Last Updated: 5 p.m.
The Flagler County administration this morning sent an ultimatum to Clerk of Court Tom Bexley to “make available an additional 5,000 square feet of space on the first floor” of the county courthouse by July 31. There is no “or else” in the county’s ultimatum.
The letter follows up on a unanimous County Commission vote on May 21 directing the county administrator to secure the additional space for the sheriff, and was prompted last week by County Commissioner Dave Sullivan, who is out of patience. Asked what the consequences would be if Bexley were to ignore the ultimatum, Sullivan said: “I would say we’ll hold Mr Bexley responsible for anything that does not conform to what we’ve asked for in this letter.”
The letter also reflects at least one commissioner’s frustration with what had been an unresponsive administration, even after Sheriff Rick Staly had himself penned a sharply written letter in the last week of June to Donald O’Brien, the county commission chairman, asking for action.
Sullivan on July 2 or 3 handed Heidi Petito, who was the acting administrator during the holiday week, an outline in seven bullet points of what he wanted a letter to Bexley to read like, asking Petito to draft the formal letter. Sullivan said this morning the letter merely reiterates the direction of the commission. “And since there isn’t a meeting until next Monday, I felt strongly about this and therefore had an individual conversation with our county administrator, acting at the time,” Sullivan said. “I have no idea what the other commissioners have done in the same time period between those meetings.”
Sullivan’s first bullet point, handwritten in capital letters, was: “Time is up.” Other points were that any alternative space away from the courthouse could cost up to $1 million, and that temporary space at the courthouse “now has an end date.” (The county is building a large operations center, or district office, for the sheriff near the public library in Palm Coast.) Sullivan also specified that 4,000 to 5,000 square feet should be made available “within two weeks of this letter’s date!”
Petito’s letter begins by noting the commission’s May 21 direction, then applauds Bexley in various ways for what help he has provided so far before unholstering more weaponized words: “Yet, the time has come for County Administration to step in during this impasse to provide additional room within the Justice Center for the Sheriff’s daily operational needs.”
The letter was emailed to Bexley just after 9 this morning. FlaglerLive had learned of the letter on Tuesday and requested it late in the day. A draft was provided this morning shortly before 9, and the letter itself, unchanged from the draft, was provided after 9 a.m. The letter is dated July 3 and signed by Petito, not Administrator Jerry Cameron, even though Cameron has been back from a week off and was in the office this week and this morning, before the letter went out.
“I think the letter was probably drafted last week by Heidi and Jerry decided, well, the way to go is let her sign it under her name as of July 3,” Sullivan said. “I just think it’s strange it didn’t come out until this morning, yet it’s dated July 3.” Julie Murphy, the county’s spokesperson, explained that the letter bears Petito’s name because “all of it transpired while she was acting administrator.” But the letter’s signature reinforces a sense that Cameron is not willing himself to be the confrontational one.
Bexley had not responded to calls to his office or cell phone by the time this story initially ran, but in an interview after midday he sounded unfazed by the letter. “We’re going to continue our current situation. Nothing will change in my office,” he said. He wasn’t sure what approach the commission could or would take next, but he was sure of his response. “If they gave me an order, I wouldn’t comply with it. If they sue me in circuit court, I would defend it,” Bexley said.
Bexley reiterated what he’d said before: that he would not compromise his own operations anymore than the county would want to compromise the sheriff’s. He spoke in terms of trust, saying the commission implicitly trusts the sheriff when the sheriff makes his case for space, “as it should” Bexley said of the commission. “The thing that bothers me is me being the trustee of the public dollars and such, I’m not being given the same consideration, I don’t think.” When he tells the board that he needs his own space for his staff and his responsibilities, he said, “I’m not extended that same trust, and that’s what bothers me.”
Bexley on Tuesday was in Orlando at a meeting related to the state’s funding of four new judges, one of them in Flagler County. That new county judge position will require Bexley to add staff as support–four positions in all, two funded by the state, two by the county. “So while the county is talking about shrinking my physical footprint, I’m adding people,” he said. “That’s another reason that it’s not feasible.” He said he expects further discussions with the commission at its next meeting (on July 15), though on that day he will be on a vacation scheduled a long time ago. His deputy, Luke Givens, will likely address the commission, he said.
“It boils down to either the comm will decide they have the authority to do this, our county attorney thinks that is probably a position that may not be supported,” Cameron said in late afternoon. “It would be very unfortunate. It’s unfortunate that we may end up having to spend anywhere from half a million to upward of over a million dollars for rental space for the next two to three years if this can’t be resolved.” The shame of any legal fight would be a cost to taxpayers, Cameron said.
The county is the landlord of all county buildings, including the courthouse. The sheriff has been occupying space on the first, second and third floors of the Kim Hammond Justice Center–as the county courthouse is known–for over a year since evacuating the troubled and possibly sick Operations Center in Bunnell.
Bexley made space available at the courthouse, as did other agencies, but the sheriff’s personnel, particularly the detectives’ division, has been cramped and asking for additional and more autonomous space, to protect confidential interviews, records and the like. Bexley has resisted, saying he’s made ample space available and can’t provide more without compromising his own operation and jeopardizing his legal mandates.
The commission’s May 21 vote was clear enough, but Cameron, not keen on confrontation or triggering what he termed a possible “constitutional crisis,” did not follow through after the vote with an actual order, or request, to the clerk. He asked County Attorney Al Hadeed for legal direction. Hadeed produced a “food for thought” memo short on legally-grounded arguments but long on counsel to commissioners urging against confrontation.
Petito’s letter relies on “the best interest of our taxpayers” to press the point that looking for alternative space away from the courthouse would not be feasible. Bexley has previously said that the county should go that route, and that it can sometimes be costly. The lease of new space, Petito wrote, “would be in the millions of dollars over the next two to three years” (a somewhat inflated characterization: Sullivan’s notes termed it “as much as $1 million,” and Cameron previously said that the costs would be in the hundreds of thousands, accumulating each year.)
“While it is never my intention or the intention of the Board of County Commissioners to put the needs of one constitutional officer above another’s,” Petito’s letter read, “we have been attempting to promote cooperation with and among all stakeholders involved. We feel it is in the public’s best interest if we are able to resolve these differences cooperatively.” Petito, who is the county’s facilities director, noted what several county and sheriff’s officials have been saying privately for the past several months: that the courthouse was built last decade with a 30-year outlook for growth, and that it was still considerably underused, since the growth it was planned for didn’t begin until after the Great Recession. The four-story building, the letter states, “still has ample space.”
Staly, too, in his June 25 letter to the commission chairman, recommended against leasing new space, “as that is not in the best interest of our taxpayers,” he wrote.
To Bexley, however, the current layout is such that making the first-floor space available to the sheriff would hamper his own staff’s operations. The sheriff is looking to build a temporary physical partition on the first floor that would more clearly delineate his operations from those of the clerk’s. “Although it is challenging to rearrange your personnel and attempt to accommodate your operations,” Petito’s letter reads, “it is clearly our only realistic solution to fix the Sheriff’s fragmented operations.”
“I thought it was a good letter, it was succinct, to the point and basically puts the ball back into the clerk’s court to respond to our specific ask,” O’Brien said. “I don’t know that we’ve ever put a specific ask in writing, which is what this is. There is a possibility he’d respond no. The next step would be for the commission to decide whether we’d want to do something legal about it.”
“It’s the aftermath of a very poor decision to put the sheriff’s office in an unfit building,” Commissioner Joe Mullins said in a text. “I hate to see things progress this way but it’s time this gets resolved so we can move forward.”