The message was as clear as the picture illustrating a Flagler County Sheriff’s release issued Saturday: here were the agencies detectives and other personnel, in a noon briefing on the investigation into the murder of 17-year-old Elijah Rizvan in Palm Coast the previous evening. The release said nothing more than that the investigation was continuing. But the picture was intended to show a team of a dozen or more people cramped around cubicles not made for the purpose. (Only 10 people are in the picture, but more were off camera.)
The release did not have to make Sheriff Rick Staly’s message explicit. Anyone who’s been following the wrangle between the sheriff, county government and the clerk of court in the last several months would have picked up on the image’s lobbying purpose, issued a day and a half before the county commission was to address the sheriff’s space issues at the county courthouse.
The sheriff has been using space there since having to evacuate his operations center in Bunnell more than a year ago. He wants more space, saying his operations are compromised without it. Clerk of Court Tom Bexley says he’s given as much as he can. He says he cannot give more without compromising his own operations, and will not give more.
In case anyone missed the point of the picture, Staly did make it explicit in an email to county commissioners shortly after the release went out. “I wanted to provide you a real-world example of the current inadequate space and working conditions we are dealing with,” Staly wrote the commissioners. He described the conditions of the briefing, with some of his personnel sitting on the floor, “in commandeered cubicles, borrowed grease board (ours are in mold ops as we have no place to put them in the courthouse) to go over the case and make assignments. Fortunately it was Saturday and the building was vacant as this would have been totally impossible otherwise. And, I’m sure the Clerk did not want us in this area which is comingled with my investigations chief office. This why we must have adequate space immediately, not weeks or months from now. We cannot continue to work under these conditions. It is not fair to my employees or to the community that expects us to solve crimes committed upon them.” (From the sheriff’s perspective, the crime was solved in less than 30 hours, with an arrest of a 16 year old.)
The sheriff added: “Again, I do not advocate renting space that costs taxpayers significant amounts of money that would be better spent on the new building or providing them more deputies. I believe you own and control sufficient space that can solve this situation in the interim period.” In other words, more space at the courthouse.
Staly and Bexley have time after time said publicly that the dispute is not between them, that’s it’s merely a landlord-tenant issue. But the reality is that the dispute is pitting two constitutional officers’ needs against each other, with the county, as landlord, seeking to arbitrate. Because the county administration has not followed through on the County Commission’s May vote to resolve the matter one way or another, the dispute has lingered, built further resentments, and caused a commissioner to ask the administration to issue an ultimatum to the clerk, which it did last week. The clerk said he’ll ignore it or fight it, should it turn into a legal action.
Bexley was out of town today on a previously scheduled vacation. His deputy, Luke Givens, said that to his knowledge neither Bexley nor anyone in his office had gotten the picture of the sheriff’s briefing or “any notification of any of the items mentioned.” But, Givens said on behalf of Bexley in an email, “I’m sure that Mr. Bexley couldn’t agree with the Sheriff more. The situation we are in – one of inadequate space for both the Sheriff and the Clerk to do our jobs-is nearly 14 months in the making. The BOCC is responsible for ensuring adequate space for our county’s constitutional officers, all of them.” The BOCC is the acronym for the Board of County Commissioners.
“Providing for one at the expense of another is irresponsible and a dereliction of their duty,” Givens continued. “The photo that Mr. Bexley has seen, of the Sheriff’s team crammed into cubicles on a night they were working to solve a murder is a gross illustration of just how far the BOCC has kicked the can down the road, choosing political expediency over doing the right thing.”
The right thing, in Bexley’s estimation–as reiterated previously–is for the county to rent new space for the sheriff.
Neither Bexley nor Staly likely expected that a new voice, more powerful than either–and more powerful than the county commission–would factor into the debate going into tonight’s meeting: that of Raul Zambrano, the chief judge of the Seventh Judicial Circuit, which includes Flagler County, and the judge who picked up where the legendary Kim Hammond left off in 2010, serving in Flagler many years before moving to Volusia.
Zambrano, never known for indulging defendants or suffering squabblers, is not too happy with the open-ended situation that’s developed at the Flagler County courthouse. He let it be known in an unusually personal, at times even lyrical, four-page, single-spaced July 12 letter that bluntly warned: “A quasi forced taking of courthouse space sets a terrible precedent. The courthouse was not built for the purpose of being overflow space for any entity.” Least of all for a police agency that could compromise the “independent status” and fairness of the judiciary, at least in public perceptions when the two are blended.
“I cringe,” Zambrano went on, “at the thought that someone may choose to forego coming into the building out of any fear of concern, whether real or imagined, because of an overwhelming presence of law enforcement officers.”
It may be all the cover County Administrator Jerry Cameron needed to vindicate his approach, which so far has tended toward delaying and deferring the issue rather than confronting it head on, because he did not want to cause a “constitutional crisis,” in his words (though Cameron had never formulated the issue in the words or reasoning of the chief judge).
Monday morning, Cameron sent a memo to commissioners summarizing what he would recommend on the matter at this evening’s commission meeting. The recommendation risks furthering delays–and perhaps some resentments–as it appears to put off a decision yet again onto a consultant of sorts.
“I would ask the Board to direct me at Monday’s meeting to engage an expert to inform the Board how much space may be available,” Cameron wrote in his memo, dated today. “This would be accompanied by an estimated cost to reconfigure the courthouse to accommodate the Sheriff without unduly disrupting the Clerk’s functions or judicial operations.” But the county’s facilities department is supposed to be the expert in those matters. Cameron, loath to confront the clerk directly, would rather defer the arbitrating decision away from his office.
Cameron cited a 1964 Attorney general’s opinion that “requires us to base a decision as to the allocation of courthouse space on factual evidence.” Cameron, like the sheriff, acknowledged that “the specter of the taxpayers having to pick up a large bill as an alternative solution requires that we try to utilize existing facilities.” But unlike the sheriff, Cameron said that may ultimately not be possible. “If accommodations for the Sheriff cannot be arranged in the Courthouse they must be found elsewhere regardless of the fact that it will constitute a considerable financial burden.”
And just as the sheriff had sent out a picture to prove his point, Cameron was citing Zambrano’s letter to buttress his.
Zambrano had written of “the misperception of having the Sheriff’s Office co-located within the courthouse,” but also of what he saw as a “substantial change in circumstances”: what had initially been portrayed to him as a temporary arrangement was now turning into a much more open ended need which he did not feel could be similarly accommodated. “The fact that a forced resolution is being brought upon brings me no joy for I know that it is the taxpayers who pay when constitutional officers clash,” Zambrano wrote.
The chief judge (who wrote before Saturday’s release by the sheriff) bookended his oddly artful letter in his own real-world examples of judicial make-do: almost the entirety of his first two pages were devoted to a detailed description, never before revealed from a judge’s perspective, of the conditions judges and others lived with, complete with errant and decomposing rats, at the old courthouse in Flagler County, of how “the county waited too long to replace the old courthouse” (Zambrano is never short of admonishments), but also how, “when they did replace it they did it right.” He then went into an Grotius-like “definition of a courthouse” before turning prosecutor in a bulletized indictment of the current situation–veiled as mere items for commissioners to “consider–before ending on his second example of what it takes to accommodate difficult space needs: Because a hurricane destroyed a judicial facility in Daytona Beach, “we’re about to start operating out of a shopping center with a temporary courtroom.” It’ll be a few years before an actual courthouse is built.
“Until then we have adapted and delivered regardless of the impediments,” Zambrano wrote. “I sincerely pray that Flagler County does the same.”