The Palm Coast City Council begins a two-day round of interviews with its last four candidates for city manager on Thursday morning, with a reception where the public may meet the candidates Thursday evening at City Hall in Town Center.
With the exception of Mayor Milissa Holland, however, three council candidates are holding closed-door, one-on-one interviews with the candidates on Thursday, barring press and public from attending. The council members closing their doors are Eddie Branquinho, Bob Cuff and Nick Klufas. Council member Jack Howell elected not to have any one-on-one interviews, saying that he has enough to go on based on what he’s read.
Holland is welcoming press or public to sit in on her portions of the interviews, which begin at 8:30 a.m. in the in the Pine Lakes conference room on the 2nd floor of City Hall. Holland will interview the candidates in 30-minute increments, with a 15-minute break between the first two and the last two. First up is Donald Kewley at 8:30 a.m., followed by Matthew Morton at 9. Robin Hayes will be interviewed at 9:45 a.m., and Beau Falgout, Palm Coast’s interim manager will be interviewed at 10:15.
The candidates will be interviewed individually and in 90-minute increments by the entire council collectively on Friday. Those interviews will be broadcast on the web and will be open to the public.
County commissioners last month went through their own rounds of interviews for an interim administrator and, after some discussion about the one-on-one portions, settled on open-door interviews. Though one or two of them were leaning toward closing their doors, they were finally swayed to keep the doors open by an opinion by Pat Gleason of the Attorney General’s Office.
“Ms. Gleason strongly recommended that we keep the individual interviews open to the public,” County Attorney Al Hadeed wrote the commissioners, relaying Gleason’s opinion. “As a general rule of thumb that she uses, anytime a Sunshine issue falls in a gray area, it is best to err on the side of openness. From the public’s perspective, she believes if we were to close off the interviews, some would assume the worst, bad press coverage could result, and the interim administrator could begin his/her tenure with a cloud of suspicion.” The commission members did not have a collective interview of the candidates.
Council members have debated the open-versus-closed issue at previous meetings, with Holland pressing her colleagues to have open interviews to send a message of transparency. Cuff said he wanted his interviews closed not because he doesn’t want the public to hear the interviews necessarily, but because a council member spends a lot of time in one-on-one settings with a city manager, and he wanted to see how the candidates behave in that setting. The presence of anyone else would diminish his ability to gauge a candidate’s behavior on that account.
“Generally speaking I agree with that,” Cuff said of Gleason’s advice, “I think I try to honor both the letter and the spirit of the sunshine law, but in a situation like this I’ve talked to our counsel about it.” He continued: “my feeling on it is, unless somebody tells me it’s illegal my concern is having at least a few minutes to sit down with each of these folks.” Cuff said he’s not so naive to think that he’ll get entirely candid answers from the candidates, but if press or public were present, he’d be more likely to hear the candidates’ “elevator speech” only. He said the open interviews on Friday are more likely to be the deciding factor.
Branquinho, an ex-cop, said he wanted his interviews closed because “based on my past profession when I question someone, they tell you one to one things they wouldn’t tell you” when others are in the room. “They’re more honest.” Branquinho, on the council just a few months (like Howell), was quick to add that he was not intending to “interrogate” candidates. “I believe in reading movements and looks and gestures,” he said today. “It’s just for my own interest, I want to make sure–and I can assure you nothing illegal or unethical will be asked, I just want to ask them the same questions privately so I can read them.” He said he would be asking the same questions to each candidate that he would eventually ask during the open session Friday.
Klufas has not spoken at length of his preference in previous meetings, but Thursday, after the interviews, he explained that his preference for closed-door meetings was not so much about keeping the public out as about reducing distractions that sometimes interfere with his own public speaking.
The public reception is at 6 p.m. Thursday in the same room where the council holds its meetings. Thursday afternoon three of the four finalists are getting separate tours of Palm Coast by a city staff member and will meet with department directors. Falgout is not taking the tour. The special meeting where open interviews and presentations by each candidate will be held begins at 9 a.m. Friday in the same chamber. The council is expected to select a manager at a special meeting next week.