Flagler County officials say a claim by a commission candidate that the county is ready to pay $1 million to fix the Sheriff’s Operations Center is patently false.
The claim by Dennis McDonald, who is running against Commissioner Greg Hansen, triggered a brief but intense reaction from Hansen and County Administrator Craig Coffey at a Monday evening meeting of the commission, with odd statements by both along the way, and yet again illustrated the raw sensitivity and uncertainty on all matters relating to the troubled Operations Center in the midst of an election season. Based on the administrator’s reaction, the response also points to a willingness by the county to spend money on the building, though how much is unclear.
An informal Sunday conversation is at the center of this latest controversy.
On Sept. 9, the Knights of the Inferno Firefighters Motorcycle Club organized its annual motorcycle ride commemorating the 9/11 attacks. Hundreds of bikers gather at the parking lot of the Flagler County courthouse. Dozens of politicians and, in election years, would-be politicians, gather as well to gladhand, hear speeches, see and be seen.
County Commissioner Dave Sullivan was there. He’s not running for anything. He was there just for the commemoration. McDonald was also there. He’s running for the county commission seat held by Greg Hansen. McDonald and Sullivan often talk. They’re both staunch Republicans, current registration aside: McDonald changed his to independent to challenge Hansen in the general election.
As McDonald and Sullivan talked, the conversation turned to the Sheriff’s Operations Center, as it usually does whenever McDonald talks to anyone these days: the building was evacuated in June, its interior air questioned and thought to be the source of what made upwards of two dozen employees ill. The illnesses are a certainty: employees did not invent the rashes, the headaches, the more serious issues in some cases, the medical bills in many, nor the workers’ compensation claims. The cause is a mystery, to the extent that sick building syndrome is one of the harder environmental illnesses to diagnose and certify as the reason why people get ill in affected building.
As Sullivan and McDonald talked, Sullivan told him that if it came down to it, he might be willing to spend–as a county commissioner–up to $1 million to fix the building. But he stressed that he would be willing to do so only if such repairs to the air handling system or other structural issues were manageable, and that spending up to that kind of money would be preferable to building a new structure, which Sullivan estimates at $14 million.
McDonald can have a tenuous grasp on facts. That’s not a subjective claim or an editorial statement in a news story. It may even be an understatement, based on what the Florida Commission on Ethics, an Administrative Law Judge, the city of Palm Coast, the County Commission and a circuit judge have called his facts: “frivolous,” “false,” “malicious,” “knowingly false,” uttered with “reckless disregard” for the truth, and so on. Plus, he’s having to pay back $59,000 in attorneys’ fees and costs for forcing the county to defend against the false claims.
Monday evening at the County Commission, McDonald again presented spoke words that this time caused Sullivan to say he was “done with McDonald,” and to suggest that if McDonald wanted to fight him physically or mentally, he’d beat him either way.
“I had a conversation with one of the commissioners,” McDonald told the commission during the opening public participation period, without naming Sullivan. “It was rather enlightening. What I was told was that the county administration has been told or what you guys have been told, or at least what he was told, was that we can fix the sheriff’s department for about $1 million, is what’s thought. So I’m sure that I hope that all of you are aware of that and have been told of that, and certainly what comes to mind immediately for me is, we’ve got a trim coming up on Thursday, the 20th.” He was referring to the budget hearing where the commission is scheduled to approve next year’s budget and set next year’s property tax rates. “So if it’s going to cost $1 million to fix, what Mr. Coffey built, just not less than two years ago, then how exactly are we going to pay for that next year is my question that I’d like to leave with you, so maybe I can get an answer from you guys on Thursday, on the 20th, when you set that final trim notice.”
He also urged the commission to fire Coffey. Then he walked out. (“I had another meeting I had to go to and I wanted to make sure I got that in,” McDonald said later in an interview, saying he had to meet John Ruffalo, a current ally and fellow-critic of all things county.)
“I have not heard an estimate of what it’s going to take to fix the sheriff’s office, because we don’t know that anything is wrong with the sheriff’s office,” Commission Chairman Greg Hansen said, himself delivering an assessment of the building that sick employees and, so far, three sets of scientists called to look over the building, would not make so categorically.
But he was seconded by County Administrator Craig Coffey. “We have no evidence of anything wrong with the sheriff’s office,” Coffey said. “We know that there might be some HVAC things we need to do to better control humidity. Never once have I told you that there’s a million-dollar cure out there or anything remotely associated with that.”
Oddly, Sullivan remained mute.
“So what is that, it’s just made up?” Commissioner Nate McLaughlin asked of McDonald’s claim.
“Apparently, there’s some magic person that hears in my office of numbers I make up sleeping subconsciously,” Coffey said. When he started talking about the “if” of a $1 million expense and how it would be paid for, Hansen interrupted him.
“Once again I want to point out that the man who raised the question doesn’t stick around to hear the answer,” Hansen said of his old allies (McDonald and Hansen were fellows-in-indignity at all things governmental when they were members of the now-defunct Ronald Reagan Republican Assemblies, the ultra-right club).
Coffey continued, saying repair dollars would not come out of property funds (though November and spring bills for analysis and mitigation of air issues at the Sheriff’s Office have come out of the general fund). “It would come out of some other source, like your local-option sales tax or something like that, if they’re including repairs to the HVAC or something like that. But it’s not anywhere near–any of those kinds of things as far as humidity are minor costs, not in the millions.”
“It’s fair to point out that the inspector the sheriff brought in said there’s nothing wrong with the building. We have to do a better job of filtering the air coming in,” Hansen said, referring to Robert Sweeney, the scientist Sheriff Rick Staly hired to review the available analyses and other documents relating to the building issue. “You get people like that to come up here and just make it up,” Hansen said, gesturing toward the void McDonald’s departure left.
“If there’s one of you commissioners that feels you’ve been told $1 million and somehow uttered that,” Coffey said, “please, let me correct the record as it stands now, I’ve never said that, and if I did, it was in total error.”
When McDonald made his statement about the $1 million cost, most commissioners’ jaws dropped. “When he made that statement I saw everybody on the commission look at each other and I didn’t get the impression that it was a true statement,” said Commissioner Charlie Ericksen (also a former member of the Triple R’s whose first campaign for the County Commission McDonald claims to have managed. Ericksen says McDonald did no such thing).
Asked in an interview to relay what he had heard Sullivan say, McDonald said: “‘I’m being told by my guy that we can fix it for $1 million,’” Sullivan’s “guy” being Coffey. “So it’s not that big of a deal is essentially what he was implying, it’s only a million bucks.”
Sullivan in an interview this evening categorically denied saying Coffey gave him the $1 million figure this way: “Did Coffey give me that $1 million number? He did not.”
“The key issue here is did I get that million dollar number from Coffey, and that’s just no, absolutely not,” Sullivan said. “I am sick of Dennis McDonald pulling these stunts like he did last night. He raises these issues and just walks out, doesn’t even wait for an answer. I’m tired after years of dealing with him, that’s it. If he wants a hand to hand battle I’ll kill him. That’s it. If he wants [to battle] on puns, I’ll beat him on puns.”
Regarding the Sheriff’s Operations Center, he specified: “If it’s a million or less, probably worth fixing it. Now, no one knows if they’re even going to put another dime into the building. We have to wait to receive kind of a unified final inspection process with recommendations on what to be done if anything to make it sound.”
Told of Sullivan’s statements, McDonald called Sullivan “a big liar,” saying he was “not surprise of any of that at all, especially as he sat there in the chamber there and was red-faced over the whole thing.” But moments later McDonald took a more tempered approach, saying of Sullivan’s statements: “That’s not the way I understood it,” and “Could I have misunderstood what Dave told me? It’s a possibility.” The he said that putting tit for tat aside, “You guys want to talk about words, let’s go find the facts” and “find out what’s behind the sheetrock.” He was speaking metaphorically and literally.