In December the Observer’s Brian McMillan reported admiringly on city government’s relatively new Palm Coast Connect. The transformative portal gives residents the ability immediately to report concerns and track how the city is addressing them. It also gives the city the ability to much better analyze where the problems are and how well it responds, or not. It’s an action and accountability tool many governments are using in varied forms. The rapid response and data-driven system is making a difference. And considering that sort of tool’s ultimate but unspoken aim–to mercilessly slash through customer service departments’ warmer bodies–it’ll save a ton of money. Horse and buggies must at some point give way to trams. It’s cleaner, it helps more people more quickly, at less cost.
Palm Coast Connect launched only nine months ago. But its genesis dates back to early 2017, when the city was exploring the idea. The portal was developed by Coastal Cloud, the local company booming with business and plaudits since launch seven years ago. Then-City Manager Jim Landon, a Svengali of contractual arrangements on his terms, invited the company to “develop a 311 citizen engagement number and app,” as the title of the resolution–the local law under which the agreement operates–called it. Coastal Cloud had no government-contract experience. Palm Coast would be its portal to that experience. The deal was: it would do it its part, and its part alone, at zero cost to the city. The rest was the city’s responsibility.
Mayor Milissa Holland started working for Coastal Cloud’s public sector division in June 2017, around the same time that early talks with Landon were developing. Let’s not pretend otherwise: There’s no question that the nature of the deal by definition eventually involved some preferential treatment. It was Coastal Cloud after all that was given the opportunity to develop the system for free, not another company. No request for proposal was issued to extend that opportunity to anyone else.
Then again, the school district doesn’t issue a request for proposal every time it partners with one of a number of local companies, Coastal Cloud among them, to participate in any of two dozen flagship programs in district schools. Those are costly investments to the companies, the district is the beneficiary, and unquestionably, some companies are involved in some schools where they have more interest than in others, turning impressionable students into potential customers. Those relationships, too, bear close examination–the involvement of business in our schools has gotten an unjustified pass–but in the scheme of things, the benefits flutter more brightly than the red flags, and there are more pressing issues to examine.
The Coastal Cloud relationship with Palm Coast falls in that category. Even if the mayor was not one whit involved in any of those discussions, she was still the mayor, and she was still an employee of Coastal Cloud. Those relationships cannot be discounted, nor can those involved on either side of the deal ignore the perception they instigate. And to pretend that the relationships have no bearing on anything happening at one level or another goes against all known psychology of human behavior and the principles of business networking. Palm Coast Connect is not just an app. It’s a metaphor. But that’s stating a fact, not a judgment, let alone an indictment: if the mayor was one pillar in the bridge connecting Coastal Cloud to the city, what of it?
Brian and I had the same reaction at the origin of the deal nearly two years ago: if no money is changing hands, it’s more of a PR story for the city’s then-torrid PR machine than an investigative story for either the Observer or FlaglerLive. Besides, Svengali was in charge of writing the contract.
Of course there’d be additional costs. Even a tech dunce like me would know that no “app” these days is its own ecosystem, some of it costly, such as the system’s reliance on the Salesforce platform, without which Coastal Cloud would not be what it is. Coastal Cloud Co-owner Tim Hale pointed out explicitly at a council workshop that Salesforce costs money. Jake Scully, Coastal Cloud’s point man on the project (and a member of the city’s planning board), wrote it explicitly to Landon in an email. It wasn’t in the contract with Coastal Cloud, because the two are separate and should not be mingled contractually, just as no in-house employee costs were in the contract, though given Landon’s obsessive attraction to running everything in “teams,” we knew that part was going to overtax city employees.
But the title of the resolution, as reflected also by its body, also explicitly states boilerplate but in this case important language: the resolution provides that the city manager or “designee” will execute the agreement. And the agreement provides for “conflicts.” That’s also relevant, given Holland’s twin roles. She recused herself from the matter, though it appears some people would have wished she’d acted more like Bruce Willis in the Sixth Sense. Not quite fair to a single parent holding one of the rare jobs that enabled her to keep her daughter from entering the sixth sense. Sarah and Tim Hale presented the plan to the council in an August 2018 workshop. It was approved the following week, with hardly any comments, by Council members Bob Cuff, Nick Klufas and Vincent Lyon–two punctilious lawyers and a tech nerd, or hardly the sort of majority that would let trickiness slip it by. Cuff even assured me today that he didn’t vote for Nixon either times. Holland did not attend that meeting.
That was 19 months ago. Three months ago Brian writes his “Win-Win” about Palm Coast Connect, a story whose only fault was the journalistic sin of using that abominable cliche. Two weeks ago the Observer publishes ex-Palm Coast PR chief Cindi Lane’s “tricky relationship” OpEd about the city’s relationship with Coastal Cloud, followed a day later by Brian’s “Lessons learned” analysis about the whole thing, including the fecal spatter of Lane’s piece against city fans. Finally last night at the Palm Coast City Council we witnessed the unprecedented one-two punch by Holland and Tim Hale against Lane, Brian and the Observer.
It was an unfortunate and excessive display, 92 minutes long, of unfairly–and inaccurately–conflating into one pot any and all sources of criticism or reporting about the relationship, with Brian taking the brunt of the criticism for publishing Lane’s piece in the first place, or allegedly not doing his “due diligence,” even with the reporting. No one would take issue with Holland and Hale protecting the reputation of Coastal Cloud. But I don’t see how doing so at the expense of that of the Observer or its editor, whose decade in the business speaks of nothing but immaculate and ethically irreproachable work, lends either the credibility they seek to protect for themselves, or speaks of the transparency they claim to champion for the city.
After getting tipped off by ex-employees concerned about the climate at City Hall–which, incidentally, has nothing to do with Coastal Cloud–Brian worked for months on an investigative piece about the mayor’s relationship with the company. He found nothing. In that regard, Holland stressed even Monday evening that he had done his due diligence. But she was upset that Lane’s column then ran.
Inquisitorial though it was, Lane’s was an opinion column (as this is, incidentally). More than that: it’s an opinion column informed by Lane’s perspective at City Hall. Nowhere in the column does Lane criticize Coastal Cloud, let alone slander the company. Her criticism is focused on public issues, on the city’s handling of the deal, and largely, ironically, on the administration’s handling of the deal–hers, Landon’s, others who were involved. She’s pointing the finger at Holland, blaming her for exuding some vague penumbral inhibitors over anyone raising questions within the administration, even when she’s miles away. She should be pointing it at Landon, herself and others who at any time could have raised issues with the deal. They didn’t. That’s the central paradox of Lane’s column, its own undoing. Landon was a lot of unsavory things. A sap at writing contracts, he was not. He got off on it, his quarter-million dollar golden parachute from the city being Exhibit A. He claims he was not aware of the extent of the Salesforce cost. His claim is not believable, and if it is, then it’s on him, not on Holland or anyone else.
Brian had recurring meetings with Landon, who sometimes may have played him like a fiddle. Not a squeak on the Coastal Cloud deal in all those one-on-one meetings. Really? Was Landon intimidated by Brian, the guy who’d have to go to therapy if he ever thought he made someone feel uncomfortable? Landon’s squeamishness is not believable. “Either he’s a liar, he’s stupid or he’s incompetent,” Holland said Monday evening, in one of her more brutal assessments. Considering the context, she wasn’t wrong. But her opinion was no less of one than Lane’s. It was just meaner (something you’d expect me to say, not the mayor).
Lane disputed the uncritical tone of Brian’s earlier story. That’s her prerogative. She made claims. Some of them are factually in dispute, like whether the city was looking at other, cheaper apps, though ultimately the 311 system will reduce personnel, and therefore costs. Some of her claims are impossible to verify but more logical than not, like whether or not Holland’s connection to Coastal Cloud created an intimidation factor. Coastal Cloud or not, Holland can be intimidating and doesn’t even realize it. But the claim that Holland supposedly worked on PR releases related to Coastal Cloud–really, the most specific accusation in Lane’s whole piece–rankled Holland, and she called it an outright lie. Maybe public records can prove who’s telling the truth. But it’s not worth the hunt.
Whatever the case may be, even if Holland edited a release in which she was extensively quoted, and a release that really didn’t amount to anything, as government releases generally don’t, who really cares? That sort of “involvement” pales compared to, say, Council member Jack Howell’s boastful claim Monday evening that he “investigated” this whole issue himself. If so, then Howell was doing something grossly unethical. And as I recall, Holland flexed her guillotine every time former Council member Steven Nobile suggested he should sniff around administrative crannies. Council members are barred from meddling in the administration in any capacity other than fact-finding–to educate themselves about issues before council, not to go on a hunt for dirt, and certainly not to play cop. At the city, that’s Jay Maher’s job–and that internal investigation, the city clerk tells me, is ongoing. (Actually, it was done and closed, then it mysteriously reopened this week after my inquiry, so I couldn’t get a copy: that’s way more weird and suspicious than anything in Lane’s column.)
Some of the issues Lane questioned should be questioned, especially when an elected official is employed by a company working with her government. Holland can’t be preaching transparency, as she did last night, and not welcome it in print, especially when it’s so easily refutable. The mayor doth protest too much. And certainly, absolutely, Brian was not wrong or lacking in due diligence to publish the OpEd. Timing has nothing to do with it. (Landon didn’t approach Brian, it was the other way around). An OpEd from a former public employee about the government where she had a unique perspective is a legitimate OpEd in any circumstance. It wasn’t a frivolous piece. Even if it was written to undermine Holland, that’s Lane’s right. The piece may be disputed or discredited. That doesn’t make it slander. It certainly doesn’t make it any less worthy of publication, or “inappropriate,” as Holland called it. The discussions it led to alone are worth the price of publication. (And if you thought there was no connection whatever between Coastal Cloud and Holland as mayor, well, it would seem that last night’s 90-minute counter-inquisition would have put that illusion to bed.)
The piece led to comments on Facebook that were idiotic, false, possibly slanderous, and injurious to Coastal Cloud’s reputation, not to mention Holland’s. Hale showed many of them in his presentation Monday night. But the degenerates of social media should not be confused with the press and the original articles that light them up. Either the Observer or FlaglerLive could have reported a piece that stated in headlines that Coastal Cloud and the mayor are above reproach, that Palm Coast Connect is working, that the wall of separation between the two is legit. The nut jobs will still go zoological on Holland, because this is Flagler County, because she is powerful, she is a woman, and she is making things happen. Political lechery takes many shapes, none more lurid than in the unaccountable gutters of social media.
But to put that anywhere near Brian’s judgment as a journalist is no less a lurid and “inappropriate” comparison, especially when it instigates–as it very much did at council last night–yet more degenerate attacks on the media, which we heard from some in the audience who addressed the council after the Hale-Holland apologias. We already have a moronic commissioner making a habit of bashing the local press to score more depraved likes. We don’t need ostensible champions of the press–I’d put Holland and the Hales in that group–falling prey to the same lure the moment they’re briefly, and survivably, questioned. They’re way bigger than that.
“It’s detrimental when these conversations happen,” Hale said during his “Defending Our reputation” segment, with a 33-page powerpoint, “and it’s even more detrimental when social media and the bullying and the gang-up start.” No disputing that. But is the press to self-censor an article just because of the possibility–even the certainty–that it will loosen commenters’ bile and lead to slanders on social media’s dirtier outer rings, on group or individual pages the originating newspaper couldn’t possibly control? The day we get to that point, we might as well close up shop and, well, go write PR for local government. That’s not where the local press is, or should ever be. (City Manager Matt Morton said he opted to add Hale to the agenda, which the manager—not the council—control.)
But it wasn’t the Observer or Lane or Landon who opened the door to all that, or who made last night’s strange segment necessary. It was Holland herself as mayor and employee of Coastal Cloud, and it was Coastal Cloud’s decision, after Landon’s invitation, to agree to an arrangement with the city while having Holland on staff. No matter how you see it, no matter how many walls you raise, no matter how laudable the work you do, the questions will always be asked–and in any community worth its transparency, should be asked–about the relationship. They both knew the risks going in. They clearly found the deal to be worth the risk, and in fact, it is: Palm Coast Connect is working, the city is celebrating, and the company is leveraging its experience. But don’t be surprised when the risk is not always an abstraction.
After highlighting the role Coastal Cloud plays in the community as an employer and a partner in the school district, Holland last night said it was unacceptable to claim that Coastal Cloud is now “sitting here trying to do something that wasn’t agreed upon from the beginning. This is very, very, very upsetting. Very upsetting, and this should never happen in our community ever again. Ever again. We are better than this. Our community is better than this, and our community deserves better than this.”
She’s right about the innuendoes, the slanders, the baseless attacks, and if that’s what she means by how it should “never happen again,” we can only hope so, though that’s just as valid for any of us, any of our companies, any of our reputations–and I don’t see anyone else defended from a public dais.
And I very much hope that when Holland says that this should “never happen again,” she’s not suggesting that we’re a company town, or that the local press watches what it reports and whose columns it runs for fear that it may offend, or cause others to flood the gutters. That’s an awfully Landonesque circling of the wagons around a City Hall I’d imagined was well past its cultish era. Our community is better than this, mayor. The fact that Coastal Cloud, you and the Observer are making it so should tell you something.