In June it’ll be a year that the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office evacuated the moldy, 35,000-square-foot Operations Center in Bunnell and split some 70 employees, including 25 detectives and the command staff, between the Flagler County courthouse and the sheriff’s jail administration building on Justice Lane. Last month the County Commission voted to build a new operations center, or district office, in Palm Coast. But that’s at least two years away. The county is preparing a few thousand square feet for the sheriff’s temporary uses at the old Sears building on Palm Coast Parkway. But that’s also months away, and will account for only a small portion of the exiled staff. So the sheriff must make do with makeshift accommodations.
It’s not been comfortable. Sheriff Rick Staly has called it “a crisis” and an “untenable” situation that’s “drastically hurting the operation and the work environment for those employees.” He’s asked for more space at the courthouse. Clerk of Court Tom Bexley has been unwilling to grant it, saying it would alleviate sheriff’s operations only to hurt his own. To most people who’ve never been in the courthouse and affected areas, the discussion has been an abstraction.
On Wednesday, the sheriff’s Chief Mark Strobridge and Bexley (along with Bexley’s deputy, Luke Givens), gave FlaglerLive a complete tour of the three floors affected by the combined sheriff’s and clerk’s operations at the courthouse. The tour included the first, second and third floors of the courthouse. The fourth floor–the judges’ Mt. Olympus–is unchanged. The tour was conducted separately but in quick succession the same morning, with no constraints on what could be photographed short of the fine print on certain computer screens. What follows is the first such detailed, photographic illustration of the space issues the sheriff, the clerk and county officials have been wrestling with over the past months and continue to wrestle with as the three sides try to reach an understanding on whether and how to make more room before the sheriff can repatriate his own grounds.
There are no overt tensions–there were none during the tour, anyway–as both sides project complete amiability. Nevertheless, it is in the asides, in the particular ways Bexley made a point of showing how accommodating he’s been, in the various ways Strobridge spoke of the building’s youth and room for growth, and in the way other staffers reacted to the obviously uncomfortable crunch that the awkwardness of the situation sharpen unspoken tensions.
The tour begins right about where Sheriff Woody welcomes residents at a reception window just to the right of the metal detectors at the courthouse entrance, a space the sheriff requested to give the public some visibility and quick access to services. Four people generally share the space, which also includes court security.
But to get an idea of the cramped working conditions of a crucial segment of the sheriff’s operations, you might start with a corner room on the ground floor of the courthouse, the space assigned to 25 detectives. It’s not much of a room–more like a large cubicle that has itself been subdivided into several tiny cubicles, each of those shared by at least two detectives at a time. Think of traveling coach on a budget airline when the passenger in front of you tilts the seat back just a little, then multiply that by eight hours a day, five days a week.
The county administrator compared the space to a mail-order phone bank. The sheriff calls it a sardine can. It can just as easily be compared to those tiny shotgun, one-room apartments IKEA showcases on its floors, which of course are designed for one person or two at best–and two people who don’t mind being in each other’s business.
“It’s a disaster. It’s a closet right there,” says Chief Paul Bovino, who recently took over the detectives’ division.
Thankfully for the division, the detectives tend to be a fit, slimmed down group, and their one colossus, 6-foot-2-Bovino, has his own office a short walk away, though that creates a different set of problems: Bovino’s office is actually within the clerk of court’s zone, right next to Bexley’s recording manager’s office. It’s not as if Bovino can have any case discussions in the open. But nor is it that way for the detectives in their own offices: they’re so cramped that half the room could hear what they’re saying on the phone or to each other. Yet they’re responsible for sensitive cases, whether they’re dealing with witnesses or victims in sex cases or informants in drug cases and other sources.
“None of us have the liberty to talk in confidence anymore,” Bexley says, which is where some of the tension has originated. Ceding the room to the detectives posed its own issues, he says. “We used to use that as our training room. That’s gone,” Bexley says. Now we’ve been relegated to an area of four, so we have to rotate a lot of guys in,” he says, pointing to the makeshift space used for training. See the image below.
Similar story in what previously had been used by four information technology employees on the clerk’s side, but is now the patrol division’s command and meeting area. “That’s one of the few quasi private spaces we have,” says sheriff’s Chief Chris Sepe, “as long as IT isn’t walking in to deal with their servers.” That room is attached to the command center’s area, where commanders and other supervisors funnel in deputies, deal with daily operations, including disciplinary issues. Deputies don’t have their own offices–their patrol cars are their offices–but they still stream in and out of the sheriff’s office space for various reasons and paperwork.
Communication radios work inside the courthouse. Cell phones, which the command staff uses–or needs to use–routinely, barely work or not at all. It gets better in the higher floors, but the deputies’ command center is on the ground floor.
The clerk’s IT department remains on the fourth floor. “So with the proposed plan for the sheriff to take the entire first floor, this entire department would go bye bye. Where they’d go, I have no idea,” Bexley says.
The clerk’s recording department is also on the ground floor. “This is one of the services that state statutes require us to do,” Givens says. It’s also one of the places that easily give the impression that there’s more space than is being used: the courthouse was built last decade with 30 years’ growth in view, and that growth only started kicking in at the beginning of this decade.
There are four seemingly unused cubicles to the rear of the recording division’s main working area. Bexley says two of the cubicles are unused and provide for space where the office may grow in the future. Two are used periodically by employees as dedicated spaces for cash close-out and for what he described as a “back-posting project.”
The ground floor is also where the court chapel used to be. Now it’s been converted into the sheriff’s Seniors vs. Crime unit, which was unoccupied the morning of the tour. “Now we have to marry folks out here in the hallway, or in the courts or wherever we can” Givens says.
Record management and preservation is among the foremost missions of the clerk’s office. The records room on the first floor is a behemoth of a space lined with row after row of close-cropped shelving, almost all of it filled with every imaginable record that makes up a county’s archival history: criminal, civil, probate, land records, expunged records (yes, they’re all there), insurance records, and in two locked rooms by themselves, the financial records of the county. “That’s the gravity of what we’re dealing with here,” Bexley says. Every quarter, thousands of records are destroyed as they reach their expiration date in the eyes of the state’s public record law. Those must be inventoried and demolished.
“And so as a consequence of that we have to have constant interaction with the records,” Givens says.
Bexley says because of that “interaction,” a proposal that would have the records staff move to a different part of the building and walk through the sheriff’s areas to get access to the records room would not be feasible. But he concedes it was not a formal proposal so much as speculative.
On the second floor, the clerk has another area that regularly interacts with the public–the civil and criminal division. There too, there’s a lot more space than is being used, though absent some reconstruction, it could not readily be subdivided for other uses.
Bexley says the empty spaces are for growth, but are also used periodically for various transactions, such as foreclosure sales. There are 16 employees in that particular division. The back room is another string of desks, a few of them unused, and numerous more stacks for more current records, many of which are being imaged then destroyed, leaving many shelves empty.
On the west side of the building, the sheriff’s homeland security division and accreditation employees form the second part of an L-shaped zone that links up with the clerk’s criminal and civil division. And smack in the middle of that sheriff’s zone is the hyper-secure vault where all materials required to be preserved for current or ongoing court cases, including rape and murder cases, weapons, drugs and all sorts of other evidence and documents, must be kept secure. The vault includes a fridge for DNA and other biological evidence. The weapons are kept in individually locked lockers.
At the edge of the public civil and criminal clerks’ area, there’s another room that was ceded to the sheriff well before the issue with the operations center. It’s the office of civil process, where, for example, the documents necessary to serve someone notice of, say, a foreclosure or other legal matters originate. The clerk provided the space, but says it used to be the area where people seeking injunctions, including battered victims, could more discreetly conduct their business. “The duties that we provided over there are now being provided over here, in the open,” Givens says. “It poses a problem in numerous ways.”
The clerk’s payroll offices on the second floor are not affected. The second floor’s more office-space like areas in the center of the building include Court Administration, Teen Court and Drug Court–where drug court participants report for their variously required tests–intermingling with the sheriff’s finance and human resources personnel. Strobridge shows the one conference room the entire floor must share, with a notice about required reservations:
The third floor had judges’ chambers that weren’t being used, and that were turned over to the sheriff for his own office and that of his command staff. The most arresting feature of the third floor is what at first appears to be a small conference room–the only conference room the sheriff may use, at least when it’s available. Because its real function is as a jury room. “As you can see, we have more people than the table can hold,” Strobridge says.
And the sheriff’s staff may not use the room when a trial is in session in the third-floor courtrooms. “So for the entire week the sheriff can’t have a meeting,” Strobridge says.
There are still other, unseen inconveniences and difficulties in running the sheriff’s operations. Three staffers have their offices in the State Attorney’s area on the third floor of the courthouse. The operation is diffused between the three floors of the courthouse and the old administration building near the jail. Detectives have the convenience of proximity to the State Attorney’s office, with whom they interact frequently, but to interview suspects, they have to drive the suspects all the way to the Flagler Beach Police Department to use its interview room–a distance that at times can play havoc with a suspect’s willingness to talk, Strobridge said.
For all that, he doesn’t blame the clerk and repeatedly tries to portray the sheriff’s office as grateful to have what space it has been given–if only it could have a bit more. “This is not about the sheriff and the clerk of court by any stretch of the imagination. It’s not our battle,” Strobridge said. The landlord in the equation is not the clerk, but the county commission, which may have to decide whether to press the issue and force the clerk to give more ground. “We are grateful, court administration did a great job, the clerk did a great job, we just need the county to figure out what they need to do.”