa Holland—a previous edition of Holland, anyway.
In June 2010, when Holland was a county commissioner, she thought she had the votes to fire the county administrator. She made her case in a 20-minute argument. She moved to dismiss him. And was stunned at the result: motion failed, 2-3.
Nobile on Sept. 5, at the end of a very long and at times tense night meeting, and as Hurricane Irma was approaching the state, tried to have Landon fired in 60 days. He didn’t get as far as a motion because of a procedural issue. So he put forth the motion this morning. It failed, 2-3, with only Heidi Shipley voting with him. Landon, in a characteristically arrogant twist of the knife, called for a roll call so he could have the city clerk spell out the names that voted against the motion (Mayor Milissa Holland, council members Nick Klufas and Bob Cuff) and those voting for it.
Nobile is opposed to a two-year timeline for replacing Landon, what he described as “a two-year short-timer on staff at such an elevated position.” Nor does he want the search to coincide with the election season next year. He says the whole thing can be done in six months or so.
Instead, the council went along with a timeline Landon and his administration crafted for his replacement no less than two years from now, when he retires, with the choosing of a search firm slated for no earlier than April, or seven months from now. There was no discussion on the matter this morning from the majority voting against Nobile and Shipley, a void more suggestive of orchestration than silence.
“This process has bothered me,” Nobile said, “that we have again allowed the dictation of the city manager to tell us what we’re going to do, and that’s what it seems like it boiled down to.”
But that’s what Landon had been doing since well before an early-August meeting called to decide his fate, after he had held closed-door sessions with each council member to lay out his plan for retirement in two years, going as far as picking his successor. The successor aside, that’s essentially what the majority of three voting against dismissal conceded at the August meeting, adopting a vague, stretched out timeline for his replacement that coincided with his retirement.
No replacement for a city manager, a county administrator or a school superintendent ever takes two years of course. But the council and Landon have since found themselves backing into rationalizing the timeline, as Landon did this morning.
“Very typically I will tell you roughly what we say in this business, it takes about a year,” Landon told the council about finding a “credible” new city manager. Nobile, returning from a League of Cities conference, said he’d spoken with a lot of officials in the business there, and found that the claim about a year or longer is bogus: it takes about six months. The Flagler County School Board just replaced its superintendent in just under five months, the Flagler Beach City Commission replaced its manager in four, both governments doing so with candidates whose credibility Landon could question only by risking his own.
Or he could have pointed to Palm Coast’s own Exhibit A—Landon himself.
Dick Kelton, Palm Coast’s founding city manager—the only one it’s had other than Landon—announced in January 2006 that he was retiring. Kelton’s retirement announcement was followed by several months of dawdling. It was only in May that the council decided to hire a search firm, though it did so swiftly. By October—just five months later—it had a shortlist of five candidates. And by Nov. 8, less than six months after the council decided to look for a search firm, Landon—the man who now claims the council can’t find a credible city manager without a very long search–was hired.
The entire council at that August meeting a few weeks ago agreed that Landon’s tenure had to end. But a majority has been cowed from challenging his way of ending it, largely for fear of paying him a quarter-million dollar severance: he drove the conversation at the August meeting, and again—claiming, falsely, that “once again I’ve been fairly quiet about this”—drove it this morning. He delivered a nine-minute speech at the beginning of a discussion that was supposed to be between council members, mixing self-pity, self-aggrandizement and threats wrapped in a lecture about how to replace a city manager, and ending, astoundingly, with an actual directive to Nobile about what his motion should be: “I think your motion should be, we want to do everything we can to keep this team together. And that keeping this team, those individuals and the people that work for them, showing your support for them, and their leader, is extremely important for this organization, and I think that’s what they deserve.”
He twice used the phrase their leader while referring to himself (a direct echo of Kellyanne Conway, President Trump’s adviser, complaining about “insults about our leader” during the Emmy Awards show Sunday night). He did so as he often has before, when he’s been on the defensive, using his staff as a shield: “This whole idea of actually cutting loose the leader of these individuals, I will tell you, they take it hard,” he said, “and I’m very fearful, in fact I’m sure very likely we’re going to lose some of them as a result of this process.”
He did not specify what he meant by “this process,” an enigma underscored by the fact that so far, the “process” has been entirely in his control, though at that point in the discussion he did not have the certainty of a 3-2 vote his way just yet.
“I’m not asking for Mr. Landon to be terminated because he’s incompetent,” Nobile said, trying again. “I’m saying it’s time to move on, and it’s already a done deal. It is not not going to happen. Mr. Landon is not going to be here for another 10 years. He’s retiring in two years.” His frustration was audible as he called it “absurd” that the search for a search firm would take seven months. “This whole thing is being put together to lay out the fact that we’re not going to make a change until Mr. Landon retires,” he said.
Shipley was even more direct: “It just seems to be like if I was going to lose my job, that’s what I would do, is say it’s going to take a really long time to find somebody, and if I leave, everyone behind me is going to leave too,” she said. “That’s kind of like a threat, saying if I leave, everyone is leaving. It just puts a bad note on the whole thing, where it was supposed to be.”
But it’s Landon’s council, as was the vote.