Flagler Beach voters are engaged. A pair of election forums ahead of the city’s March 17 election drew packed houses on Tuesday and Thursday this week, giving voters a brisk look at the four candidates running for two seats on the Flagler Beach City Commission: Ken Bryan, Paul Harrington, Deborah Phillips, and Marshall Shupe, the only incumbent. Phillips ran before in Flagler Beach. Bryan is a former St. Johns county commissioner.
In contrast with the city election two years ago, which also featured four candidates, there are fewer sharp differences between the four candidates this time around and no overt antipathies between them. Each is poised, intelligent, more thoughtful than strident, their personalities unveiled in their demeanor: Harrington and Shupe have an Everyman modesty about them, Phillips, a former executive–she’s a retired vice president of the Northern Trust Company in Chicago–so much more seasoned than when she first ran, seems eager to get her hand on a gavel, and Bryan speaks with the command and polish of a man with the military and politics in his blood.
Unlike other races in the county, there are no wild cards in Flagler Beach, no ideological zealots or mislaid narcissists posing as candidates. There was not a single sling-shot by any one candidate against the other, no criticism, veiled or overt. “We got four good people up here,” Harrington said.
The Flagler Woman’s Club hosted the first forum on Tuesday with Margaret Sheehan-Jones, the Realtor and a long-time member of the club, fielding written questions from the audience. Preserve Flagler Beach and Bulow Creek, the group organized to oppose proposed development on John Anderson Highway, hosted the other forum at the United Methodist Church on South Daytona Avenue Thursday, with former County Commissioner Barbara Revels, a core member of the group, fielding questions. Bryan is also one of the core members of the group.
Despite Preserve Flagler Beach’s focused interest on one particular development–The Gardens–the questions posed at its forum were not dissimilar to those posed at the Woman’s Club, though there were more of them: on vacation rentals, on swales, flood maps, recycling, parks, and of course the pier. Notably, certain questions often asked at previous forums on municipal issues–about the city manager, about the commission’s functionality, about the police or fire departments or employee morale–never once came up.
The candidates’ remarks not surprisingly echoed what they said from one event to the other when the questions were similar. The following account combines reporting from both forums.
Air Force and Navy veteran, has a management degree, “whenever they told me I wasn’t qualified, I went back and got another degree.” Moved to Flagler four years ago after 13 years in St. Augustine, where he’d been a commissioner. He said his name has been in the papers “quite a bit,” what he called “free publicity,” an oblique reference to the fact that he is being sued by the land management company whose subsidiary is planning The Gardens development in Flagler Beach. “It is what it is, I have strong convictions. I work in the community and I do what I think is right,” he said. He is not opposed to development, he said, but opposes “large-scale, mega-development” that changes the complexion of the town and its “unique characteristics.” He doesn’t want to see 12-story buildings in town (there is no such proposal on the horizon: city ordinances limit heights at 35 feet). He is concerned about how to pay for the pier–presumably its next incarnation, back to its pre-Hurricane Matthew length–and the city’s water and sewer system in coming years.
Harrington was a general contractor who built his first house on 10 acres when he was 19, in West Virginia. With six years in the National Guard, he has an education in planning and architectural drawing, built affordable housing in Maryland and other projects, crewed on a sailboat for four years and experienced storms in the middle of the ocean. He’s also raised his children as a single parent. In 1991 he got laid off and became self-employed since, building and renovating houses and getting involved with environmentally protective organizations and clean-up projects. “Smart development is OK if we approach it right,” he said. “Right across the river, we have–they want to put The Gardens in, we need to preserve a lot of that green space,” he said. “We have two developments to the north, Palm Coast Plantation and Marina del Palma as an example of what we could end up with across the river. We have the sewage and the water that they need. We need to work together with them. Maybe we can make it work right.”
Phillips is running for the second time. “My granddaughter attends Old Kings Elementary school and I want to ensure that her future in our town is bright,” she said. She and her husband moved from Chicago three years ago–she was a banker there for 36 years–opening a gift shop two years ago, and wasting no time to run for city commission. Her impatience and ambition–she did not take long to become her homeowners’ association president–showed humorously and to quite a bit of laughter when she said she’d attended Flagler Beach’s Citizens Academy last year “to learn how to run our city,” before she quickly corrected herself: “Excuse me, how our city is run.” In contrast with her first time out as a candidate, Phillips this time is far more commanding of and versed in local issues. She noted the recent issue over unwanted swales between residents of South Daytona Avenue and the city administration as an example of much-needed better communications between the city and citizens. She was the most systematic of the four candidates in her presentation of five goals: She is “vehemently opposed” to paid parking but would push for better signage, wants a better climate for business through more special events, supports dunes restoration (though that’s not exactly in a city commissioner’s control), and managed growth, including opposition to “4,000 homes, apartments, condos, absolutely,” an indirect reference to The Gardens. “We have acres and acres of land we want to protect,” she said at the Preserve Flagler Beach forum. “I have good common sense, and with the way I think objectively, I would never approve anything that doesn’t make sense for Flagler Beach.”
Shupe, originally from Upstate New York, swales, is the only incumbent in the bunch. He’s been a commissioner since 2011. Naturally he relied on his record to make his case, casting himself as protective of citizens’ interests and environmental concerns in the face of proposed developments. “Nothing has been cast in stone,” Shupe said, “and as one of the five commissioners, along with the mayor and the city manager, that’s the group of people that are trying to look out for the city and all of the things that come along with the city, whether it’s sewage, whether it’s water consumption, whether it’s brought pick-up.” He cited stepped up brush pick up as one of the developments of the last few years, but did not cite particular goals for his coming terms, again reiterating his role as one on a panel of commissioners “to make sure that the gift of life in this area is what we all enjoy,” or speaking of the city’s demographics. He had 37 seconds left on his opening clock, but felt he didn’t need them. At the second forum, Shupe distilled his concerns to control–how to ensure that the city maintain control of its destiny, preserving itself as a “jewel” and getting the most out of its tax revenue, though he referred to Tallahassee as Albany, the New York capital, when he said he’d gone there with other city officials to lobby for “free money” for Flagler Beach recently. He got Tallahassee right the next time around.
The Gardens project was the single-most mentioned issue at either forum, though no question referred to it directly at the Woman’s Club. Obviously, that was not the case at the Preserve Flagler Beach forum, where the questions on the issue were as notable as the answer–the questions reflecting the interests of the group posing them. Here’s how Revels, almost an hour into the forum, posed the first direct question on The Gardens: “Very complex set of questions that all relate to each other,” she said, giving each candidate three minutes to answer. “What is your position on the City of Flagler Beach providing water to the proposed [Gardens] development on John Anderson Highway, outside the city.” (Revels referred to the number of units, but the number she gave was not clearly audible; she soon specified that she was referring to 453 units that “could possibly be built, plus commercial”), “and do you believe that an interlocal agreement exists between the city and Flagler County, meaning that the city is obligated to provide water and sewer to that project. And then another question that keys into this is, one of our residents wants to know what are you going to do to lower my water and sewer rates.” (Water and sewer rates have been increasing by double digits year after year in the city for the past four years.)
If anyone in the Preserve Flagler Beach audience expected outright condemnations of The Gardens project, that did not materialize–not even from Bryan.
Harrington said he was under the impression such an interlocal agreement exists, obligating the city to provide water and sewer, but added that he was going on “hearsay.” At the end of the forum, he said that the 450 homes The Gardens is projecting would generate $3 million “to our water and sewer wastewater treatment plant. That’s not enough to do what we need to do, but it is a start,” he said. As for water bills, he said the city is having to drill wells and fix its sewer plant, which requires money.
Shupe pointed to the existing agreement that enables service down John Anderson, though he said it’s the developer’s responsibility to pay for connections. Water and sewer rates, he said, have to go up to ensure improvements. None of the other candidates disagreed about rates.
Phillips, for her part, addressed The Gardens in a few, almost welcoming words: “Having The Gardens project, while it’s not ideal, it will bring in additional moneys to the city.”
Bryan, speaking with remarkable reserve, said there is a city water line that goes to Bulow Creek, and to enhance the city’s system, “we need additional customers.” He said “we do have some kind of agreement, and I haven’t been able to find a copy of that agreement or find out exactly what the city’s obligation is, whether that is mandatory, legal or what. But if we do not have sufficient water to provide the usage for what we have with our current customers, we’re certainly not going to have it for the properties they’re proposing down on the Gardens at this particular point.” Like Harrington, he said he doesn’t see water bills’ increases ending for now.
Short-term rentals was a peripheral issue at the Woman’s Club forum, but a pointed question at the second forum. All four candidates are opposed to unregulated rentals. But as Harringon noted, that may be out of the city’s control depending on what direction a proposed law, gaining lots of momentum this year, takes in the legislature: the proposal would significantly limit local control on vacation rentals. “That should be on a neighborhood by neighborhood basis,” Harrington said, noting–as Phillips did–that the tourist tax revenue from rentals is not small. Bryan’s proposal to have a policy board that would “get in on the front end of it” would be moot if the state preempts that authority.
The city got a $500,000 grant from the St. Johns Water Management District to build swales, albeit with little additional direction. The city engineer took over the project, but its execution, at the south end of town and especially along South Daytona Avenue, provoked an unhappy reaction from residents, who saw a haphazardly executed project that appeared to have been done with little analysis. The candidates all saw problems with the execution of the project, but not necessarily the need for swales–in certain places. Shupe, however, noted that the north side of the city has swales, but also pointed out the discrepancies between engineering plans and actual construction, which led to deeper swales than anticipated. “They need to be tweaked,” he said of the plans. The project is ongoing.
How to preserve Flagler Beach’s small-town feel, a question asked in every election, was asked again. Phillips said maintaining the 35-foot height limit would be one way. Bryan said the charm must be maintained but, as with a classic car, must also be worked on to ensure that the infrastructure is sound. Harrington considers Flagler Beach’s planning approach to be non-urban. “We’re an island, we need to be thinking island plan, not urban plan,” he said. But he didn’t explain the distinction. Shupe spoke of the city as a “jewel” protected by the city’s comprehensive plan, which he compared to the city’s development “constitution.”
Shupe left his most pointed and consequential statement to the end of the second forum: “I truly believe that we the citizens need to control our own destiny, and if it means expansion around us, maybe that’s something we have to look at so that we make sure that we can get a bite out of that, whether we need to annex or whatever. I know sometimes that’s a dirty word. But we don’t want to have somebody else tell us that they’re going to take the services away from us. We want our own services. We want to be able to control it. Maybe we do a study and find out that we only need collection once a week.”
As for how to prevent “another large tax increase” in the coming year, Shupe said that just as with “controlled development,” another tax increase was likely this year. Phillips agreed, saying one way to keep the taxes in check is the addition of businesses. Harrington said the tax rate has increased 32 percent, with 60 percent of taxes going to county taxes, suggesting that the city can work with the county to get back some of those dollars, including tourism-tax dollars (though in fact the tourism tax is not generated from property tax but from a sales tax surcharge on short-term rentals, hotels, motels and the like, and Flagler Beach is currently getting a disproportionate return on those dollars, which are paying, in part, for the dunes project.) Bryan drew on his experience in St. Johns to talk about how he cut budgets during the recession, but did so only generally other than how the county reorganized its tourist development council to generate more revenue.
In a variation on the question, the candidates were asked what they would do to bring new businesses. Bryan said a “small business development center” could do in the city what it did in St. Johns. Harrington said for a decade he’s been seeing businesses come and go in town. He didn’t explain how he might stop that trend, speaking instead of ensuring that tourists keep coming. Phillips essentially repeated the question: the city needs more businesses, more tourists, more visitors to come in and walk around, and Shupe recalled how the storms of a few years ago hurt businesses. “At the same time, and maybe this is not a term that anybody likes, but we’re sort of a bedroom community,” Shupe said.
They were asked about some residents requesting permits to extend sea walls and other permanent structures to property lines in the center of the canals, an issue Shupe “is thoroughly against”: because it “screws up” neighbors. Bryan agreed. Harrington–who had his own sea wall extended–said it’s a case by case issue. The question on recycling–asked at the Preserve Flagler Beach forum–was bound to draw the same answer: everyone wants it, everyone wants to make sure it continues, though Harrington said “a lot of that ends up in the landfill”–not just in Flagler, but across the nation.
Toward the end of the Preserve Flagler Beach forum Revels read the candidates a confusing question from the audience about pier maintenance–whose responsibility it is, whose it should be. The answers were just as confusing, other than every candidate seeing the pier as “iconic.” None was sure how the city could secure the millions of dollars necessary to either rebuild or replace it.