For the second time in three years, the Flagler Beach City Commission will not see an election despite having two seats up for grabs, and as was the case two years ago, a new commissioner will be seated without having to face an opponent.
Eric Cooley, the 43-year-old owner of the 7-Eleven in Flagler Beach for the past four years, was elected without opposition and will replace Commissioner Joy McGrew come March. McGrew, a Cooley ally, opted not to run again. Since no one other than Cooley filed to run, he won automatically, without a contest, replicating the way Commissioner Rick Belhumeur won his seat two years ago when Steve Settle opted out of another term.
Also re-elected without a fight was Mayor Linda Provencher, who won her third term. Uncontested elections are an old story for Provencher: she was first elected as a city commissioner in 2006 without opposition, and won again in 2008 the same way. Her only contested election was her first run for mayor in 2012, and she won that one with 58 percent of the vote.
She knows Cooley well: he’s a member of the trio that calls itself the Flagler Beach All-Stars, which Provencher started with Carla Cline as a catalyst for civic renewal and engagement. The All Stars were behind last week’s beach clean-up, for example, and last year’s children’s town hall at City Hall, the first of its kind in Flagler Beach (or anywhere in county governments, for that matter).
The idea behind the All-Stars closely parallels Cooley’s idea of public service. He considers his job as commissioner, which pays a shade over $7,000 a year, “an extension of the volunteer work that I’m already doing,” Cooley says. “I just want to do all I can with all my background and knowledge, business and budgeting, and I just want to be able to put that to work for the city.”
He’s been serving on several government advisory boards: the Police Pension Board, the Economic Development Task Force, and the city’s planning board, a seat he must resign since that board is not exclusively an advisory board.
Cooley has several priorities. Among them is working with the county, the state and federal authorities to secure funding for repairs to the city’s walkovers. Just recently the city awarded a contract to repair five dune walk-overs, but that was for walkovers damaged by Hurricane Matthew almost a year and a half ago. It took that long for that federal funding to make it into the city’s bank account. And that happened the week after the latest storm wrecked 34 walkovers all over again. “Stuff’s breaking faster than we can fix it,” Cooley said.
Another priority: “Making Flagler Beach business and event-friendly. Flagler Beach tends not to be as business or event friendly as the public would like it, and I’d like to work on changing that tone.” He says the city must balance its tax base better—an observation just about every candidate or sitting elected officials on every local government board makes at one time or another, though finding a way to that balance remains elusive.
In the longer term, Cooley foresees a commission-appointed committee to start reviewing ordinances that could or should be updated, for the same reason that the commission this coming Thursday will be voting to update its parking ordinance: several such ordinances are hampered by poor writing or unclear goals that may conflict with commission priorities. The parking ordinance is being amended to reduce restrictions on downtown businesses that want to expand or build new, but have been kept from doing so for lack of parking. The revised ordinance would lift that parking requirement. Cooley and the city’s economic development task force brought that proposal forward and convinced the city commission to go along with the change earlier this month.
Finally, Cooley wants more long-term planning steered by the city commission, though he acknowledges that the last two years’ battering of storms has made that difficult. But he like City Manager Larry Newsom’s handling of those issues, and considers himself to have a good working relationship with Newsom who, Cooley says, is like him: a numbers guy. “I’m a heavy analytical guy,” Cooley says. “I let numbers and logic drive my decision. I try to keep my emotions out of it. In some cases with commissioners there’s a lot of emotions that drive things sometimes.”
But it’s unlikely that there’ll be any kind of shift on the city commission since Cooley and McGrew were closely aligned, and both saw eye to eye with the other. If anything, the commission loses its saltier member: McGrew was the unfiltered, clear conscience of the commission, never hesitating to call out individuals or state an issue in language more direct and fearless than that of usually guarded politicians. But in that sense, she was only the more pronounced of a city commission well stocked in candid voices.
Provencher is no less of a candid voice, though as a non-voting mayor on most issues she tends to be more circumspect, except when called for.
She wasn’t even sure she’d be running again.
“I was prepared either way,” Provencher said this morning. But nobody showed any interest to run for the mayor’s seat. “Had there been somebody who showed interest to run and perhaps they’d be a great asset, I probably wouldn’t have run. But nobody came forward that was seriously interested in it.” She guessed some who might have, have been focusing on recovering from hurricanes and other storms, which took a heavy toll on Flagler Beach, both in wind and flood damage.
“I’d like to see more of the younger generation step forward to do this,” Provencher said. “If you’re going to raise a family here and have a business here, you need to get involved in the local politics. Then again when you’re raising a family and you have a business, you don’t have a lot of time.”
She’s confident Cooley will do a fine job, particularly since he’s been all but a city commissioner as it is, attending every meeting almost without fail, openly discussing most issues with the commission, and doing his homework on agenda items more than some sitting elected officials do. Provencher had one note of caution: “It’s always different when you’re up there.”
That’s it as far as municipal elections in the larger towns are concerned this year in Flagler County. Bunnell has no elections this year. Provencher and Cooley will take their oaths in March.