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Flagler’s Emergency Manager Resigns as Allegations Fly In Latest Shake-Up At Troubled County Division

| October 4, 2017

It's long been an uneasy relationship between Emergency Manager Steve Garten, left, Fire Chief Don Petito, center, and County Administrator Craig Coffey, who's been steering the emergency management division as its de facto chief. (c FlaglerLive)

It’s long been an uneasy relationship between Emergency Manager Steve Garten, left, Fire Chief Don Petito, center, and County Administrator Craig Coffey, who’s been steering the emergency management division as its de facto chief. (c FlaglerLive)

In August County Administrator Craig Coffey called Steven Garten, the emergency services manager, to his office, and told him he had until January to find another job. The relationship wasn’t working—for either side: Garten felt handcuffed by Coffey, and Coffey felt Garten wasn’t doing the job.

Then Hurricane Irma struck. The preparation and response to the emergency was smoother than it had been for Hurricane Matthew last year. But Garten got a call from Flagler Beach City Commissioner Kim Carney, asking him about a rumor that he was leaving in December. She told him she heard it from Nate McLaughlin, the county commissioner. Garten was again summoned to Coffey’s office, who asked him why word was spreading about his departure.

“Why don’t you ask yourself that question because Nate McLaughlin is telling everybody,” Garten said he told Coffey.  (“If Kim says I mentioned it to her then I must have, but I don’t know a whole lot about the situation,” McLaughlin said this morning, adding that he can’t think of other people he might have mentioned the situation to.)

Garten continued: “So I went home that night, made some phone calls, and to make a long story short, I gave him my resignation on Monday. I don’t want to work some place where somebody doesn’t want me to work.” Garten hand-delivered his resignation letter to Coffey just before a county commission meeting, saying in the letter that he wanted to “speed up the process you discussed that would be required of me in January 2018.”

“I think he was surprised, I think he thought I was going to wait until the end, when he wanted me to, but ultimately when I realized there was no hope I decided to do what’s best for my family,” Garten said this morning, noting that he has a job lined up with FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Administration, the agency where he worked previously. But he stressed: “I’m not resigning on my own, I’m being forced to resign.”

He is the fifth emergency services manager to resign or be pushed out from that unsettled department in a little over 10 years, three months shy of two years on the job. “I gave two weeks, we’ll see how it goes,” he said in an interview this morning.

He did not get that much: in a rapid unraveling of a volcanic situation that had built up since before Hurricane Matthew last year, he was escorted out of his office less than half an hour later this morning, after county officials found out he had spoken with a reporter about his resignation—and made a series of serious allegations about Coffey and Don Petito, the fire chief, both of whom had been interviewed immediately after Garten was. It appears that Garten was asked to leave the property during the phone interview with Coffey. He was then escorted back in and allowed to clear his office, after Coffey made it down to the emergency management office.

“Emergency Management is a team sport,” Coffey said. “We tried. We needed a leader in emergency management, and we’ve had all kinds of plans and preparations that needed to be made that just weren’t being made. We’ve got a lot of feedback from a lot of folks that didn’t appreciate Mr. Garten’s style. We tried to work through the shortcomings outside of FEMA funding, and I’ve had concerns raised by two different sheriffs, a number of department heads and staffing, and anger issues. We tried to work through those quietly in a professional manner, and at some point we reached the point where we couldn’t fix them.”

Coffey said the January deadline was offered as a way to avoid “loading up” his personnel file with actionable documentation that would lead to a firing, and to give him time to find another job. But he was dismayed by Garten’s decision not only to speed up the process, but to make allegations about him or others. “I think it’s unfortunate the route he’s taken,” Coffey said. “I think he has some good skills in some areas, I think he could be a better person, but I think the way he approaches some issues and the way he’s approaching this issue when we’re trying to help him is unfortunate and shows some lack of growth.”

An image from last year's visit by Sen. Bill Nelson, after Hurricane Matthew, that aptly captured the hierarchy of levers, with Craig Coffey, the county administrator, next to then-County Commissioner Barbara Revels, in the foreground, with Nelson, and Steve Garten in the far distance, behind IT Director Jarrod Shupe to the left. (c FlaglerLive)

An image from last year’s visit by Sen. Bill Nelson, after Hurricane Matthew, that aptly captured the hierarchy of levers, with Craig Coffey, the county administrator, next to then-County Commissioner Barbara Revels, in the foreground, with Nelson, and Steve Garten in the far distance, behind IT Director Jarrod Shupe to the left. (c FlaglerLive)

Garten said he’s never been given the room to be an emergency manager—or a director, as his title should read, he says, according to state law. “It’s never going to change,” Garten said. “Craig Coffey is the emergency management director. He wants all the glory of emergency management but none of the responsibility, that’s why he brings an emergency manager, but he doesn’t understand that Florida statute requires an EM director at each county, not a manager, a director.” He described himself as “a puppet,” and that as in the past, “anybody in the emergency management position is a puppet to whatever Craig wants.”  

Garten said the approach will have consequences because, he claimed, Coffey is not following state and federal rules: “One day he’ll get to caught up in all of that, he has to follow the law like everybody else, he doesn’t,” he said, citing a process that keeps Flagler in line with FEMA and state emergency management regulations.

In some regards, Garten’s criticism echoes more pointed criticism from Kevin Guthrie, his predecessor at emergency management and one of the more highly regarded directors to work in any department in local government in recent years. Guthrie found Coffey to be a micromanager who would not let him do his work as effectively as it should be done. He, too, felt handcuffed, and he, too, said the micromanagement of emergency management could have serious consequences in a catastrophe.

Coffey, however, never criticized Guthrie’s job performance as he does Garten’s, and he acknowledged his own limitations. In Guthrie’s case, Coffey said, “Guthrie wanted to be a deputy county administrator like he is in Pasco County,” he said, wanting to be in charge of all the county’s public safety divisions. “I wasn’t confident to move that quickly with the things he wanted.” Guthrie had done a lot for the county and was “definitely better at emergency response,” Coffey said, but there were issues. “I would argue I have my own strengths and weaknesses too, I’m not perfect, but we’re still trying to get to a different level in emergency management.”

There’s no question that during both Hurricane Matthew and Hurricane Irma, the county’s emergency manager was, in effect, Coffey. Coffey doesn’t dispute the fact that he’s been much more involved in the division—nor does he dispute Garten’s claim that he is not always following regulations “chapter and verse.”

“I’m not going to sit by while someone quotes FEMA regulations while people suffer,” Coffey said. “I’m going to take action.” That, he said, is what local law enforcement, public safety agencies and residents expect.

“I do get more involved in departments that are weak and then I back away,” he continued. “I had to do that in various areas.” He cited the IT department, which had horrendous problems before the arrival of Jarrod Shupe last year, and the county airport before the arrival of Roy Sieger. It is true that both those departments have since been largely out of the news and functioning well, with neither Sieger nor Shupe fitting the description of “puppets” by any means.

Coffey noted that the Hurricane Matthew after-action report was an example of Garten falling behind for months, and turning in a product that was less constructive than critical. Garten at the time of the report’s production had been displeased, as was at least one member of his staff, with what they considered an overly optimistic report that sought to veil serious issues. “That’s just not the way they go about business in Flagler County,” Coffey said. “There’s constructive criticism, you look in the mirror, and you try to point deficiencies, but you don’t throw everybody under the bus in the process.”

Regarding his resignation, Garten directed some of his criticism at Don Petito, the county’s long-time fire chief who in the past was considered as a possible emergency management director as well. “It’s all about Don, keeping Don happy, keeping Sally happy,” Garten said, referring as well to Sally Sherman, the deputy county administrator. “She’s a great worker, but Don is untouchable.”

More specifically, he said emergency management staff has always been responsible for tracking Flagler County Fire Flight’s medical trips, even though Fire Flight is under Petito’s departmental authority. The tracking is required by the Federal Aviation Authority and consists of documenting the helicopter’s locations from hangar to emergency scene to hospital and back, in real time. Fire Flight’s medical trips generate hundreds of thousands of dollars for the county, but Garten says the money flows to Petito’s department, not to his, while his staff must provide the work hours, even on weekends, for the task. “So why are we doing all the work while the fire department gets all the funding?” he said.

The reason the tracking is set up that way is because “you could do it right from your desk as you’re doing what else you’re doing,” Petito said of Fire Flight. “It’s not a burden. Basically what he proved was that he was not a team player, he wanted to do less than he could do.” Whenever Fire Rescue is asked to contribute manpower to any department in or out of the county, Petito said, it does so.

He bristled at the charge of being “untouchable,” and was clearly unsettled during an interview when told of the charge, and that Garten had claimed he had not been as hard working during the latest emergency. “The only reason I’m unfirable is I do my work, I show up to work, I do my job, and do what I’m supposed to do,” Petito said. “If I didn’t do that then I’m fireable. That’s kind of takes me aback that you say that.” He described Garten’s charge that he hadn’t worked as hard as “cry-baby stuff,” and said of the Irma emergency: “First of all I was on worker’s comp, I wasn’t even supposed to be here, second of all I was coordinating fire rescue stuff and we were deploying units all over the state as part of the state’s emergency management plan, and I participated in most of the meetings.” He described Garten as “a total, non-team player, doesn’t want to do the work.”

Garten’s departure is the second personnel crisis at emergency management in a year. Last October Garten sought to fire Jennifer Stagg, a senior planner for preparedness who’d worked at the division since 2010, weeks after trying to fire another employee and getting rebuffed by the human resources director. That director had counseled Garten to tone down his approach with employees, which was considered abrasive. The move against Stagg unraveled into a public spectacle. Stagg fought the firing and won after a hearing, staying at the division several more months before taking a job in Guthrie’s department, in Pasco.

Coffey said he anticipates some “restructuring” at emergency management, where he is unlikely to be hands off until the division is built back up—not because he wants the glory, he said, but because the department needs it. “I don’t know what the glory he’s referring to,” Coffey said of Garten’s charge, “I think he does deserve some credit but I think there’s a lot of people that deserve glory. Emergency Management is a team sport, I think there’s enough credit to go around. I believe I helped the process and I believe I’m definitely—I feel comfortable in our capabilities. We have such dedicated people in the county. I have department heads that have been with me the full time. I’ve been here over a decade, and some that have been here many years, and they know I try to stay out of issues but they know if there’s an issue I need to be involved in because it’s key financial issue, I will.”


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33 Responses for “Flagler’s Emergency Manager Resigns as Allegations Fly In Latest Shake-Up At Troubled County Division”

  1. Lonzo brown says:

    If Coffey is so good at his job,why is the county in such bad shape?

  2. Just the truth says:

    Landon/Coffey all out of the same mold.

  3. Bill says:

    “The preparation and response to the emergency was smoother than it had been for Hurricane Matthew last year.” I did NOT see it as better, The County had ZERO sand bags to give out until the Friday before the storm?? How the HELL did it NOT have any in Sep. hurricane season and this was the FIRST storm. Some 4 month into hurricane season and the county had NONE?? Next we had how many without power and or flooded homes that had no way of keeping food. Last year there was food and water distribution this time NONE. Why?? the answer was that food stores are open what good does that do those without power. Some did need food and water that would not perish if not refrigerated (MRE). I just don’t think as a whole the County was/is prepared to help out those in need.

  4. good american says:

    What college degrees, if any, does Coffey have? I agree with Bill…horrible preparation. And it will be the same or worse for the next storm(s).

  5. Lou says:

    Remember, City and County managers are hired because our elected officials are incompetent.

  6. Lilly says:

    I agree with Bob. With Hurricane Matthew I was without power for over 5 days. There was bottled water & MRE’S at the airport & plenty of sandbags. Everything with HM went smoothly. But this go around we had to bring our own bags for sand & we had a limit of how many we got, no water, no nothing. I’m not surprised. We can never rely on help from the county. So we must help each other. I still have limbs & yard waste sitting out front from Hurricane Irma. After Hurricane Matthew we only waited a few weeks until all the debris was picked up & now after Irma we’re almost on week 4, so I’m calling it “yard art”

  7. Anonymous says:

    Coffey is the one who needs to go. Shame on the commissioners for letting him keep the job! Unbelievable!!

  8. palmcoaster says:

    Now there is no former SOE Kimberle Weeks to blame and the drama comes up with others under Coffey and our Tax dollars still wasted witch hunting Weeks by him, FCBOCC and County Lawyer.

  9. Wishful Thinking says:

    Well Nate and Craig – better get ready for the next hurricane, You BOTH are now completely in charge of our welfare and safety we don’t have a ‘qualified’ Emergency Manager not a duo o Nate, Flagler’s Number 1 ‘yenta’ with ‘foot in mouth disease’ and his partner Coffey who is a ‘jack of all trades ( and then some) and master of ‘government in the shade ‘ and not much else. Just my personal opinion.. thanks Flaglerlive for letting me ‘ vent’.

  10. GY says:

    Same mold is right. Not good timing for a dust up during hurricane season. Flagler Citizens deserve and pay for better services.

  11. Mark101 says:

    Ok who can fire Coffey. Broken promises, he is the talk is cheap Administrator and Mr Put It Off. Coffey really needs to go, its that time.

  12. Yourstruly says:

    Flagler County and the City of PÇ, are a joke!

  13. Josh Davis says:

    To quit and immediately run to the media shows a total lack of class. Sometimes pieces just don’t fit. As an adult, it is often required to take your medicine and, perhaps, learn from your experience and grow as a person. Don Petito is a well respected member of this community who shouldn’t have been working. He was in a serious automobile accident while on duty as our Fire Chief. But, Don Petito is a man who is there when we need him, regardless of his health. For “Johnny-come-lately” to disparage Mr. Petito lets me know all I need to know about him. We’re better off he’s gone.

  14. By the way says:

    While I agree Coffey’s micromanagement of the county is a serious problem, I do not agree it’s the county’s job to provide food and water to those affected by the storm. Everyone should have a contingency plan for storm recovery. People want less government until they need that government.

  15. Concerned Citizen says:

    There’s a pattern developing here and not a pleasant one. If you don’t kiss Craig Coffey’s ass then you are out the door.

    They will never put a competent EM Director in Emergency Management because if they find someone qualified they are automatically a threat to Coffey and McLaughlin. They also don’t want a Director level position because of pay and benefits.

    Kevin Guthrie didn’t last long because Craig Coffey didn’t like him and made the job miserable. Now he’s in a different county in a far senior position. There was no attempt to try and keep Guthrie. Instead they felt the Airport Director was more important. I mean who better to prepare our county for disasters than the Airport Director right?

    Next on the chopping block was Jennifer Stagg our EM planner. One of the key people in the agency for getting us money. She also had direct interest in our much needed county volunteers. Once they stopped liking her the witch hunt started and again certain same people are involved. Now she is gone and working somewhere else.

    Eventually they will have to staff EM with temp agency workers or bring consultants in from the State or FEDS. No one will want to touch Flagler with a 10 foot pole.

    I have volunteered a long time in the Emergency Services Field on many different levels and have a prior public safety background myself. Never have I seen such contempt for and discord in an agency that at most has 5 or 6 employees working for it.

    Flagler Live it would be interesting to do a story on Craig Coffey and expose his inner workings of undermining the county and building his own kingdom. It would also be interesting to find out his educational and professional qualifications that make him able to lead our EM Agency.

    And finally no one is unfirable. You folks sitting high on your chairs at Government Services Building and in those nice Fire Chief Offices work for the citizens of Flagler County.

    If and when said citizens decide to do the right thing and vote in new and competent commissioners who aren’t afraid of you you better watch out. Unemployment comes rapidly.

  16. Anonymous says:

    Mouth of the south keeps the shit stirred doesn’t he. Seems like if he were a decent commissioner he would be finding out why we have had 3 emergency management directors in such a short period of time. He would also be asking why other staff members with years of experience are no longer employed by the county. I agree with you Palm Coadter, they wanted a Weeks out and didn’t let up on her until she left on her own. An investigation and forensic audit needs to be taken place in this county. These new commissioners need to wake up. There’s no hope for NcLaughlin—he needs to go in 2018! Coffey needs to go NOW!

  17. Kat says:

    We too! Have yard Art. Time to sweep the house clean.
    Mr. Coffey. You should check your resume. Dusty! Dated

  18. Grateful Dad says:

    I live in the hammock area and I can attest the county was far more prepared with this years storm. Our power was out for a total of seven days and was not restored until 8:40 Sunday evening. That was an FPL equipment issue not a county issue. Immediately after the storm the county had contracted crews clearing debris and opening our roads, this past Sunday we had county crews removing debris and hauling away. (In pouring rain) Last year we waited much longer for debris clearing. Personally, I went down and helped friends in the keys who were hit much harder and I can tell you they are far more resilient. I brought workers and equipment and stayed 8 days cleaning and clearing debris, it was much hotter, more humid and far worse damage. These storms are unfortunate for everyone but I can tell you that I am very thankful for the hard work and dedication I witnessed from our county team. Thank you Mr. Coffee and thank you county employees for your hard work.

  19. Layla says:

    Correct me if I am wrong, but was not the County short on sandbags for a very brief period of time because they had sent their supply to Houston? You are also wrong about the food and water not being supplied. Might be a good idea if more volunteered so you would know first hand what was taking place.

  20. Anonymous says:

    @Mark101 the elected County counsel members hire/fire the county administrator. BUT we hire/fire them so in short its OUR fault for who is in charge.

  21. Sherry says:

    These are all symptoms of the same corrupt political “Empire Building” that we are now experiencing in Washington DC. . . a mirror image! They are all saying the same thing, starting with our White House, through Congress, the State House on down to the county and city level . . . “to HELL with our citizens and constituents, we are only focused on building and preserving OUR POWER”!!!

    VOTE them all out. . . or, be prepared for much more of the same!

  22. Violet says:

    Well, who exactly is voting for and hiring all these “incompetent” people? You can’t blame people for natural disasters..and you can’t compare one hurricane to another. There is nothing wrong with people helping people, that’s the way it should be. Our government cannot be expected to meet every need of every person. With the amount of “firing” going on, I would say someone is incompetent in their hiring decisions OR someone is making it impossible for others to do their jobs and feel good about it. Too much turnover .. sounds like poor leadership to me.

  23. Anonymous says:

    i am so glad we recently moved out of palm coast……I have never seen a city with more baby bs drama-its like high schoolers trying to manage a city

  24. Just the truth says:

    Please Flagler County and the City of PC let us taxpaying citizens decide in a vote if we want to keep Landon/Coffey, we want our voices heard.

  25. Wishful Thinking says:

    Thank you Concerned Citizen for confirming first hand with proof my low opinion of Coffey and his unqualified clown-in-waiting ( do nothing Nate)……..

  26. John dolan says:

    Coffey is the worst, thanks joe Mayer. You picked him. You both get an F.

  27. Robert Lewis says:

    Seems like Mr. Nate can’t help him self. This all started because McLaughin has diarrhea of the mouth. When do we get to vote him out of office

  28. Anonymous says:

    Why is the length of time the power was out following Irma being blamed on the county when it is FPL who is to blame? Irma was not near as bad of a storm as was hurricane last year yet our power was out longer than it was last year. Complaints regarding power restoration need to be addressed to FPL. Even if sand was sent to Texas (which I find hard to believe due to the weight of hauling) there should have been no excuse in getting the needed sand delivered here in Flagler for the residents here. Bottom line here is this man is resigning because he formerly was employed by FEMA and he recognized there was greedy bad faith dealings with Coffey at the helm. Coffey is having a temper tantrum because he was told no and others didn’t want to play his game. I hope now that this man has resigned that he will speak up and educate FEMA and us about any corruption that may exist here in Flagler County. We have a bunch of boobs for county commissioner’s that just sit there like bumps on a log. They buy anything Coffey has to sell them. It is time that an investigation be insured to really see what is going on behind the closed doors that no one is talking about.

  29. Can't believe it says:

    Craig Coffey should never been allowed to keep his job in 2010, and here we are, 2017 in the same situation. He has continued to prove his lack of leadership and incompetence. The commissioners need to evaluate his incompetence and terminate him NOW. Write to your commissioners and ask them to consider this.

  30. Discusted says:

    Get rid of Coffey and Nate they do nothing for Flagler County but run their mouths!
    Waste of money. Both need to find jobs elsewhere!

  31. Anonymous says:

    Can’t believe it—If this thread gets enough momentum like the signage over 95 did maybe the county commissioners will hear loud and clear that Coffey needs to go NOW. A lot of people have families and work and can’t attend meetings. Those that have find themselves talking to the wall…they get three minutes to speak and are ignored. The only way we can fix this ourselves is stop voting the same fools in office. McLaughlin is up for reelection in 2018, vote him out!

  32. Can't believe it says:

    People don’t have to attend meetings. A simple email to all the commissioners gets their attention. Let them know you vote and you will campaign for and vote for replacements if they don’t act on your behalf. Look what happened to Revels and Haans (who voted to allow Craig Coffey to remain in his position). It can happen again.

  33. Anonymous says:

    Public officials don’t like public records! Send emails and hold them accountable. They know we work and that we can’t attend meetings, that’s the way they like it! The Common denominator to most all problems is Craig Coffey! He needs to go and the board members need to get him gone or they need to be told they will be voted out like Revels and Hanns were.

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