Momentum is building in the call to fire County Administrator Craig Coffey. The county’s public sector unions, including the teachers’ union, are joining forces in that call, adding immense pressure on county commissioners to act.
The unions have added another weapon to their arsenal: Palm Coast Mayor Milissa Holland, a long-time Coffey foe and canny strategist, took part in union meetings that preceded the no-confidence votes and letters to the commission urging Coffey’s firing, an extraordinary development that injects at least the perception of a powerful city official seeking to influence county issues.
Holland a few months ago successfully moved for the firing of long-time Palm Coast Manager Jim Landon, whose 11-year reign in the city was often seen as Yin to Coffey’s own 11-year-Yang in the county.
The movement is adding to pressure already building on the commission since Sheriff Rick Staly all but called for the administrator’s dismissal on Dec. 3, when the commission agreed to a Jan. 14 meeting to discuss and possibly decide Coffey’s future. Clerk of Court Tom Bexley has also spoken of recent strains with Coffey. Two commissioners–Donald O’Brien and Joe Mullins–are ready to fire the administrator.
A third, Dave Sullivan, said he would try to convince Coffey to resign, though that’s unlikely as it would leave Coffey without a severance package worth six months of his roughly $155,000-a-year pay. But Sullivan’s revelation was also suggesting that his support for Coffey was wavering. Sullivan has increasingly provided the commission’s deciding vote on key issues in recent months. Meanwhile, the unions’ pointed actions coupled with two powerful constitutional officers’ statements and public sentiment risk isolating commissioners like Greg Hansen and Charlie Ericksen, if not Sullivan, who have so far been resisting the moves against Coffey.
The membership of the Flagler County Sheriff’s union took its vote of no confidence in Coffey last Friday. The vote was overwhelming, and followed by a letter to County Commission Chairman Donald O’Brien calling for Coffey’s firing.
The Coastal Florida Police Benevolent Association’s position is not a surprise. Its members have been at the center of the controversy surrounding the sheriff’s Operations Center, the possibly sick building the sheriff evacuated last June after almost three dozen employees reported health problems. The building, and specifically his handling of the building’s issues, has proved to be Coffey’s gravest liability in his battle for his job.
More unusual is the momentum building behind the police union, with other public sector unions in the county joining the call to fire Coffey: On Saturday, the Flagler County Educators Association’s executive board, representing the teachers’ union–the largest union in the county–took a similar vote of no confidence, and two days later issued a letter “in solidarity” with its sister unions, calling for Coffey’s dismissal.
“It’s definitely nice to have friends like the teachers’ union come to our aid,” John dopp, senior vice president of the CPBA, said. “They’ve had their own problems with the county administrator as well, but this most recent issue with the county building has been a catalyst” for their support.
A vote of the county’s fire union’s membership is scheduled for Dec. 28-30 (the union’s by-laws require a 15-day notice before any vote of the membership, then the vote takes place online over a three-day window). The outcome will almost certainly echo the first two votes. “Right now we’re standing behind our other union brothers and sisters on this, plus we have reasons of our own, we’ll explain once the vote is out,” Stephen Palmer, who heads the county’s fire union, said.
Far more unusual–and politically risky–is Holland’s involvement: Holland participated in two union meetings to discuss the building issue and Coffey’s fate, and lent her support to the union efforts, though she insisted she was not the “driving force” behind it.
“I was asked to sit in on two different meetings, which I did,” Holland said, “one was not the entirety of the group, the other was a few more members added. I met with them after they requested I sit down with them and answer some questions.” She described the meetings as consisting mostly of “venting” and expressions of frustration with the administrator, rather than of strategizing.
Union members were interested in Holland’s perspective at least in part because of her history with Coffey. Holland had called for Coffey’s firing when she was a county commissioner eight years ago. She’s never been a fan since, and has benefited from union support since her first run for the commission in 2006, and through subsequent runs for a state House seat and for Palm Coast Mayor.
In one meeting, Holland met with two PBA officials, in another, she met with union members from the county’s teachers union and the county’s fire department union (but not representatives from the Palm Coast fire union, though they are also supportive of the effort.) The meetings took place in the past two weeks, before the letters were issued.
Coffey–who did not respond to a text or a call today–heard about Holland’s involvement and thought she was behind the effort. Holland said she called him and talked to him candidly. “I reached out to him after I was told he was saying in several meetings that I’m behind this entire campaign,” Holland said. “I wanted to let him know that that was not true. I obviously disclosed to him that I attended two different meetings.” She added, of the unions: “I explained to Craig that they have been a big support to me in the past. When they reach out and request my time and sitting down with them, I will definitely do that.” She described the meetings as “really just a very, very large amount of time spent just venting, and of the seriousness of the actual illnesses, and how many of the employees just feel defeated throughout this whole process.”
Holland said she was not contacting county commissioners to sway their votes, nor writing letters. “That’s for the commissioners to decide,” Holland said of the county commission. “I made it very clear to each of them,” meaning the unions, “that I again would not insert myself into the situation and request the commission to take action because that would not be appropriate and frankly I’ve not done that. Obviously we know where two commissioners stand because they’ve stated it publicly, but I haven’t had conversations with three other commissioners on what their position would be.”
Holland was asked directly what her vote would be, if she were still a commissioner. “I’m not sure that would be appropriate for me to respond,” Holland said. “I’ve made my position clear while I was a sitting commissioner with Craig’s performance, which I was not pleased with.”