The Flagler County Commission, its administration and its attorney tried various ways over the past months to get Clerk of Court Tom Bexley to give up more space than he already has for the sheriff’s needs at the courthouse. They failed. Tonight, they decided to try a threat.
The county commission voted to sue Bexley in 48 hours if he does not respond to the county’s latest ask, a two-part request. First, they want Bexley to agree to a space study at the courthouse, conducted by an independent party, that may or may not show that there is more space that may be allocated to the sheriff. Second, they want Bexley to comply with the results of the study. Absent concessions on either steps, the county will sue for space.
In other words, it will file suit in circuit court, with a judge required to be from outside the Seventh Judicial Circuit, for an evidentiary hearing that would punt the decision on space to a judge.
Short of the clerk conceding to the findings of a study, a lawsuit could mean months of litigation, longer if the case is appealed, in effect letting the clerk use the clock to his advantage while the sheriff’s needs are left wanting.
Getting even to the point of threatening a lawsuit Monday evening was laborious, if not agonizing, with neither Bexley nor Sheriff Rick Staly in the room, though their deputies (Chief Mark Strobridge and Luke Givens) were. One member of the public who addressed the commission said “you can cut the tension with a knife.”
None of the five county commissioners wanted to make a decision. Their meeting dragged on, dragging along with it the latest edition of the discussion about Staly’s need for more space than the clerk of court has yielded. Ninety minutes into it Commissioner Donald O’Brien asked if anyone had a motion. No one did. The commissioners punted to public comment. It didn’t add clarity.
And County Administrator Jerry Cameron had already cautioned: “It seems to me there’s very little likelihood that we’re going to reach some kind of voluntary solution at the courthouse.”
The indecision was a reflection of a choice that wasn’t really a choice. Commissioners had the same three options they’ve had for months: They could do nothing, which is what they’ve been doing for more than a year since the sheriff evacuated the Bunnell operations center and moved dozens of personnel into the courthouse. They recognize that the sheriff’s situation at the courthouse is no longer tenable. But they’ve recognized that for months. They could rent the sheriff new space for what could eventually cost $1 million until a new operations center is built in Palm Coast, which commissioners don’t want to do and Staly is not favoring. (It’s the option Bexley favors, however.) They could hope for Bexley giving ground, literally, though he’s repeatedly said he won’t give more than the 8,000 square feet he’s given–and did so again through his deputy this evening.
Or they could force the issue, act as the landlord that the county is, and either seize the space or force a legal action that would require a court’s determination. Commissioner Dave Sullivan said the impasse “does need clarification, and it may well be the only way to resolve this, through a legal determination.”
Near the two-hour mark of the discussion, Sullivan, who’s become the commission’s impasse-breaker time after time, made just that motion. It eventually took a shape as convoluted as the discussion had been–as indeed all matters related to the issue have been.
He said the situation required legal clarity and directed County Attorney Al Hadeed to start legal proceedings to determine whether the county commission has the “full rights” to determine exact spacing allocations in a building owned by the commission. In the meantime, Sullivan’s motion went on, the hope is that the parties involved–that is, Bexley and the county administration, not the sheriff–are continuing discussions, with a letter prepared by the county administrator to ask the clerk if he’d be willing to accept the results of a space study. That letter would have to be answered in 48 hours.
Givens told the commission that Bexley wouldn’t be available for a week. Commissioner Greg Hansen was willing to set the deadline at 10 days, Sullivan was not.
“Why is that?” Sullivan asked Givens of Bexley’s whereabouts. Earlier in the evening, Sullivan had remarked that “it’d be nice of Tom showed up tonight.”
Givens said Bexley was “indisposed.” (Bexley told FlaglerLive last week that he’d be on a long-scheduled vacation.)
The commission also voted to hire a law firm that would carry out the lawsuit. It was just before 9 p.m. when the commission finally made its decisions, nearly four hours after starting its meeting.
Several commissioners had hoped to avoid either step and repeatedly spoke of the need for more negotiations with Bexley, though Hansen and Sullivan were critical of the clerk of court not responding to emails or letters, and Cameron, the county administrator, was almost angry with Givens when Givens revealed that the clerk had conducted his own space study in early June–but never revealed the results to the county. Givens said the county never asked. “In all candor I wouldn’t expect as an attorney on an examination to have to ask the exact right question to get an answer,” Cameron seethed.
“What’s missing here is a dialogue,” Hadeed said before quoting the famous line from a movie: “‘What we have here is a failure to communicate,’ effectively, I will add that word to the quote.” Hadeed had just spoken of Bexley failing to reply to emails or letters. But it’s not clear if Hadeed intended to place the county in the role of the sadistic warden who speaks the line in the famous Paul Newman movie, “Cool Hand Luke,” especially given the first name of Bexley’s deputy in the room: Luke (who maintained remarkably cool throughout).
Considering the tenor of the evening, the statements made about Bexley’s absence, the statements made to Givens and the threatening motion, it was unlikely that Bexley would somehow have what Hansen had earlier described as a “kumbaya” moment, and more likely that he would “stand our ground,” as he’s said before. The litigation will mean that Bexley will hire counsel, the commission will hire counsel, and the sheriff, possibly, would hire counsel, if he or his personnel is to be deposed, all of it depleting the very same coffer that, ironically, Bexley audits.
“It is an extremely challenging, expensive process, and it is without a doubt placing the taxpayer as the ultimate loser,” Hadeed told commissioners. “There isn’t a winner in that type of case, there is a big loser, and that is the taxpayer.” Perhaps speaking from a blind spot common to lawyers, he neglected to mention that there would indeed be very big winners: the lawyers involved. Hadeed is not among them since the commission voted to outsource the case.