“Seeing no one else approach, we’ll close…” County Commission Chairman Greg Hansen said routinely during Monday evening’s public comment period, when it looked like no one else was going to address the board. He might have been wishing the same thing regarding his race for the commission. Until then, no one had declared to run against him, and the qualifying window was closing in three and a half days.
Then came his “Oops.” Dennis McDonald, the perennial critic of local governments, was walking down to the podium, slowly. “Don’t be shy,” Hansen told him.
“I won’t,” McDonald said.
He wasn’t then, nor was he this afternoon when he paid the hefty fee—$2,159–and filed to challenge Hansen for the seat Hansen has held since last year. It sets up a battle between two former allies: they were members of the now defunct Ronald Reagan Republican Assemblies. Hansen remains a Republican. McDonald, though a staunch Republican, is running as an independent because, he says, Hansen is bankrolling the Flagler Republican Executive Committee, and because he doesn’t see his run in partisan terms.
The two were friends. “Greg has taken on a completely new persona ever since he became a commissioner,” McDonald said, referring to Hansen’s switch from a McDonald-like critic of local government to cheerleader. “Within a month he morphed into a guy I didn’t recognize, so I went my own way.” Hansen did not return a call Tuesday.
But the race is also the direct result of the most serious crisis in county government right now: the possible problems affecting the physical structure of the rebuilt Sheriff’s Operations Center, which may or may not be a sick building, and which was evacuated of its 70-some employees last week, indefinitely. Testing took place there last week as well.
For McDonald, the decision to run was sealed by the issues surrounding the county’s handling of the Sheriff’s Operations Center–not just in the past few months, but going back to the county’s controversial acquisition of the building in 2013. “I’m reminded all the time that in 2012 if I’d been elected we wouldn’t be having this discussion because we wouldn’t have that building, it’s that simple,” McDonald said.
Not quite: the 2013 vote would still have had a 3-2 majority to buy the building even then, though McDonald says he’d have called on one of the commissioners at the time, Barbara Revels, to recuse herself because of her business ties to one of the co-owners of the building, and the 2-2 vote would have equated to a failed vote.
Neither Hansen nor McDonald has won an election yet. Gov. Scott in January 2017 appointed Hansen to fill out the term of the late Frank Meeker. McDonald is now running in his fifth election. He challenged Meeker twice, losing in 2012 by a 47-53 margin and in 2014 by 48-52 in those Republican primaries. He’s had poorer showings running in a special election for Flagler’s state Senate seat in 2015 and for Palm Coast mayor in 2016, coming in third in the Senate race and second in the mayoral race.
When McDonald appeared before the commission Monday evening, he used his three minutes to speak of the fine the Department of Environmental Protection levied on the county after the county demolished wings attached to the Operations Center “without a permit,” a contention Coffey denied: Coffey said the fine was the result of “these two” knocking on various agencies’ doors (Coffey was referring to McDonald and John Ruffalo, an ally), while the resulting $500 fine was “not a big deal.”
McDonald was also critical of the commission’s June 4 workshop about the building, when Sheriff Rick Staly was seeking some direction from the county as to the evacuation of sheriff’s employees from the Operations Center. The workshop ended without that direction. “Nothing, absolutely nothing was put on the floor for a motion,” McDonald said, crediting Tom Bexley, the clerk of court, for being the one who “saved the day” by offering courthouse space to the sheriff.
McDonald’s facts are often suspect. But that evening he wasn’t alone making inaccurate, incomplete or misleading claims: the statements by McDonald and those that followed by the commissioners and the administrator are likely indicative of the way the sheriff’s Operations Center will have a prominent place in the county commission races, but also of the way assumptions and misleading claims may frame much of the debate as much if not more than facts.
It’s true that the commission didn’t make a decision at the June 4 meeting, leaving even the sheriff perplexed. Hansen said Monday evening that the commission couldn’t do so in a workshop. He was right, but also misleading: motions and votes can’t happen in a workshop, but commissioners routinely give the administration direction on what to do. And a special meeting had been scheduled immediately following the June 4 workshop for those directions to be ratified, if there were any. There weren’t. Hansen was flat wrong when he said “we gave some pretty clear guidance and Mr. Coffey jumped right on it.” If so, it wasn’t done in an open meeting.
McDonald was also not quite right to credit Bexley for the resolution. Soon after the meeting, Coffey’s staff began physically exploring the county courthouse as an option, while the sheriff was already dispatching some of his personnel to the old sheriff’s administration building and meeting with his staff on finding a way out of the building. Bexley is like the sheriff—a tenant in county building, without authority to decide what to do with space not his own, though he would end up being centrally involved in making space available in a pair of meetings with Coffey and the sheriff.
But McLaughlin, like Hansen, was overstating the case Monday when he took to the defense of Coffey and the commission, saying the administrator at that meeting had received “pretty clear” direction. “I don’t want Mr. Coffey to have to defend himself on this one, he went out, he’s the one who found the place, he made the space, he put the personnel available to make this movement, I mean this thing happened quick,” McLaughlin said. “I was thinking two to three weeks for movement and they’re moved now.”
Coffey put it this way: “I had an idea of where we were going to go but I thought it would be unfair of me to bring that or spring that on Mr. Bexley or the sheriff without first discussing it with them and I immediately did that, we worked through that.”
While Coffey initiated the courthouse solution—as even an email by the sheriff confirms—the sheriff had for days turned up the pressure on the administration to get something done, had been left with little hope but to act on his own after the workshop, and continued to apply the pressure while exploring alternative locations on his own, such as modular buildings. That evening he got an email from the sheriff’s union representative, Greg Forhan, asking for the immediate evacuation of six employees: “We need command to cut through the red tape and to get them out now,” Forhan wrote. Within hours, in a midnight email—suggesting to what extent the sheriff was immersed in the matter—Staly ordered the move.
In another midnight email to his staff two days later, he wrote: “Like you I was disappointed in the outcome of Monday’s meeting in which I had hoped a plan would be presented to relocate you. As a result, on Tuesday morning I immediately directed staff to start looking for alternative locations to immediately reassign employees, especially those most affected while we located enough space for the entire operations staff. We previously contacted modular companies and began researching other alternatives as a back-up in case the county did not respond quickly or would not relocate us as I was determined to find alternative space. During our space assessment and staff discussion on relocation, County Administrator Coffey called to discuss possible available space in the County Courthouse.”
The move was the result of much cooperation between the county, the clerk of court, court staff and the sheriff’s staff (and especially heroic work by the county’s IT staff), though mistrust remained between the sheriff and the county administration: the sheriff has openly spoken of being leery of the county being predisposed to finding no problems at the Operations Center.
Meanwhile the county administration the same day that it was approaching Staly with the courthouse proposal was also slapping a public record request on his administration for any Staly communication to his staff “regarding the Sheriff’s Operation Center, the potential that it is a sick building, and the handling of the testing and the remediation by the county,” and for the county to be “copied on all correspondences in the future to foster transparency.” The standing request was made by Julie Murphy, the county administration’s public information officer, though she has previously told local media that the county would not honor such standing requests—that requests for records must be made and renewed individually.