Roughly a dozen people showed up to Palm Coast government’s first of four public charter-review workshop at Matanzas High School early this evening, the latest of many indications over the past few years that residents’ interest in revamping the city’s equivalent of a constitution is slight to non-existent. The workshop itself was not exactly absorbing: it was more late-night infomercial than Ted Talk.
What public comment was offered was limited to three-minute segments per comment at the beginning and end of the meeting, somewhat belying the workshops’ advertised claim that they are intended for public participation: the bulk of the time was taken up by the facilitator explaining, lecturing and parsing the charter review process and the existing charter’s strengths and weaknesses, focusing on its first five sections.
The workshop was held at Matanzas’s cafeteria, which has a capacity of 439. There were more people in the room than the 13 or 14 who could be considered strictly members of the public at large. But those were four council members, the city attorney, several city staffers (including City Manager Jim Landon), three reporters and a cop. In other words, the people on the periphery of the meeting outnumbered the people for whom the meeting was held.
Nevertheless, the University of Central Florida’s Marilyn Crotty, whom the city hired as its moderator for these workshops, put a brighter face on the turnout, calling it “encouraging,” because at many other charter-review sessions she moderates, “by and large very few citizens show up.”
Formalities and generalities aside, the most animated part of the meeting were for the most part replays of council debates about what the charter review process should be like, rather than what should be in the charter.
Palm Coast has never conducted a comprehensive review of its charter since incorporating in 1999. The charter states it “may be reviewed” every 10 years. Council member Steven Nobile has been leading the charge for a review, failing to convince his colleagues on two occasions previously and finally winning their approval but for a process that significantly dilutes control of the review by anyone other than the council and its chosen facilitator: while there will be four public workshops, public input is limited to the same kind of input provided for at the beginning and the end of council meetings and workshops. The council, not the public, will decide whether any changes are made to the charter, if any, at least to the extent that those changes are proposed in the form of a referendum on the 2018 ballot, where the public again will have a voice.
A majority of council members made clear that they saw no reason for a comprehensive charter review, noting that they have not detected any sort of clamor for such a review. None of the several council meetings at which the charter was debated drew audiences any larger than tonight’s, and most drew less (at least for that particular subject on the council’s agenda).
The current charter lays out a process that would have led to the appointment, by the council, of an independent charter review commission. The council chose not to take that route, opting instead for the current arrangement. Whether the council is following its own charter’s direction in that regard is up for interpretation. “I’ve given you my own interpretation,” Bill Reischmann, the city’s attorney, said at tonight’s meeting. “Some people disagree.”
He was responding to one of the evening’s few comments, and its most forceful, from Kimble Medley, a former candidate for supervisor of elections who’s frequently been involved in local government issues. She spoke at the beginning and the end of the meeting, calling the workshops a “put on” that’ll lead nowhere, however informative. Reischmann countered the way he has at meetings previously, by lending the process his own interpretation of law to the extent that it allows for this alternate way of reviewing the charter. Medley also questioned the three-minute time limits imposed on the public, especially in contrast with the open-ended allowance for public officials at the meeting. If an independent review panel had been appointed, she said, public input would have been less restricted.
In the few comments that were spoken, one other person echoed Medley, calling the process “a sham,” but another, Norm Mugford, a long-time member of the city’s Code Enforcement board, said he didn’t think the charter should be changed. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” he said, though he did propose clarifying qualification and residency requirements of prospective candidates for office: he’d been passed over for an appointment to the council two years ago, for a candidate who he says was tied more to Jacksonville than to Palm Coast.
Other than Medley’s comments, a couple of general questions from Jack Carrell, who attends every council meeting and workshop, and a suggestion from Greg Feldman, also a former candidate for local office, that was mostly it for public comment: there were none that actually made any substantive proposals either about the charter or about the adopted process (disputing it aside). In essence, what public participation there was replayed earlier debates at the council.
With the opening session of public comment ended, Crotty returned to what she had done at the top of the meeting: providing a civics lesson about charters in general and about Palm Coast’s charter specifically: every one of Florida’s 412 cities has a charter, by law, the Legislature ultimately approves the city charter, the document should be a more general blueprint, constitution-like, on how to run the city rather than a detailed how-to that’s better dealt with through ordinances, and so on. Also: it should be lucid and consistent. “Middle school students need to be able to read your charter and know what it’s about,” Crotty said.
She then got into a few more details by discussing the existing charter section by section, with this meeting devoted to the first five: that part of the discussion was more glaze-inviting than engaging, with Crotty making the odd suggestion about how to improve certain sections, at least regarding its form, if not quite its substance. But Crotty got a few ears perked up when she noted that some cities give their council investigatory powers through their charter, and that the Palm Coast council could do so as well if it so chose. The council could then investigate allegations of misconduct in the city administration’s ranks, with subpoena power and the power to mete out penalties. Feldman urged against that approach.
The meeting was attended by council members Bob Cuff, Nick Klufas, Steven Nobile and Heidi Shipley. “While they are here,” Crotty said of the council members, “they are here mainly here as observers.” They spoke little. Landon, the city manager, was on his way out when he stopped cold the moment he heard Nobile ask a question (Landon and Nobile do not see eye to eye, and much of Nobile’s thrust for a charter review has Landon in its sights: Nobile wants more council members to have more say in the day to day business of the city.) Nobile wanted to know when he would get to make his own recommendations for charter changes (November) and what steps could be taken to resolve the matter of interpretation about how to conduct a charter review.
The city also makes written comments part of the process, through electronic submissions by email ([email protected]) or at the city’s website.