Flagler Beach City Manager Larry Newsom has been sick for over two weeks, and was in the hospital for six and a half hours just last Sunday. It’s not Covid-19: two tests have come back negative, he says, but it is the flu. He’s on antibiotics, and though he’s sought to go back to work, and has made his way to City Hall on occasion, Police Chief Matt Doughney on Monday told him in no uncertain terms, as Newsom was sitting on a bench outside City Hall, to go home.
On April 3, following a succession plan Newsom put in place two weeks earlier, Newsom handed over the reins of the city to Bobby Pace, the fire chief, who will be the interim manager for up to 30 days. The Flagler Beach City Commission is expected to ratify that decision at its first virtual meeting Thursday–the first meeting that will be attended by newly minted commissioners Deborah Phillips and Ken Bryan, in place of Marshall Shupe and Kim Carney.
But Newsom’s erratic behavior over the past two weeks has commissioners and the mayor concerned for his health and his personal interactions. By nature folksy and irascible, Newsom is unafraid to use salted language, but in just a matter of days last week he called a constituent an “asshole” and a “cry baby,” seemed to challenge him to meet him in person, was curt with a city commissioner and with another constituent–all in writing.
“People right now are in their homes, getting frustrated, wanting answers immediately,” said Mayor Linda Provencher, who had not seen the email exchanges when she was interviewed on Tuesday. “I don’t know if that’s getting to him, especially if you’re sick.”
Provencher initiated the call to move to an interim manager temporarily. He’s been sick and whenever he comes back to work he just ends up getting sick again,” the mayor said. “ I want him to sit back and get better and in the meantime let’s just follow this succession plan. The staff knows what’s going on, but a lot of times the public doesn’t know what’s going on.” She said the commission can review the decision in two weeks, though Newsom said today his plan–his hope–is to be back at work Monday.
Newsom acknowledged writing the rude emails. “I do have a standard. If people want to be rude, I do have a standard that we can be rude back. As a civil servant, we’re not here to take punches and blows,” he said today. “I do have a standing policy that my staff has every right to tell people sir, I’m not talking to you, or ma’m.” But calling people names?
“As a city manager I’m not required to put up with that and maybe if my board doesn’t like it they can hire a different city manager,” he said. His telling one constituent to meet him in 15 minutes outside city hall was being misinterpreted, he said. “I’ll meet you in 15 minutes in front of city hall not for a confrontation but to say, what are you doing? We’re doing our best. I felt like I had to make a point. Do I enjoy doing it? Absolutely not. Amy I supposed to not do it because I’m a city manager? I disagree with that. What I was thinking was not what you saw in the email, I can promise you that, but when you’re being abusive to an individual that’s totally incorrect.”
He was asked what he was thinking. “I’m not going to tell you that. There was a lot of anger, OK, and I don’t appreciate people hiding behind social media, whether it’s social media or an email or anything else, that’s why my requirement is people who have a complaint to have an appointment so we can sit across from each other.” (Newsom said he considers email to be social media. All the exchanges in question were by email.) “If you’re upset, come sit down with me, let’s have a cup of coffee.”
A resident whose email name is Surf Moore (Newsom says that’s not the resident’s actual name) wrote Newsom between April 3 and April 5 to complain about yard-waste piles still on his street for days after calling the city engineer and the sanitation department. The exchanges devolved into name-calling from both sides, with Moore–who wrote he was documenting everything “for when it will be needed later”–first dispensing with courtesies.
“FYI,” he wrote Newsom, “Don’t want to hear any shit next week when my piles grow beyond the size you stipulate for a week. No BS orange stickers please.” The resident goes on: “So recapping, sanitation gets no action. City engineer gets no action. City manager gets no action.” He then appears to joke that he would “rescind” (or prorate) his property taxes for the period of time when services haven’t been rendered, finishing his email with “typical government uselessness.” In another email he tells Newsom to write “in coherent English this time.”
Newsom answered in varying degrees of rudeness: “Your the English major. Clear. Your a pest and know it all. I welcome the challenge.” The two appear to have had communication not recorded by email, because Newsom then responds in writing as if to a challenge for a fight: “[If] you think you scar me come on.” Then: “Anytime any place,” and “Cry baby I will meet antime” (likely meaning “anytime”).
And on April 5, the city manager wrote Moore: “No more emails asshole”–the sort of reply that, had it been uttered by any of Newsom’s employees in the conduct of business–or any employee in the conduct of public business–might have led to the employee’s firing.
“I have no remorse making the comments I made to him, no remorse,” Newsom said, noting that the constituent has a history of making similar attacks on city staff. “I felt like he deserved it, based on his attitude. If you look at his email, he used four letter words all throughout his email, and I’m supposed to sit back and say that’s OK? No, I’m not. Again, I don’t regret any one of those emails.” But moments later in the interview Newsom said he could have phrased things differently, and that “being cooped up” is having its effects. “Am I proud of it? I probably could have said something different, but the meaning would probably have been the same,” he said.
“I stand my ground also with DOT,” Newsom said, referring to when he negotiates on the city’s behalf with the state Department of Transportation or the Department of Environmental Protection, “I stand my ground with DEP, I stand my ground with other agencies in Tallahassee.” He said he does what must be done “to protect the city”–a claim commissioners have agreed with over the years, rewarding him with raises and high marks in their evaluations.
On April 2, Paul Guntharp, a city resident and an attorney, wrote Newsom after previous unanswered tries (You have not responded to any of my emails and have not asked Mr. Griffith to respond,” Guntharp wrote, referring to the city engineer, whose rapport with residents can be brusque and uncouth even in public meetings). Guntharp complained about Griffith running “roughshod over a citizen who requested help” and raised fairness issues. He was referring to the swales project the city is digging with a $500,000 grant from the St. Johns River Water Management District.
Newsom responded in a brief email, summarizing the history of the project, apologizing for not being a better communicator at the start of the project. Guntharp wrote back, saying Newsom had not addressed the matter of fairness and asking for an exemption from the swale project–an unreasonable request when it comes to such public works, whose effectiveness fails when only spottily applied. But Newsom’s answer was curt: “As an attorney do your job and I will do mine.”
Newsom’s discourteousness affected some of his dealings with a city commissioner. Commissioner Rick Belhumeur wrote him on Monday asking him about swales on South 23rd Street, where he alluded to the steep incline. “Please explain to me what purpose these serve?”
“Again your an engineer?” Newsom snapped back two hours later. “I will Freed call. By the way I owe rent.” (Belhumeur is Newsom’s landlord. He said in that case he had provided a drawing of the issue in his own hand to the city engineer, who agreed with his assessment.)
“Larry gets pretty twisted up sometimes when he disagrees with people,” Belhumeur said. His concerns are two-fold: on one hand he wants to ensure that a series of city projects that are ongoing have proper oversight. On the other, he is concerned about Newsom’s health, including his drinking. “For the most part I don’t think it interferes with his work,” Belhumeur said. “I’m very much concerned about his health.” Newsom said his occasional drinking doesn’t interfere with work–and said he found it ironic that it was being remarked upon by a commissioner he’s shared drinks with.
“I’m not trying to shoot him down, I’m trying to help him get back up” Belhumeur said.
Commissioner Eric Cooley said he was aware of Newsom’s drinking, but couldn’t speak to it. (Newsom himself acknowledges that the drinking landed him in the hospital a year ago with severe issues.) “He’s always been a drinker. I don’t know if it’s gotten better or worse,” he said. But Cooley was not happy about the personal exchanges between the manager and the constituents. “That’s not acceptable behavior but that’s also not something that’s on the radar right now,” Cololey said. “There’s going to be a lot of accountability when this is done.”
“I’m not a doctor but I can tell you in dealing with Mr. Newsom, he’s had some health issues in the past and we’re all very worried about him,” Matt Doughney, the police chief, said. Asked about the encounter with Newsom outside city hall, Doughney did not provide details, but put it this way: “Larry wants to get back to work and had a difference of opinion on when to come back, and I just made it very clear to him he needed to go home and rest.”
Newsom, who did comply, said he considers Doughney a friend, and that the chief was looking out for him. “I felt like I wanted to be there, my police chief, my captain said, come on. I said you’re right guys, I need to go back to the house. Matt is a friend, but he does his job.”
Of taking over the reins, Pace, the fire chief, said projects are continuing, but with the public health crisis unfolding, “”if something has the opportunity to be tabled, and being that we’re working with modified schedules, if something needs to be tabled, it will be tabled.” Doughney is next in line in succession.
The city commission meeting will be at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, not at 5:30, when the meetings are usually held. It will be accessible through both the city’s website, live by video, and through county government’s YouTube channel. Newsom said he was advised to sit it out and rest.