Last Updated: 5:54 p.m.
Out of patience with a stalemate over space allocations at the county courthouse, Sheriff Rick Staly today wrote County Commission Chairman Donald O’Brien that “the county cannot continue to ‘kick the can down the road,'” and that it is legally obliged to provide adequate space for sheriff’s operations’ needs. Conditions at the courthouse, Staly wrote in the three-page letter, have become untenable in an arrangement “likely not in compliance with Florida law” and attorney general opinions.
“It’s a good turn-up the heat letter, he makes some good, salient points,” O’Brien said this afternoon. “Yeah, we haven’t identified any solutions as of today. It’s all true.” O’Brien said the issue will be revisited at the commission’s next meeting, which isn’t scheduled until July 15.
Sheriff’s personnel evacuated the Operations Center on Moody Boulevard in Bunnell in June 2018 over health concerns. They were redistributed over three floors at the courthouse and at the sheriff’s former administration building near the county jail. The arrangement, Staly said, was supposed to be for 90 days. “The current temporary arrangement is not remotely adequate and my employees cannot continue to operate in these working conditions,” Staly wrote. “Action must be taken swiftly to resolve a better interim solution.”
The letter echoes the same urgency and call for action that the sheriff used just over a year ago to compel then-Administrator Craig Coffey and the county commission to provide a healthier space for employees, by which time nearly 30 of them had filed workers’ compensation claims. (Coincidentally, lawyers representing the employees this week were conducting depositions with County Commissioner Joe Mullins, who was among county officials inspecting the building in December.) Then too, the county’s response did not echo the sheriff’s urgency. The tepid response eventually contributed to Coffey’s firing. He was forced to resign in January.
Staly doesn’t tell O’Brien what he wants as much as he tells him that he wants something done. He hints at a preference: “I do not recommend a lease of new temporary office space as that is not in the best interest of our taxpayers,” Staly writes, perhaps anticipating the commission’s default choice: absent pushing the issue at the courthouse, it would have to lease new space, and have taxpayers pay for it. “But,” the sheriff continues, “we are at a crisis point and this situation can no longer be allowed to continue with no resolution in sight. It is time to take real action with a realistic temporary and cost effective solution that can be implemented quickly until the new District Office is built. This situation demands action.” A $12 to $15 million district office is planned in Palm Coast. There’s been no visible movement on that end, but Staly said the movement behind the scenes has been swift, with a space study under way and requests for proposal to select an architect in the works.
County Administrator Jerry Cameron said he is again exploring the possibility of leasing space elsewhere: “We’re looking at the building on US1 on Otis Hunter again, to see how much it would cost to do a build-out,” Cameron said. That building is the 20,000 square foot structure privately built but with $90,000 in county subsidies. It’s intended to attract new economic development prospects. There’s been none. Preparing the building for the sheriff’s uses would cost several hundred thousand dollars. Leasing it would cost several hundred thousand more a year, and defeat the purpose of the county subsidy.
“Here’s the problem with that,” Staly said of the 20,000 square foot building: “That’s four to six months’ construction, and by then if the county stays on track with the new district office, you only need to lease it for 12 to 18 months, so why waste that money?” Instead, Staly said, he’d rather that sort of money be spent on his request for additional deputies.
The lowest-cost option remains either sticking with the present arrangement at the courthouse, or expanding on it.
Clerk of Court Tom Bexley has repeatedly said that he’s provided ample space and cannot provide more without compromising his own operations–and possibly ending up in violation of his office’s own legal requirements. In May, the county commission, in a vote, directed Cameron to find the necessary space–at the courthouse. But Cameron has been resistant to trigger a confrontation with Bexley.
“It boils down to a constitutional question on who has the authority, and to statutory questions,” Cameron said Monday, referring to the authority of a county commission to push a constitutional officer on such things as space matters. “And unfortunately the statutes are very vague on that, and there’s no case law. Al Hadeed is working to resolve that. My goal is to handle the question without precipitating a constitutional crisis.” Hadeed is the county attorney. In mid-June, he wrote commissioners to urge them not to cause a confrontation, and to still strive to work out the issue short of legal action.
O’Brien wants to further explore that issue with Hadeed, as it was O’Brien’s understanding that the commission’s May vote was explicit: to have the county administrator secure more space at the courthouse, under the legal provision that the commission is the landlord. “I still would like to see that be the solution,” O’Brien said.
Staly has been careful to steer clear of any appearance of confrontation with the clerk. He pointedly doesn’t mention the clerk or the clerk’s office in the letter, placing the responsibility for providing space squarely on the commission. “This is not an argument between the clerk and myself, this is a landlord tenant issue,” he said in an interview. “There’s two tenants, and there’s one landlord.”
He frames the letter in legal terms, citing Florida law and opinions by the attorney general, and in a point-by-point description of conditions for detectives and others contending with “an 82 percent reduction in workspace” that he says has had material effect on the work produced.
Among the issues Staly describes: Some 17 detectives, working out of a single room designed for 11 people, can’t interview suspects without hunting for interview rooms in other police agencies, wasted time that can be the difference between a successful interview and a dead end. They cannot have confidential conversations with victims or sources without hunting for private space. Their own chief of detectives can’t have confidential conversations with them about their cases because he’s “embedded in the operations of another agency.” Describing other similar limitations, including on developing new crime-fighting units, the letter repeatedly punctuates each paragraph with an italicized refrain: “Again, this is not providing necessary space.”
The sheriff was also displeased with the perceived slowness of a county plan to build two structures on Justice Lane, near the jail, to be used as temporary space for the Crime Scene Investigations unit and for evidence. The commission approved the plan on April 1, “but to date the land has not even been cleared for construction,” he wrote. “This situation cannot continue.” Heidi Petito, the county’s general services director–who presented the project to the commission in April–said the county was taking delivery of materials for the buildings either today or this week, and that the land, being in Bunnell, had to be rezoned, a step that included “Bunnell’s rigorous process” for rezoning. “Then we have to get back in front of Bunnell for a site plan approval,” Petito said. “Once we have everything the total time to build is three months.”
What if the county commission were to continue delaying a decision on space? Staly in this evening’;s interview put it this way: “Obviously my staff and I and my attorney have discussed that. We have a plan that if we have to go further we will. At this point I’m encouraging the county to quit kicking the can down the road. We’ll cross that bridge if we have to. I think the commission knows it’s a problem, they want it resolved, and I think the majority of the commission wants to resolve it at the most cost-effective way for the taxpayer, but that’s for the commission and the administrator need to work that out. I think my letter speaks for itself.” He added: “I guess my real point is that the county can’t just keep pushing and deferring to the county administrator to do something. My hope is they will give him clear direction on what to do.”