When Palm Coast voters go to the polls in November, the most proposed charter amendments they’ll get to vote on is three, and one of those is the equivalent of a spell check that will make zero difference to the city or its residents. The other two amendments are mere clarifications that will also have almost no effect on residents.
That’s what the Palm Coast City Councils tortuous, eight-month charter-review process has yielded. Few people turned up to the four public meetings held in the run-up to today’s whittling of proposals. Just as few are expected at the two public hearings to be held before the charter amendments are formally approved for the ballot. That’s not a surprise: no one is missing anything. The council had telegraphed from the beginning of the process that it was not interested in making more than cosmetic changes. A majority of council members consider the city charter nowhere near broken, and they were not interested in a fix.
Today, the council was presented the wording of five proposed charter amendments, and after a 90-minute discussion, the five proposals were reduced to three, starting with the clean-up of outdated language from the current charter, such as legal descriptions of boundaries, that appears no longer necessary, and that would eliminate about a third of the wordiness of the already-brief document.
A proposal to expand the council from five to seven members was discarded. Council member Steve Nobile had suggested it, though he wasn’t particularly wedded to it. He said he was bringing forward an idea he’d heard in the community from people wanting more council members. “They’re saying they don’t trust five. They think five can cause a collusion easier than seven,” Nobile said.
It wasn’t clear who “they” were, though Nobile repeatedly invoked the vague term to justify his arguments, citing at most members of social and civic clubs as forming the amorphous “they,” who nevertheless seem never to make it to council meetings or contact other council members in numbers concrete enough to go from ethereal generalities to actual constituents.
Mayor Milissa Holland worried about the unintended consequences of adding two at-large members, which could result in four council members being elected from a single neighborhood. (Currently, the four council members are elected at large, but must live in four separate districts, and ostensibly represent that district. Only the mayor can live anywhere in the city.)
Council member Bob Cuff, in one of his more active meetings, said adding two members would not make much of a difference, though in the long run the idea would make more sense once the west side of U.S. 1 is developed and becomes its own Palm Coast district. The geographic nature of Palm Coast–“It’s deliberately designed suburban sprawl,” he called it in one of his memorable phrases—creates its own challenges, which can be addressed as the city keeps growing. Cuff’s greater participation today was likely driven by the way the charter-review process has been divided the council from the start, with Nobile and Heidi Shipley on one side and Holland and Nick Klufas on the other, until they’ve needed a tie-breaker to neutralize the other two. That’s reliably been Cuff, as it was again today.
It was also Cuff who spoke most strongly against making what would have been a more significant proposed change than it ended up being: the requirement that the council appoint a committee every 10 years to review the charter.
Many cities, including Bunnell—which went through its own charter-review process a few years ago—appoint such committee to review their charter, and give the committee great leeway to decide what ultimately is presented to the voters on the ballot, without much interference from elected officials.
True to its traditionally more overbearing form, the Palm Coast City Council declined to appoint a committee to review the charter this time around, even though no such committee has ever been appointed in the city’s 19-year history. The council defined and limited the review process, with public input limited to the three-minute increments typical at the beginning or end of meetings and written proposals.
The charter amendment will make it explicit that an advisory committee shall be appointed at least once every 10 years. But even that amendment will result in a process that only slightly varies from what just took place. The advisory committee will be just that: advisory, leaving it up to the council to take or leave its proposed ballot amendments.
“I’m fine having an advisory committee,” Holland said. “I think we should be reviewing this every 10 years, I think it should be an advisory committee appointed by this council, and I’m fine with whatever direction that advisory comes back to this council, that we make a decision as a governing body to put it on the ballot or not, and how. That’s my position.”
Shipley and Nobile were not there. They wanted the advisory committee to have more authority. If, for example, the committee voted unanimously to approve a proposed amendment, then that amendment should make it to the ballot, giving voters a chance to have their say, whether the council approves of it or not. “If we’re going to have the advisory committee, what’s the sense if we’re going to be able to overrule them?” Shipley said.
“What about the 30,000 people that ticked my name at the voting poll to trust me to do what’s best for them?” Klufas said, which seemed, as is often the case with Klufas statements, to tick off Nobile.
“I got the statement, well, it’s not broken, don’t fix it, well, I’m here, it’s pretty damn broken, it’s a mess,” Nobile said, apparently about council representation.
“That’s not the message I’m hearing,” Klufas said.
“I’ve heard what everybody wants,” Nobile said, citing various clubs, “I do know what they were saying.”
Nobile’s tendency for hyperbole seems to have rubbed off on Klufas over the month, because Klufas then said that giving an advisory committee the authority to override the council would be the equivalent of a “coup,” a word he used twice. “You’re the safeguard,” he told Nobile.
Cuff again broke the tie. “I can see both sides of the argument,” Cuff said, though he liked the notion of a unanimous vote by the advisory committee carrying more weight. “It’s either an advisory committee or it’s not an advisory committee, and ultimately the voters don’t elect an advisory committee, we appoint them. It’s very hard for me to picture an entire city council, whether it’s five or seven people, who are so out of touch with the people who elected them to office, that an appointed body of five or seven people is going to be in the situation where that advisory board should be able to overrule elected officials.”
Nobile conceded to the council’s majority.
Beyond that, the most involved discussion was over what to do in case a council member dies or resigns during a term, as has frequently been the case in the council’s history, though so far it’s not happened to a mayor yet. But the discussion was about more of an intramural issue than one particularly affecting voters. In the end, council members agreed to float a proposed amendment that’ll merely clarify what happens when a council member resigns or dies so close to the end of a term, as was the case when Bill McGuire resigned within a few months of the next election: the council was by charter required to make a very quick appointment.
But the proposal voters will see will give the council leeway not to make such an appointment if the resignation or death takes place within six months of a scheduled election. Other changes were shelved.
It’s not over. The charter proposals will be drafted into their final form. The council will hold two public hearings. Then the amendments will head for the November ballot.
Council members were concerned about how effectively the administration could disseminate or even advertise the proposed charter amendments ahead of public hearings, to educate the public. But it isn’t certain much of the public will be interested in the proposals anymore than it was in the review process, considering what little bearing the proposals have on constituents or in the running of the council or the city, beyond giving council members a chance to say: “We reviewed the charter and made some changes,” the subjectivity of the word “change” notwithstanding.