The Flagler County Commission Monday evening voted to order Clerk of Court Tom Bexley, through its county administrator, to reallocate space at the courthouse and accommodate the sheriff’s office’s space needs there for the next two to three years.
The unanimous decision was the culmination of weeks of discussions and failed negotiations to resolve the matter without resorting to what amounts to a nuclear option: the county commission, as landlord, forcing an elected constitutional officer to comply with its demands to mitigate the space needs of another constitutional officer.
Bexley says he won’t give in. “I have no intention of changing the way my operations are operating now. I think I’ve changed enough,” he said in an interview this morning. “We’re going to stand our ground.” He added: “The courthouse and particularly the clerk’s office is not an option. There’s been other options talked about and I’d encourage them to look at those.”
County Administrator Jerry Cameron said he wanted to avert a situation that would “plunge the county into a constitutional crisis.” But that crisis now appears to be developing.
Sheriff Rick Staly and Bexley worked out a space-use arrangement last June after the sheriff was forced to evacuate some 70 people from the old operations center in Bunnell because of feared health hazards. Most of those employees, including the detectives’ squad of two dozens, are spread out on three floors at the courthouse. But the space has been inadequate, particularly for the detectives, who are all restricted to a relatively small room, without an interview room. They must conduct their interviews with suspects at the Flagler Beach Police Department.
County Administrator Jerry Cameron took the motion as an explicit directive to get more space at the courthouse. “My interpretation of the motion was to get with the clerk of court and identify space that can be used for the sheriff in addition to what the sheriff has now,” he said in an interview late Monday evening. “It’s essentially for the detective division and an interview room is what the sheriff has told me that he could be comfortable with until he got into the new building.” The county is planning to build the sheriff a $12 to $15 million district office on the grounds of the Flagler County Public Library in Palm Coast. But occupancy there could be two to three years away.
Audio: Ed Fuller and the Commission Discussion
Bexley was in the commission room with his deputy, Luke Givens, as the commissioners discussed the issue. On previous occasions, he addressed commissioners at meetings, forcefully and at times indignantly to challenge the contention that space could be further reallocated. He did not address the commission this time, but spoke his displeasure to at least one commissioner after the meeting. “‘This isn’t it, and I’m going to fight this, I’m doing it for the people and my staff,’” Commissioner Joe Mullins recalls Bexley saying. “It was a little more aggressive than that.”
“I was very strong when I spoke to the commissioner last night,” Bexley said. I guess the word I’d use is resolute–my resolve has never been stronger.”
The catalyst for Monday’s vote was an unusually blunt assessment of the situation by the normally staid and compulsively impartial Ed Fuller, a Republican member of the Flagler Tiger Bay Club board of directors often involved in the background of local elections. He spoke “with mixed emotions,” as he prefaced his remarks to the commission last night, and as an individual citizen representing only himself.
After witnessing the discussion at several meetings, Fuller said he was “dismayed [by] a lack of cooperation, if you will, from the clerk. I think he’s done the best that he can and knows how to do, but this is an emergency situation, and under an emergency situation, there ought to be cooperation, not bellicose statements–‘it’s my territory, I’m not going to do this.’ He’s a good and honorable man, and he is defending, I believe properly, his operation, but there’s an equally and just as disconcerting element to this, and that is the sheriff’s operation.”
He made a reference to Solomon, the famously wise Jewish king of antiquity, before suggesting more contemporary landlord-tenant commandments to the commission: “When it comes down to it, you own the building. Mr. Bexley is a tenant, and so is the sheriff,” he said. “There’s been no movement.” Bexley, he said, “doesn’t have to give more space, you have to re-allocate it, that’s not his expertise, and I understand that.” He then asked the commission to make a motion directing Cameron to make a space study plan giving the sheriff the additional space he needs on the first floor of the courthouse, presumably the records section Bexley has made his Masada.
“The directive can be with the consent of the clerk of court if possible, or regrettable without it,” Fuller said. “It’s not a good solution but sometimes you need to move forward.”
What followed 20 minutes later succinctly encapsulates the character of the commission as it has become since November: Commission Chairman Don O’Brien as its most deliberate but cautious member, Mullins as its most impatient, verging on impetuous, Dave Sullivan as a Solomonic combination of the two–it’s been a series of moves by Sullivan that have derailed or attempted to derail pre-Cameron initiatives–Greg Hansen as conflict-averse, and Charlie Ericksen as the voice of silence.
O’Brien at first sought to enact just such an approach, but not through a motion. He wanted the commission’s consensus to direct Cameron to return on June 3 with recommendations.
He wanted Cameron to come back on June 3 with a study and “give us his suggestion on reallocation of space in the courthouse, how many employees would get displaced or relocated on both sides, what the cost is going to be, how long it’s going to take to get it done, and I need a discussion on the legal issues and the ramifications, so if we were to have a vote to say this is what’s going to happen as landlords of that space and this is who we’re going to move, I want to know what the legal ramifications are on that, because I don’t, and I need to understand that. But I thought maybe if we could tie that together, then maybe we can get to a point where we make a decision on the bigger issue that I think we have here, of what to do for the next two-plus years with a whole lot of employees on both sides–the clerk side and on the sheriff’s side.”
As he spoke Mullins was eager to jump in, twice trying to before he got to make a motion to shortcut the O’Brien approach and go directly to a Cameron directive. “We’ve gone round and round with this and we’ve been all over the place,” Mullins said. “I think we don’t need to look at other options.” He made a motion to instruct the county manager to get the matter resolved.
Hansen suggested looking at other leasing options, such as a 20,000 square foot building the county helped subsidize to build, but that would be “awful expensive” to lease, Hansen said. And Sullivan sought to amend the motion to include a directive that the sheriff’s space needs for the Palm Coast precinct also be resolved, though it’s separate from the courthouse space matter.
Eleven minutes into the discussion, O’Brien called for the vote on the amended motion and got a unanimous decision.
“I’ve got a very vague idea of what it’s probably going to take,” Cameron said in an interview, “but I’m going to have to verify exactly how many detectives we’re working with here, then look at potential space that could be made available. At the same time I do want to be respectful of the clerk. He is a constitutional officer. He is not my peer, he is superior to me. So in the process of trying to work through this I want to give the deference that his office deserves.”
Cameron added: “At this point we need to come to some sort of resolution before this gets any worse. We certainly don’t want to plunge the county into a constitutional crisis. He is a peer to the Board of County Commissioners. They do own the building, and presumably have some control over it, and he relies on a statute that is a little bit vague on providing space, so there’s a lot of muddled area that’s got to be worked through here. I certainly don’t want to do it with a heavy hand.”
Givens, the deputy clerk, said it’s “not us being obstinate,” but a question of adhering to the law and the clerk’s responsibility to provide the services it’s responsible for. “It’s more than just a question of cost.”
The county has other leasing options that would be expensive, whether through the 20,000 square foot building or through more complicated, potentially less secure temporary-building arrangements.But those would cost in the millions of dollars over the next two to three years. Asked directly whether he was comfortable seeing those costs imposed on taxpayers, Bexley said “absolutely not,” but that “I don’t set policy. The board of county commissioners, they have the job of doing this.”