The Bunnell City Commission Monday evening strongly condemned the county commission’s decision “to relocate the Flagler County Sheriff’s Operations Center out of the City of Bunnell and into the City of Palm Coast” and asked the commission to rescind its action. The Bunnell commission approved a resolution that could be the first step before a lawsuit.
“I believe and I support the sheriff and his staff,” Vice Mayor John Rogers said before the unanimous vote. “I know some of the folks who work there and they are sick. I believe wholeheartedly that they deserve a different place to operate out of. But as an elected official here in the city of Bunnell, I think it’s our responsibility to ask them to change their mind and put the principal operations center for the sheriff here in the city, just like the constitution says.”
The sheriff evacuated the 40,000 square foot operations center last June after dozens of employees reported sick-building-like illnesses.
The resolution, which misspells Sheriff Rick Staly’s name throughout–a small but telling hint of sloppiness that undermines the city’s claim of close association with the sheriff–was added to the agenda at the beginning of the Bunnell commission meeting, giving no notice to county officials nor to residents even though the city attorney had been working on the resolution all week. Bunnell Mayor Catherine Robinson directed City Attorney Wade Vose to craft the resolution after the April 15 county commission meeting where commissioners voted for the move. So there was no question that it would be on the agenda. When other governments likewise anticipate a yet-unfinished document, they note the agenda item and note that its supporting documentation is forthcoming, thus at least providing some transparency to the public.
County Commission Chairman Donald O’Brien happened to be in the audience at the Bunnell meeting, but not because he was aware of the new agenda item: he routinely attends other governments’ meetings as part of his self-imposed duties–and in fact was outside, taking a phone call, when city commissioners took up the county issue. Walking back in, he was startled to hear what they were discussing. He chose not to address the matter just then.
In an interview this morning, O’Brien said the Bunnell commission’s resolution reflected “definitely some misunderstanding and some misstatements. I really debated hard and long about getting up and speaking about it but I felt I’d wait to process it more.”
The city’s resolution as well as the emerging dispute with the county may center on semantics and perceptions more than on evidence or legally justified action. The county on April 15 voted not to re-occupy the Sheriff’s Operations Center off Old Moody Boulevard and to build a $12 to $15 million sheriff’s district office on the 17-acre, county-owned grounds of the Flagler County Public Library off Palm Coast Parkway, closer to the center of the majority of the sheriff’s calls for service. (The vote not to reoccupy the older building was implicit in the motion, not verbalized.) The operations center’s transformation into a district office may itself be semantics, but as the county and the sheriff see it, it does not remove the sheriff’s own principal office from Bunnell. That principal office is currently at the courthouse in Bunnell. It may subsequently be located in the old administrative office off Justice Lane, near the county jail, until a Bunnell district office is built near the Emergency Operations Center. The law requires permanent records to be located in the county seat. But in the age of cloud storage, the physical location of “records” is becoming increasingly obsolete: many records could be on servers in other states.
The county jail, of course, will remain where it is, in Bunnell.
“I voted for a district office, I don’t care how you slice it, that’s the way I took it,” O’Brien said, making a distinction between the law’s definition of a constitutional officer’s permanent office and the operations center that will be in Palm Coast. How the sheriff organizes his personnel is up to him, O’Brien said.
The city’s resolution makes no such distinctions. It states that at the county commission meeting, “in the course of discussing the option of relocating the Sheriff’s Operation Center out of the City of Bunnell and into the City of Palm Coast, Sheriff Staley noted that such proposed facility in Palm Coast would be the Sheriff’s ‘main office’, that the majority of the Sheriff’s staff would be located at that facility, and that ‘that’s where you’ll probably find the Sheriff most of the time.'” The resolution also pointed out that Staly had spoken favorably of the EOC location as a potential site. The resolution does not repeat what Staly also said: that he’d go along with any of the possibilities, as long as certain building criteria were met.
In a more startling “whereas,” the Bunnell resolution claims Commissioner Joe Mullins offered that the county would consider keeping the sheriff’s operations center in Bunnell–in exchange for $2 million. But the commission never discussed such a proposal.
“That’s the very first I was ever heard that, I’m pretty certain he was speaking for himself and not the commission as a whole,” County Aministrator Jerry Cameron said today.
Mullins had, in fact, spoken with Robinson, who blames him for spurring the move out of Bunnell. Mullins told Robinson of the $2 million by way of an analogy with the money Palm Coast pays the sheriff’s office for its policing contract (which is actually over $3 million). Staly wants the heart of his operation in Palm Coast “because he’s basically trying to meet the needs of the larger city,” Mullins said. If Bunnell had an equivalent need for policing, Mullins told the mayor that Bunnell could get rid of its police force and have the sheriff provide policing. He threw out the $2 million figure as an example–but not as a condition, he said.
“At the end of the day Bunnell doesn’t pay, Palm Coast does, over $2 million,” he said, because that’s where the need is. Mullins said Bunnell should be less focused on its county-seat issues and more focused on economic development and job growth. “They are so focused on the wrong things,” he said. “I wish they’d act this way with business, I wish they’d act this way with bringing jobs.”
Still, the manner of his communication with Robinson, however “facetious” (as he described it to Cameron late Tuesday evening, after an interview with FlaglerLive), was muddying rather than clarifying the issue.
Bunnell has another limitation that Bunnell’s own manager, Alvin Jackson, conceded previously: the city doesn’t have the kind of public land that would make it easy and amenable for the county to build such a large structure.
Cameron was audibly bothered by Bunnell’s approach, which he sees as creating conflict where none exists. “I can’t believe the whole thing, particularly after the city manager told me that there was going to be no push-back from Bunnell,” Cameron said of Jackson. “They’re literally objecting to us putting a Palm Coast district office in Palm Coast.” There are plans for a district office in Bunnell, but right now the financial and logistical needs point to the Palm Coast location. “I don’t understand how the communication to their board could’ve gotten that messed up.”
“We went out of our way to respect the community pride, the historical seat for the sheriff,” he said, rejecting any suggestion that the county extend the county seat through a snaking redrawing of the map. “We certainly don’t want to go there, we don’t want to do that.” At the same time, he said he doesn’t want the feud with Bunnell to continue–or to hear threats of lawsuits, which could escalate the feud. “If they get three of my commissioners really riled up with this, ‘we’re going to bring a lawsuit,’ and they end up extending the county seat, that’s going to create a friction we’ll never outline here. I’m concerned about it.”
The tension between Bunnell and the county exceeds the tension that developed over Bunnell’s brief ownership of the old courthouse, which it then returned to the county, but it’s not yet in lawsuit territory.
“Just so you all know, this is not filing a lawsuit or anything like that,” Vose told the Bunnell commissioners. “It does happen to be a prerequisite if a lawsuit were ever to be filed, the Legislature has set out a method, so that different local entities like cities and counties, if they have a dispute, that they can institute this process, and the statute calls for instituting it by resolution in the manner that you have before you tonight, to begin that dispute resolution process. Then it sets out a number of additional steps that the city and the county will be obligated to participate in, in efforts to resolve this dispute.”
The steps include joint meetings and mediation through organizations such as the Florida Conflict Resolution Consortium. “If there is failure to resolve a conflict between governmental entities through the procedures provided by” law, “the entities participating in the dispute resolution process may avail themselves of any otherwise available legal rights.” In other words, file a lawsuit.
“It’s been my general sense throughout this process that the attitude toward Bunnell and Bunnell’s concern I felt was very cavalier, and I’m in full support of the resolution,” Commissioner Jan Reeger, the only Bunnell commissioner or official present at the April 15 county commission meeting, said. Reeger addressed the county commission that evening and did not oppose the move: she said she understood the rationale of locating a “substantial office” in Palm Coast, but asked to know when a Bunnell district office would also be built.
Robinson claims she had not known that the commission was going to discuss the future of the sheriff’s operations center, though it was on the commission agenda posted the previous Friday, and was noted in a prominent Daily Briefing headline on this site the morning of the meeting, starting at 6 a.m. The county meeting was at 5 p.m. “Certainly, had I known about the meeting and the fact that that was on the agenda Monday night, I would have been at the meeting,” Robinson said. “I did not know. So I have a concern about this and I felt like we should have had some dialogue regarding options that would have been between boards, not individual people talking out of two individual people regarding what they think should happen or not happen. These are board decisions.”
For all of the Bunnell commission’s anxiety, only one person addressed the issue on two occasions when the public could have done so last night, and it was Elbert Tucker, who just left the commission. “I would just like to add my disappointment with the board of County Commissioners for making this move,” he said, “in essence removing it from the county seat, which is Bunnell, the county seat of Flagler County, which is Bunnell. So I’m unhappy and I’m unhappy with the commissioners for doing this. The sheriff has been in Bunnell since I believe Malcolm Johnson, which was before I was born, so we’ve had the sheriff’s county here forever.” He said it took place with no discussion with Bunnell, throwing the city “to the side.”
Robinson had opened Monday’s meeting with her annual State of the City address, which she closed with another reminder to the county (and another small inaccuracy about Bunnell’s own history): “Bunnell is truly the crossroads of Flagler County, and is proud to be the county seat for the past 106 years.” (Actually, 102 years.)