Bunnell City Commissioner John Sowell is resigning his seat Friday after less than two years on the commission, he told FlaglerLive and fellow-commissioners in individual calls today.
Sowell is selling his house in Bunnell’s Grand Reserve and moving to a property in a subdivision called The Reserve at the south end of Flagler, but outside Bunnell’s city limits. The city’s charter requires its commissioners to be within the city during their term. Sowell said he is moving to a house that can accommodate his ailing father, who’ll be moving in with him.
But Sowell also has his eyes on a possible run for the county commission in two years, making his resignation potentially the first major move of the 2020 local elections, which are expected to draw large fields of candidates. Sowell would be running from District 3, the seat currently held by Dave Sullivan. “Good for him, keep his eyes set on it,” Sullivan said this evening. “You’re going to have to drag me out of there probably.”
Sowell’s resignation took commissioners and others by surprise: while Sowell’s decision not to run again for his term, which expires in 2020, was not a secret, few expected he’d resign this soon. But the timing of the resignation enables the commission to schedule an election for his replacement within weeks.
The city commission is scheduling a brief special meeting for Monday, at which City Attorney Wade Vose is recommending the adoption of a resolution adding a special election to the regularly-scheduled municipal election on March 5.
As a result, four seats will be up on the Bunnell commission in that election: the mayor’s and three commission seats. Commissioner Elbert Tucker said he is not running again. With Sowell’s resignation, that means at least two new commissioners will be joining the panel by March, and potentially four. But Mayor Catherine Robinson intends to run again, and has a formidable record on two counts: she’s served on the commission as commissioner or mayor for most of the past 24 years, and has run unopposed in the last three elections. Commissioner Bill Baxley intends to run for a third term. The only commissioner not affected is Vice Mayor John Rogers.
The city charter requires the commission to appoint a replacement when a commissioner vacates a seat for whatever reason before the expiration of a term. But the resignation coming so close to the next election, “the good news is we could probably put it on the ballot,” Rogers said.
Whoever is elected to the seat Sowell held will have only a one-year term, and will have to run again in March 2020.
The turn-over is occurring just weeks into City Manager Alvin Jackson’s tenure–a manager whose hiring depended on Sowell’s enthusiastic support, once Jackson won him over.
All of this could be moot if Sowell’s house sale does not close, as it is scheduled to on Friday.
“I am loathe to waste the Commission’s time if there is some non-fatal delay in the closing, so I’d recommend a 5 minute Monday morning special meeting to approve the attached resolution calling a special election,” Vose wrote City Clerk Kristen Bates after learning of Sowell’s impending resignation. “If for whatever reason the closing doesn’t happen and Commissioner Sowell is not going to be resigning, we can just cancel the meeting.”
The resolution Vose prepared may still be amended as the city clerk, and possibly the commission, consider it. But it anticipates Sowell’s resignation becoming effective on Nov. 30. Qualifying for the election does not begin until Jan. 7, and the deadline to qualify by petition, to avoid paying most of the qualifying fee, is Dec. 10, giving candidates time to do so even for the special election.
“The special election shall be conducted on the same ballot as the regular election, but shall be conducted separately from the regular election for City Commissioners,” the proposed resolution states. “Specifically, while the regular election for City Commissioners will permit voters to choose up to two candidates, with the two candidates receiving the most votes being elected, the special election shall be separately denoted as a special election to fill the office’s unexpired term, with voters permitted to choose one candidate, with the candidate receiving the most votes being elected.”
Sowell, 55, flew Flagler County’s emergency helicopter for years, and deployed for two tours of duty during the Iraq war, including at its very outset in 2003, and for one tour in Afghanistan. He retired from Flagler County government before his run for city commission. If it wasn’t for his family responsibilities, he said, “I wouldn’t otherwise leave this job. I really enjoy doing it but I won’t qualify to be on the commission once I move.”
Despite Sowell’s brief tenure he contributed significantly to the commission’s works in the past year and eight months, which saw the commission fire manager Dan Davis and hire Alvin Jackson as its new city manager–a hire that hinged on Sowell changing his vote from no to yes in the process–yield the city’s fire services to the county, pass stricter animal cruelty and vaping-in-the-workplace ordinances, and lower the property tax rate by a full point: this year, Bunnell was the only city to lower its tax rate below the rolled-back rate, effectively approving a tax cut. Sowell says he’s particularly proud of that achievement. He was working toward attempting to limit impact fees in the city, the one-time fees levied on developers for new construction, to defray the cost to the city for new infrastructure.
On the commission itself, Sowell added to what–in contrast with commissions a few years ago–has been a collegial group that rigorously inquires of issues before it and whose members often disagree, but with little to no animus. “We’re going to miss him because he brings a lot to the table,” Rogers said.
“I’ve really enjoyed going to the meetings,” Sowell said. “I like seeing everybody that works in the city, I like seeing the constituents, people that go there and attend the meetings, I like to get around town, speaking to people and going to community events, which I’ll still do, I like the camaraderie, I think there’s a lot of camaraderie on our commission.”
As for who he would like to see replace him on the commission, Sowell said he wished that, either by appointment or through the electoral process, Chelsea Barney would “throw her hat in the ring,” as he put it, referring to the operations manager and co-owner of Bunnell’s 4Cs Trucking and Excavation, and a former chairperson of the Young Professionals Group. Other officials or party leaders have wishfully talked of Barney as a candidate.
“I’m flattered that he would like to see me in that seat,” Barney said today. “I’ve talked to a couple of people before about running for county or city commission, and my answer has just been that right now is just not the perfect time for me personally. I’d love to do that one day.” Barney, who’s immersed in her company and will be a mother soon, said it’s a matter of timing: “I’m one of those people who like to be 100 percent into something. I just unfortunately don’t have that time right now.”
As of today, Sullivan does intend to run again for his county commission seat, he said, and other names are dropping as possibilities for that seat, among them Kim Carney and Eric Cooley, both current Flagler Beach city commissioners.