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Shake-Up at Palm Coast City Hall: 3 Directors and 2 Managers Resign, Yielding to New Manager Morton’s Headwind

| June 12, 2019

City Manager Matt Morton is asserting himself at Palm Coast City Hall as he rebuilds what had been an 11-year-old regime in his image. (© FlaglerLive)

City Manager Matt Morton is asserting himself at Palm Coast City Hall as he rebuilds what had been an 11-year-old regime in his image. (© FlaglerLive)

Less than three months into City Manager Matthew Morton’s tenure, there’s been a shake-up in Palm Coast government. Three directors and a manager resigned between Thursday and Tuesday, and the communications and marketing manager resigned today.

Last week the city hired a new chief innovation officer–Donald Kewley, who just months ago was competing with Morton as one of the finalists for the city manager’s job. By week’s end the manager intends to name a new director of community development, with a director of public works to be named in a few weeks.

Most of the vast changes are not unexpected as they reflect a significant shift in direction for a city that until Morton’s arrival and with a brief interim had been led by the same manager, Jim Landon, for 11 years. The resignations actually began just before Morton’s arrival with that of Nestor Abreu, the director of public works. The changes are consequences of new headwinds at City Hall that are altering the course government had been used to for almost a dozen years.

Morton described the shift in a draft “60 Day Report” in tended for city council members, where he wrote of “promulgating a new organizational culture,” and where the word “culture” or its derivatives appeared eight times in five pages, usually in the context of implementing change.

Landon’s style  often cast him as more of a policymaker than a manager, with a pliant city council that willingly deferred that role to him. The council reserved what amounted to a rubber stamp for itself. Three successive council elections increasingly pushed Landon’s approach out of step with the council’s, finally leading to his firing last year at the hands of a more assertive council that clearly and at times bluntly directs the manager, as opposed to the other way around.

Several directors and managers in the Landon mold are not surviving.

Parks and Recreation Director Alex Boyer and Information Technology Director Chuck Burkhart resigned on Thursday. Public Works Manager Renee Shevlin’s last day was Friday. Human Resources Director Wendy Cullen resigned Tuesday. Boyer, the city’s former parks superintendent, had been director since late 2016, after being hired earlier that year. Burkhart was hired at the end of October, during Deputy Manager Beau Falgout’s tenure as interim manager. Cullen had been a human resource manager for the city since 2008 when Landon promoted her to director in mid-2016.

Several directors and managers in the Landon mold are not surviving.

There’d been friction between Cullen and Boyer on one hand and Morton on the other as loyalties to the former regime made their tenure more discordant with Morton’s, though Cullen had also developed a style that echoed Landon’s imperiousness, at times as if overlooking the “human” in human resources.

The resignations were expected. Morton says he’d been in conversations and negotiations with the three directors, and though he described the departures as straight resignations, another official familiar with the development described them as Morton allowing the directors to resign, rather than be fired.

Asked directly if particular issues had led to the resignations, Morton paused a moment then said no, reiterating that it was a matter of philosophy. “Change is hard, right? It’s hard for people,” he said. But pressed to explain what he meant by philosophy, his words shed more light on what may have been missing in his expectations from the directors who resigned: “In general what I have made public is very much how I am,” he said. “I believe in entrepreneurial leadership, I believe in courage, I believe in people coming to the table prepared. We’re serving our community, we’re serving our council members. You should understand how you manage, in, out, up and down, but more importantly I also want you to be a leader and I want you to grow leadership, which means you have to have a lot of personal courage to train those below you to do your job and to do it better than you.”

In other words, “if an organization functions better in your absence, then you’re doing something right.” He speaks against “silos” and an old philosophy of “knowledge is power” that leads directors to hoard knowledge instead of sharing it, on the assumption that if they alone have the knowledge, their job is more indispensable, safer.

Each director signed a standard separation agreement that recognizes that both sides “desire to settle fully and finally all actual and potential differences and disputes between them arising directly or indirectly” from their employment with the city. The agreement indemnifies the city and foregoes any legal action against it. It also provides for financial settlements for any accumulated vacation and sick pay, along with deferred compensation.

On Tuesday, Morton got a resignation he did not expect and had not sought: that of Cindi Lane, for more than six years the city’s communications and marketing manager. Morton was traveling between home and a meeting across town this morning when he got a call from Falgout saying Lane had walked in his office to tender her resignation. “That one was a shock,” Morton said.  “Didn’t know where that one came from. Wasn’t expecting it.”

“I have thoroughly enjoyed getting to know many fine people, and I’m proud of the growth of my team and the quality of the work accomplished by them these past few years,” Lane wrote in a letter addressed to Falgout, not Morton. “You have been an exceptional boss and leader, and I want to thank you for investing In my growth and for being a good friend.”

For now, Jason Giraulo will fill Lane’s role. Morton and the department were working on a new job description for that position.

Doug Akins. (Palm Coast)

Doug Akins, an IT analyst, was promoted to IT director–not an interim–in place of Burkhart. In human resources, Debbie Streichsbier, formerly a compensation analyst in the department, will be the interim director. Lauren Johnston, a recreation specialist who was managing the renovated community center on Palm Coast Parkway, will be the interim director in parks and recreation.

Morton was asked how the staff was taking the resignations and his various appointments. “I get a very different perspective, if we’re honest, because I’m at the top,” he said, “but I’ve had a lot of people come and say thank you, we support you, we trust you, we understand the moves you made.”

It’s not necessarily self-promotion: a public works employee who’s been observing the changes said that employees expected that an “implosion of personnel was going to happen” after Landon’s departure, and more recently, “just around the public works department, there’s a lot of smiling faces, like a weight got lifted.” The employee said “the buddy system is being torn apart.”

Kewley’s appointment as chief innovation officer was not exactly a surprise, and Morton knew it.

“I told Beau, I said this is a Pyrrhic win, I’m really excited, he’s the guy, but it’s Pyrrhic because I knew it carried some baggage,” Morton said. He was alluding to the politically fraught context of Kewley’s hiring. City Council member Nick Klufas had spoken openly and insistently on wanting the city to hire Kewley for that position after he interviewed for the city manager’s job. Mayor Milissa Holland agreed, but wanted the decision to be left up to the manager, while Bob Cuff, another council member, was alarmed by the council members’; insertion in decisions where their voice doesn’t belong. The message was sent to Morton all the same: two of his council members wanted Kewley.

Together again: Donald Kewley, left, and Matt Morton last March when both were competing for the city manager job. (© FlaglerLive)

Together again: Donald Kewley, left, and Matt Morton last March when both were competing for the city manager job.
(© FlaglerLive)

“But we did an exhaustive selection hiring, it was double-blind, no one knew the applications, they were all redacted when they came in for the first review, because we were like–I want this transparent, right?” Morton said. Two names were shortlisted, among them Kewley’s. “I just said to myself I’m going to have the courage to hire who I think is going to serve the city best, and the politics be darned. I really believe in my heart and from the references and the experience that he’s going to serve the city best. So I picked him.” Kelwey starts July 1. He will be in charge of the city’s broadband network, called Fibernet, among other things. The council, and Klufas in particular, consider the network to be substantially underused.

Looking to the future, Morton wants accountability throughout the organization down to nametags for all employees, “random experience sampling with users to make sure were getting it right” and access for residents to all people in authority.

In his 6-day report, Morton doesn’t hesitate to make his points with analogies that are somewhere between the cerebral and the familiar, as when he explained his philosophy of a decentralized organization and its responsibilities to the people it serves: “Power (ideally) in the United States has been dispersed and Madisonian in nature along multiple organization (internal and external) paradigms,” he wrote, a reference to James Madison’s seminal Federalist essay about competing interests reflecting a society’s pluralism. “Power is still Madisonian, now being dispersed amongst residents, service groups and community leaders. This strengthens our communities. This is good. Kennedy once said “A rising tide lifts all boats”. This new Madisonian [dispersion] asks us to realign our service(s) to ensure people are empowered and have a boat in the first place.”

Cuff during the hiring process had been reserved about Morton’s fondness for language primed for professional conferences. And that preamble to his 60-Day Report verged on the esoteric if it wasn’t for what followed–a point-by-point  outline of organizational changes and approaches with other governments or major contractors such as Waste Pro, the garbage hauler, or changes within the administration that reevaluate who’s doing what and to what purpose, including the innumerable “teams” Landon, his predecessor, was so fond of. “Some teams have shifted to be without clear purpose, work plans or vision of accomplishment,” he wrote. He wants them better designed to “reduce the number of problems before they start.”

The document had only cursory references to new or replacement hires. The last few days’ changes filled that in.

29 Responses for “Shake-Up at Palm Coast City Hall: 3 Directors and 2 Managers Resign, Yielding to New Manager Morton’s Headwind”

  1. Jules Kwiatkowski says:

    I was sad to hear that Cindy resigned,She had a lot of responsibilities to handle and she handled them well.She will be missed by all especially the Palm Coast graduates.Something doesn’t sound right.

  2. jamesbiondo says:

    its about time we have some new people with the city of palm coast govt that seen what been going on . if things were as smooth some as they say all this would not be coming out .managers in certain departments ruled there employees with threats ,false allegation’s ,if you question them or made a comment you had a target on your back even your coworkers were scared to talk because they needed to keep their jobs and feed their families. this is only the tip of the ice burg.

  3. Percy's mother says:

    To all those city employees who’ve left: Please don’t let the door hit you on the way out.

    The City is more than overdue for a thorough house cleaning. Hopefully there’ll be more resignations . ..

    Anyone from the building department, permitting, etc, thinking about resigning? Please think about it seriously.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Bullshit they were fired , I know this for a fact or they were told to leave via their resignation

  5. John B says:

    I can’t believe that they hired Kewley at over 100k. With less than two years experience working on previous cities network. (Review of his resume submitted for city manager position) That level of experience doesn’t warrant that kind of salary. Klufas needs to take his fiber and go home. We can’t afford his special project when there are so many day to day things that need to be taken care of. Now adding this position and adding another $100k plus to the overall cost. Holland and Klufas are spending our money like a there is no tomorrow.
    Lets see the justification….

  6. Business nomenclature says:

    Finally a leader that understands a town should be led with Corporate mentality and the workflow process! Let’s use process mapping, checking that not everything should be another team, another meeting, etc. Evaluate all current business deliverables and ask why are we doing the tasks and what are the results being used for. This could identify unproductive time by valuable employees.

    Take a step, a breath, and find talent you need to complete the dynamic team, then have them build the talented resources within their deliverables to achieve the best and optimum results.

    Make us, the residents, more self-sufficient with technology access to free your resources to build a stronger support of knowledge, information, technology, guidelines,and cleaning up the errors and omissions of past members of leaders and managers .

    New time gained by the residents being self sufficient will permit employees to receive valuable training and be cross trained for a stronger more formidable organization.

    I am encouraged by this leadership style, and would enjoy reading the full report on the overview of what the vision is when the migration is complete.

  7. Doug says:

    Sonny & Cher come to mind…and the Beat Goes On…

  8. Realist says:

    It is long time past the point of draining the local swamp. As someone who has a long history with the City, I can attest that things were much better when ITT ran it.

  9. Me says:

    So what, does it really matter? Apparently change was needed.

  10. Agkistrodon says:

    The city cannot afford to put in and maintain street lights,or functional storm drains but they can maintain a Fiber network? Que that Banjo music………..

  11. TheChad says:

    Good Riddance,

    Wendy Cullen was the shadiest of the bunch. It’s great that they are cleaning house. There is a lot of good hard working people at the city who are mistreated and Wendy did nothing.

  12. C says:

    Make positives changes Mr. Morgan,
    No need to provide lucrative salaries. Please put an end to the corruption and back door dealing at city hall. Unwisely wasting tax payer’s money. It is just not right. Purse charges against the former head of building inspection Mini, he’s been wheeling and dealing for over 10 years. Take action Mr. Morgan, drain the swamp in Palm Coast.

  13. TheTruth says:

    Good news. Out with the old in with the new.

  14. John dolan esq. says:

    I believe these employees were forced to resign. This is what happens when poor management has the power. This is why labor unions were created. But in a “right to work ” state unions have no binding arbitration. Thus the chaos and unfair consequences for the workers. The same for Flagler County.

  15. gmath55 says:

    @ John dolan esq. – Palm Coast is Flagler County. Did you mean Flagler Beach?

  16. flaglerflyer says:

    This is great news! The only downside is that there should be several others who should have been on the list. Let’s hope there are more to come.

    A big thanks to Matt for doing what needs to be done.

  17. Dave says:

    Everyone who has resigned should know that just because you quit does not mean you can hide from the investigation that is coming. If you did wrong it will come out and you will be held accountable! It is clear that the old ways of Flagler County Government are not working and there is a pattern forming. Let’s try voting and promoting another way in the south because the old ways and the people who stand for them havemt proven themselves worthy.

  18. Thomas says:

    I am suspicious.
    Perhaps the problem is the new City Manager, and not the fired employees

  19. Just Sayin says:

    The city is looking to give away its fiber optic network to an external contractor:

    The same fiber optic network that you, citizen, paid for. Additionally, the city is going to release to this new contractor all of it’s own business on that same fiber optic network, and wrap that pile of steamy doo into pretty words such as “public/private partnership”.

    The city of Palm Coast is onto it’s THIRD technology director in the course of a year. Clearly there are issues there. But now they’ve hired a person from the other side of the country whom has held no less than SEVEN jobs in the last, well, seven years, and given him a shiny title of “Chief Innovation Officer”, whatever that means.

    So to put two plus two together here for you all, we’ve hired a new Director of Technology (third in a year mind ya), ALONG WITH the newly created position of Chief Innovation Officer (both collectively well over quarter a million in salaries and incentives), ALONG WITH looking to give away all of the Fibernet services to an external entity.

    As a great USMC Colonel once declared: “Buncha idiots.”

  20. David S. says:

    Get rid of the mayor next…..

  21. starryid says:

    Hopefully the changes that will be most beneficial will be a result of 2020 election when we elect a Mayor that has better discretion on how the taxpayers money should be spent and has higher priorities than $8 million Community Center renovations, $3 million park renovations and granting her “other” employer Coastal Cloud ‘partnerships’ with our city….

  22. Shark says:

    What about the mayor ?????????

  23. Flagmire says:

    This is troubling. It is unlikely that in less than three months as city manager that this many managers could have been deemed unsalvageable. One or two may have had to have been let go, a few more put on notice, some might need coaching. Leadership involves listening, even when you don’t like what you’re hearing so you can make the best possible decisions. And change is always hard. But this looks more like a firing squad than a careful and measured management decision. It also seems ridiculous to be spouting off about the federalist papers. What it tells me is that you took a course on leadership in college and have no idea what you’re doing. The fact is there weren’t any really great candidates for city manager. And that’s a real problem. Because now you have many vacant leadership positions to fill and, honestly, you come off badly to potential applicants. The city council should investigate this matter thoroughly. Who knows, it could be the right call. But that seems unlikely given the numbers and strange language.

  24. starryid says:

    Hopefully, more changes will occur in the 2020 election and we’ll elect a Mayor that has stronger priorities than $8 million Community Center renovations, $3 million park renovations and awarding City contracts to her “other” employer Coastal Cloud…

  25. Karen S says:

    Instead of spending over $11 million on community center and park why not put more police in this city

  26. Peter Moss says:

    Wise to clean house! VERY wise!

  27. Tom Stevens says:

    Nester Abreu’s departure is good for the city. He was dishonest in my opinion. He ran some good people out of a job due to this dishonesty. I remember when he was a Dept head over Code Enforcement years ago and lied and orchestrated an employees departure.

  28. Thomas H says:

    Glad Nestor Abreu is gone. I can remember way back when he was over code enforcement and ran a few people out of there. They were good people and Nestor Abreu was dishonest and shady in how he handled the situation.

  29. wendy m smith says:

    I have long awaited the breakup of the ” buddy’s” and “in the back pocketers” to be let loose. Too much goodie pity me stories that are intended to influence city people to vote in their direction and I have seen too many fall that old way of election plan. I plan on voting very wisely…maybe many more will be gone..we have to be the change.If not and continue to look other way and let others keep making ego decisions we will fall the wayside and crumble as a rotten city. I have been here over 30 yrs and seen it go from bad to worse to worse…it saddens me terrible..we do not always have to compete to be the best of everything..

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