As the Palm Coast City Council Tuesday narrowed its list of manager candidates to be interviewed to six (actually, five, but the council mistakenly included a sixth name), Interim Manager Beau Falgout kept coming out far ahead.
And every time a council member would try to say the choice wasn’t made yet, that council member would tip his or her hand further in Falgout’s direction. The council members were doing their best to reassure other candidates that the process will be fair, that the slate will be clean for each. But Tuesday evening’s discussion only reinforced the sense that, in Council member Bob Cuff’s words, “it’s the Falgout show” (he was trying to say that it shouldn’t be), that it’s Falgout’s game to lose, and that the five other candidates, assuming they all bother with the interviewing round, will be somewhere between sacrificial lambs and circus animals to Falgout’s gladiatorial interview marathon.
Harsh, but the judgment was made true even as the council’s Cicero tried to calm the premature enthusiasm for Falgout while himself revealing where he stood in Falgout’s favor. “There’s going to be a faction in this community that will always dismiss Beau as Jim Landon Lite,” Cuff said, referring to the previous manager, who was forced to resign last year. Falgout had been his protege and chosen successor. “We all, if you were breathing and reading the media back a year and a half ago when the move was made to fire Jim Landon, the press was talking about Jim picking his successor, and somehow sneaking him in under the radar, etc., etc. I didn’t see it that way. I certainly don’t think that of Beau. But we have to be realistic and if we just stop the process now and say let’s go with Beau, his tenure here at the city of Palm Coast, at least for the first few years, and I hope there’s several years to it, is going to be dogged by” whispers (as Cuff himself whispered some inaudible words.) “So I think if Beau winds up being the choice, we need to show publicly that we have done the homework and done the work that we’re paid to do.”
In other words, appearances matter, and the council will insist on going through the appearance of a complete and rigorous interview process. The message was to other candidates: please participate.
The discussion took place after the council narrowed down its list to six candidates, who’ll come in for three days of their own presentations and interviews with council members, along with a meet-and-greet with the community, in March.
Calling out their choices orally, council members picked Falgout, Donald Kewley, James Drumm, Ken Kelly, Matthew Morton and Robin Hayes.
Only Falgout got five votes. Only Morton got four. Kewley, Hayes and Drumm got three votes each.
That’s where it should have stopped: all those who got two or one vote were dropped. But the council and its consultant, Doug Thomas of Texas-based Strategic Government Resources, made a mistake by including Ken Kelly, for whom only two council members had voted. Thomas, who was notching off votes by hand on a board as council members called them out, appears to have misheard Council member Jack Howell’s “Kewley” for “Kelly,” even though Howell clarified his choice later.
That’s despite the council members subsequently debating whether to cut their choices down to five as they imagined the interminable interviewing hours ahead. Cuff even proposed dropping Kelly, saying he was just “an IT guy” (and adding that he had nothing against IT guys, but “running a city isn’t running a fiberoptic network.”)
“If we’ve got six and we’re trying to get to five we could argue all night,” Cuff said.
In fact, their own votes had narrowed the list to five, though they were unaware. But by the time Council member Nick Klufas called out the names to be invited, Kelly was on the list. (The city is working on a fix, likely scheduling a special meeting soon to correct the vote–and eliminate Kelly.)
The candidates’ obstacle course is far from over: they’ve already submitted to a lengthy questionnaire and video interviews. Now they have to prepare powerpoint presentations, write a “first-year game plan” and survive a criminal and media background check.
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“So we may lose a candidate or two through this process,” Palm Coast Mayor Milissa Holland said.
“I rarely lose anybody” at this stage, Thomas said (Falgout factor notwithstanding).
If all six were invited, council members were looking at a 10-hour day of presentations and interviews. They agreed to stretch that over two days, bleeding into a Saturday, “especially,” as Cuff said, “if one of them is, you know, is the interview death march.”
Only then the Falgout fevers began. Last week, Howell penned a letter to the Observer where he proposed “that we terminate the search for the next city manager and hire Beau for this position.” He returned to the charge Tuesday.
“My concern here is after you look at everybody you listed here, and each one of us number one, and the only guy up there with all five of us, is Beau. Now, it’s no secret, I have strong feelings that Beau is our guy. He’s bright, he’s articulate, he’s done a fantastic job in filling in, he’s been in the city, he knows the stuff that goes on in the city, and obviously you feel that he’s a good, strong contender. Let’s just stop the crap and go right now and just say, Beau, you’re the guy.” As soon as clapping began in the meeting room Holland hammered the gavel and said: “We’re not doing that, thank you.” Her words were directed at the audience but meant just as much for Howell. Falgout was not in the room: in contrast with his predecessor, who not only attended every meeting that dealt with his succession but sought to direct the council’s decisions, Falgout chose not to attend that special meeting. He’s maintained a long distance with the council’s search process.
Howell continued, his praise of Falgout curdling into words more usually attributed to a principal discussing a young graduate: “Don’t get these people’s hopes up,” he said. “My feeling is he’s like a piece of clay and this is our opportunity to take a young man that’s grown up in this city as various departments, and we can mold him with the proper leadership to make him a fantastic manager, because what I’m afraid of is, he has opportunities out there. He’s got credentials now. He can move on. And we’re going to be at a loss. And I don’t want to see that happen.”
“Let’s just stop the crap and go right now and just say, Beau, you’re the guy.”
Holland and Thomas stressed that whenever an internal candidate is in the mix, that candidate usually gets a board’s nods. That doesn’t diminish the importance of the interviewing process.
“This is easy, picking a city manager,” Howell retorted, delving as he usually does into his military past to make a point. He acknowledged the value of the five other candidates. “But I’m afraid that, you know, we’re just going to be unfair because I feel in our heart of hearts that we know that Beau is the right fit,” he said. “Here’s an opportunity where we can do the right thing and make this kid stand out. That’s my piece, I’m not going to say anything more.” Thirty-six seconds later, he said more, and didn’t stop.
Council member Eddie Branquinho tried to cool Howell’s heels but also tipped his own hand in the process: “We’ve got to tell the people of Palm Coast that we picked amongst the best. According to you and all of us, the best may be Beau, but at least what I’m saying is there’s a few people over there, at least another three in my opinion, that we ought to look at,” Branquinho said. “If Beau makes it, makes Beau look even better.”
Then it was Klufas’s turn to tip his hand: “A lot of the three council members that came in the previous administration on the basis of change,” he said, referring to himself, Holland and Cuff. “I think it’s going to be an easier position to defend if we end up going with Beau, that he endured the entire process and he rose above, and we can say that we chose the best candidate when we aligned them against everybody else that was chosen by our council as a whole, and he excelled and he was the top choice. Versus I have a harder time defending the position that we knew Beau was the best, so we told the rest of the guys that we didn’t want to talk to them–guys and gals.”
And Holland: “I’ve thought about this process a lot, it’s been a lengthy process to get us here, and I was very intrigued by some of the candidates that had applied, and I was certainly intrigued by their background, and I really do feel strongly that we have to see this through and let Beau compete for this position. But let him do it in a fair, open process. I know he will give it everything he has. I just really want to make sure that we are vetting every single opportunity and making a thoughtful decision moving forward on what else could possibly be out there and what we’re looking at.” To Howell, she said: “So I really do respect your position and actually every single thing that you’ve said, and I thought a lot about it. But I really still feel very strongly we need to see this through.”
Howell seemed appeased–or was willing to appease his colleagues: “I’ll roll along with you here, you make sense,” Howell said. “I think we’re frustrated because we want to get this over. What I want is a full-time manager, let’s lock and load, move forward, and we’re kind of still chug and chug, we’ve got the reins on the boy, but we’re not letting him loose to do his true thing, and I know he can do his true thing. But I can go along with you. I’m easy.”
And the more council members spoke, the more Falgout’s star dimmed the other five in the cluster.
Cuff explained the perception problem Palm Coast was boxing itself in–not just with this particular search, but with subsequent searches, should Falgout be recruited elsewhere (an implicit concession to Falgout’s chances of getting the job). “I do think we owe something to these applicants that have invested the time to show them that we are serious, that it isn’t just the Beau show and we’re just bringing them in to provide covering fire for a decision that we’ve already made,” Cuff said.
Thomas cautioned the council that the candidates were likely watching and wondering if they’ll have a “fair shot.” The council members pledged it would be fair, and Holland in a brief interview this morning said “it’s not going to be a given that he’s going to be selected, that it will be a process of competition and vetting and time well spent.” Holland summed it up this way: “There is confidence in Beau but I’m not sold on Beau.”