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Palm Coast Council Picks Matthew Morton as Its City Manager in Sharp Turn ‘From This Nice Little Box’

| March 12, 2019

Matthew Morton is Palm Coast's new city manager. (c FlaglerLive)

Matthew Morton is Palm Coast’s new city manager. (c FlaglerLive)

The Palm Coast City Council this morning voted 3-2 to name Matthew Morton, a former city manager in Washington State, as the city’s third manager in 20 years, by-passing Interim Manager Beau Falgout and signaling a decisive shift away “from this nice little box that runs things every day the way it has been run,” as Mayor Milissa Holland put it.

The splintered decision was a surprise, and was not so: a surprise, because for months Falgout had appeared to be the front-runner by a long distance. The council’s short-listing only reinforced Falgout’s front-runner status, and Falgout himself spoke of his last six months as a long job interview, his self-confidence visibly growing with time.

But the choice also wasn’t a surprise, because for just as long, council members have spoken of their plan to decisively alter the city’s direction toward more innovation and business-friendliness and away from government for government’s sake. They were willing to give Falgout the chance to prove that he would be that instrument of change. He fell short. He convinced them of the convenience of staying with him, but some of the council members are not looking for convenience. They’re looking for “a game-changer,” in Holland’s words.

At the end of a 90-minute discussion, it was Holland’s arguments that won the day for Morton–and put her stamp on the council as even firing former manager Jim Landon had not: Morton is the first government executive she’s worked with in six years at the county and almost three at the city that she can finally call her own.

Falgout, in his 12th year in the city administration and his sixth month as interim manager, had started as the favorite when he was among the 50-odd applicants late last year.

More than an hour into the discussion, Council member Eddie Branquinho described the choice as “excruciating.” It was a somewhat exaggerated description of what is normally a difficult choice, and what, in this council’s case, has been handled–with rare exceptions–with civility and remarkably rational conversation.

Cuff said if Falgout was appointed, he would be “the safe choice,” but also a choice as good as any of the other candidates: in his review of the 55-some applications initially submitted, Cuff said “there was nobody in there that I saw as a game-changer.” But he was also essentially saying that he did not see Falgout as a game-changer, either, but as someone who can run the city. Cuff’s favorite comparison is to the leader who makes the trains run on time. He did not use it today, but applied similar analogies. His conclusion was that Falgout could get the job done and take the council innovative directions just as well as any of the existing finalists.

beau falgout

Beau Falgout in his element. (© FlaglerLive)

“I can’t help thinking that if he’d been here 180 days, innovating, we wouldn’t be farther along than we are with Beau,” Cuff said. With Morton, “I hear a lot of buzz words, and that doesn’t mean there isn’t substance to back it up, but my background makes me suspicious. He said the city should not be looking for “somebody who’s new and flashy and shiny.” That, he said, “would be a mistake.” He later said: “I don’t see what we’re getting other than that new car smell by hiring someone from out of town.”

“We’re taking a chance, and I’m not against taking a chance, but I don’t know what it gets us,” Cuff said.

Council member Eddie Branquinho picked up on Cuff’s reference to the absence of game-changers to make the point: doesn’t that mean the city needs just such a game-changer? But Branquinho also played into Cuff’s point when Branquinho quoted one of Morton’s aphorisms: “Government must be stable but never stand still.”

Early in the discussion three council members spoke for Morton: Holland, Klufas and Branquinho. Cuff was not diminishing Morton’s qualities, but he did not see them as supplanting Falgout’s. “I’d like to hire all four of them, to be honest with you,” Cuff said.

Jack Howell liked Morton’s enthusiasm but not his lack of experience leading larger cities. Morton led two cities in Washington that are closer to the size of Bunnell or Flagler Beach.

One name all five council members appeared to agree on from the outset: Donald Kewley, the technology director in Ashland, Ore.–but not for city manager. The council members want him as their Fibernet director.

The council members lavished praise on all four candidates who’d made it to the finalist round, each in turn speaking of what they described as a difficult decision except for Howell, who called it “relatively easy for me,” saying it was not like making life-and-death decisions in combat.

Branquinho briefed the council on his white night before speaking of his difficult choice. “We had three, four, beautiful candidates, not an easy decision,” Eddie Branquinho said. “Out of the four two actually impressed me the most.” It became clear that he meant Falgout and Morton.

“You talk about Force, that’s what I see lacking in Beau,” Klufas said. What turned out to be Klufas’s litmus test was the city’s search for an IT director a few weeks ago: Klufas could not understand why Falgout’s search didn’t turn up Kewley.

“We need to attract the best talent, and talent follows talent,” Klufas said. “We need a shift in direction, but we also need to make sure that we are fully invested in our technology investments.” When he thinks about why Kewley had not been searched out weeks ago, Klufas said, “I don’t have an answer.” He put the responsibility indirectly on Falgout: “Why didn’t we find Donald Kewley?”

At one point Klufas questioned Howell’s approach. Howell had declined to interview the candidates one-on-one.

“You didn’t sit down with these people one-on-one,” Klufas told him.

“Didn’t have to,” Howell told Klufas before adding a condescending slap that recalled the way Steve Nobile, a former council member, condescended to Klufas: “Didn’t have to, son.”

Holland described Falgout as ethical and a family man who would not lead the city astray. “There’s some real strengths to Beau, and I think there’s some weaknesses. The weaknesses are that he learned from one individual. He doesn’t know what he doesn’t know,” Holland said, referring to former City Manager Jim Landon. Holland then spoke of the consequences of making the wrong choice, citing Flagler County government as an example. (Holland remains almost traumatized by the county’s 3-2 vote in 2007 that selected Craig Coffey as its administrator, when she was a county commissioner and voted in the minority–a choice the county almost a dozen years later came to rue.)

Holland also spoke of Falgout as unable to cross city or county boundaries to think more globally and imaginatively. “Government-speak can be very frustrating,” she said, comparing the way Falgout came off to the way Robin Hayes, the candidate and city manager from Mount Dora, came off–as essentially and exclusively a government administrator, but not more. She sees Morton as being able to cross those boundaries. Holland said the city had to take the opportunity to “put in a game-changer” that implements the council’s new priorities. “It’s how you implement those priorities that’s going to define us,” she said. She cited a few examples to illustrate Falgout’s more government-centered, or conventional, approach to problem-solving. She said Falgout handles meetings well, but the process that follows tends to be “slow-moving.”

“Those are the things I want to change with our approaches,” Holland said. That won’t happen under what she described as “former leadership,” a reference to Landon.

During the public-comment period, Falgout got support from the few people in the audience (the meeting drew an audience of just five, not counting reporters and city staffers). “Let’s stay with the pony that we know,” one of the administration’s reliable supporters said.

That was just what the majority of the council did not want to do.

After the vote, both Cuff and Howell spoke explicitly of their support for Morton. “We move forward with the new guy and I support him 100 percent,” Howell said, dispensing with any hard feelings.

“Make sure you make that clear, Doug,” Cuff said, speaking to Doug Thomas, the consultant who’d conducted the manager search for the council. (Thomas was Skyped in.)

Ironically, the council tasked Cuff to negotiate the contract with Morton.

22 Responses for “Palm Coast Council Picks Matthew Morton as Its City Manager in Sharp Turn ‘From This Nice Little Box’”

  1. Robjr says:

    So does Beau keep his 140K or does he have to revert back to the paltry 110K?

  2. David S. says:

    Is it going to change anything in this dorkey town I doubt it…..

  3. Michael Cocchiola says:

    Well… the choice is made. We move on.

  4. Me says:

    Mr. Morton welcome to the City of PC. In you new position the citizen of Palm Coast will ask that your listen to our needs and requests. Good luck in your new job.

  5. Roy says:

    “game changer”, – Change what? What is the vision for this town? Mayor and Council should provide the overall vision for this town and the manager would develop a plan to execute. There was no rationale for selecting the new manager given in this article. My first suggestion is to figure out how stop the town from turning into a slum. Enforce the building and land conditions codes!

  6. Dianna says:

    I wonder if he is accustomed to the good ole boy network. Welcome to Flagler County.

  7. Palmcoaster says:

    Only time will tell and the new manager being responsive to the residents tax payers request of solution to their problems. The positive or not performance of “the new kid in town” without experience in a city size of Palm Coast will seal the fate for the re-election of Holland and Klufas and later Branquinho as well.
    So good luck with your choice and hope he performs to your expectation but without putting “broad band and tech innovation” above no properly managed growth, Florida Park Drive’s, awful noise, danger, contamination of thru vehicles as fuel and liquid gas, heavy load and beverages trucks traffic going 40 MPH on a 30 MPH drive and only about 60 feet from houses. The overdue needed widening of Old Kings Road to alleviate FPD. The allover PC litter tossed out from car windows or not properly secured from contractors transports that so far is not properly addressed.Finally and no less important caring for our decaying drainage system. Full agenda for the new manager.

  8. pcmerry says:

    Would be interesting to know which town in Washington State Mr Morton managed. I’ve
    been to the evergreen state many many times over the years and other than a few towns aka suburbs of Seattle, not much to brag about. Washinton and Florida are about as far and different in so many ways as you can get…hmm.

  9. Concerned Citizen says:

    Our City leadership is always full of surprises. Wow on hiring someone from “out of town” and not part of the goold old boy network. Does this institute an era of change in our City?

    I still can’t understand why we have to have high priced City Managers and a Non Working Mayor. Salry the mayor and require them to work.

    Maybe this will institute some change with a new Mayor and Council members who want to do something besides serve self interests and bicker.

  10. Fiscal says:

    Did he sign an affidavit that he has not had any state or federal financial issues?

  11. Queenie says:

    I hope the new city manager drives around and notices how poorly the traffic pattern has been designed here. Maybe he will STOP all houses and building of retail (Palm Coast has no other businesses–like industrial) until the traffic pattern is changed!!!!! Too many people here for the roads!!!!!

  12. Callthemasiseethem says:

    So you hired a person that has experience managing a city less than one tenth the size of Palm Coast and this is good thing? Why?

  13. Flagmire says:

    If mr. Morton was a top candidate that spells trouble. The ideal candidate would have been a deputy city manager from a larger city in Florida who was motivated by taking the top post and had some real outside experience of value. I agree, what was that rationale for hiring and what was the ranking criteria?

    Colonel Howell you owe Commissioner Klufas an apology for the disrespect. The honorable thing to do is to apologize at the next public meeting, admit you made a mistake addressing with less than the deserved respect and move forward.

  14. Concerned Citizen says:

    “Under former leadership?

    Does that include our Mayor who rode her Daddies coat tails into politics? And what are her major achievements as Mayor of Palm Coast so far?

    Now we have hired yet another individual who is out of touch with Flagler County and Palm Coast. I understand there are fresh faces needed but a complete outsider?

    Col. Howell I respect you a great deal and applaud your career as a Commisioned Officer. However we don’t want or need another Steve Nobile. You’re starting to convey an attitude similar to those of Coffey and Landon with the whole “rough around the edges” and I don’t care who I piss off attitude. There is no room on the Council for arguing and disrespect. You owe Mr. Klufas an apology sir.

  15. palmcoaster says:

    Excuse me Flagmire you are wrong as Flukas attacked Councilman Howell first when without warning he tossed to him the” what gave him the right to not to support his favorite when Mr. Howell didn’t have a one on one (secretive not transparent I would say) interview with the candidates”! Flukas disrespected Howell!
    Why do we have now a manager that was hired for the sake of advancement and benefit of Innovation Tech and Fiber Optic on a city that is still growing too fast for its soiled diapers? Yeah this dream of making all this money owning our own taxpayers funded expensive fiber optic services and with about 1,000 business customers only and that just lost “the hospital” the second largest employer in the county because Searay no more right? Our own city fiber optics for the mom and pop business that pop up and gone in a couple of years in Palm Coast while we lost jobs creators landmarks like Searay. As a tax payer I am sick and tired of this county throwing millions out the window in frivolous ahead of themselves county and city projects. Like the famous ocean water desalinization plant and now we are getting into another one called Innovation and Broadband. Why don’t they leave the broadband for the carriers like AT&T and other and the Town Center Innovation to the their developers? We need a manager that knew this unique city surrounded by waters and not a trainee that never managed a city this size. And we need also one that will be receptive to the residents request affected by the constant growth without management generating without proper infrastructure to sustain the traffic in our once peaceful drives not intended for it enduring gasoline and liquid gas at 40 MPH only 60 feet from houses, the lack of no litter enforcement that comes with it, the forever postponed widening of Old Kings road to alleviate it, Our old decaying drainage no properly updated before approving more housing. When it comes to attracting businesses and remain here first thing county and city need to do is be an example and keep our dollars here other than outsourcing all as the city just showed one more time in its 3 to 2 vote. Like one wise resident spoke be careful what is in the Magellan contract! Better be careful what we wish for, funded with other peoples (taxpayers) monies as usual.

  16. Knows Jack says:

    Howell failed us by not participating in the interview process. Jack, this is not the military…it is not my way or the highway. You owed it to us to go through the vetting process. You may have learned something that would have you join the majority.

  17. Ben Hogarth says:

    Glad to see the City Council is making a bold decision and keeping an open mind about the future. Imagine if they hadn’t gone through this process, where would the City be?

    There are always a lot of lessons learned in the hiring process, for employer and applicant alike. To rob yourself of the opportunity to learn from this would have been an unwise decision so I am glad the Council decided to move forward the right way and ended up with a candidate who strung a different tune.

    I will admit, as a public administration professional in the State of Florida – having grown up north, it will take some time for this manager to adjust to the municipal differences in Florida. Much like that of California, Florida actually has a rather rigorous and involved municipal process. Similarly, it’s laws can be quite burdensome and cumbersome. It will take him at least a year to adjust, so I hope the Council provides him with that amount of time to learn some of the new ropes (less any other extenuating circumstances).

    I think the greatest lesson that many people have learned over the last several decades is that what you see on paper is not necessarily what you get in person. It seems at times, there are more candidates who are more “fluff” than substance – and no amount of paperwork could ever help you to discern the difference. In the future, I would urge the Council to narrow the interview choices to at least double what they ended with (4). You can’t possibly understand the experiential parallels and substance of a candidate until you meet them in person and ask them pointed questions. So again, I hope others are listening to this wisdom (*cough* Flagler County).

    Flagler has suffered more than a decade of regression and it will take quite some time to reverse course. Palm Coast sits in a perfect position to absorb much of the municipal services that the County has been providing due to severe mismanagement by their last administration. My parting words for the new manager of Palm Coast would be to seize this opportunity to expand services to unincorporated residents who may have had their share of failed county services (i.e. water/wastewater at Plantation Bay).

    I hope this manager works out for Palm Coast and if in the long run it is only a temporary thing, you will have at least gotten a small taste for what the process is like and how to go about it on an even larger scale next time to find the perfect matching candidate.

  18. Anonymous says:

    Howell ought to keep his condescending comments to himself , Mr military man is a has been , participate like you are suppose to , no one gives a rats ass about your lock and load attitude , Klufas should of said your are right old man but remember the people voted you in and act like you represent them

  19. Sleight of Hand says:

    While I would agree with the majority of Ben’s comments, growing Palm Coast’s services to unincorporated areas would set residents up for future rate increases/taxes to support growth within the city limits. Fixing Flagler county should be the priority rather than growing Palm Coast’s reach. And stay far away from the fiasco that is Plantation Bay’s (and Volusia County’s) water issue.

  20. Mark says:

    Make PC a gated community! Build a wall!

  21. Dan says:

    Seems pretty ignorant of Holland to tie Falgout to the guy that hired him. Implies Falgout doesn’t have a mind of his own and Holland having a closed mind.

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