It was the first in-person meeting in which newly elected Flagler Beach Commissioners Deborah Phillips and Ken Bryan were participating, and it did not go well: they saw City Manager Larry Newsom and a member of the audience get into it in a sidebar confrontation that continued even as another member of the public was at the podium. The meeting had to be recessed, and the mayor asked Newsom to leave.
At his second in-person meeting two weeks ago, Bryan–a former county commissioner in St Johns County–introduced a measure that would significantly change the small-town feel of commission meetings by instituting a series of restrictions and rules of decorum that would apply both to commissioners and their staff and to the public in attendance. The rules are strict in and of themselves, but not unusual: Palm Coast and the school board have similar rules and the county commission by practice follows similar procedures, the difference being that Flagler Beach–a city of 5,000, compared to other local governments with constituencies between 90,000 and 115,000) until now has not felt the need to go down that road.
Tonight, it is set to do so as the commission may vote on a resolution that will end the frequent back and forth that takes place between commissioners and members of the public during public comment time, define public comment as a “privilege,” enforce a three-minute speaking rule that customarily had been ignored, and designate a whole zone where commissioners and staffers sit as a no-go zone for public or even the press (a designation that does not apply at most local governments), turning the chamber into something more akin to a courtroom.
“Unfortunately the world we live in now, it’s not just little old Flagler Beach” anymore, Mayor Linda Provencher said.
“In light of recent incidents and heightened discord I think it’s important that we as a body recognize and implement a policy which maintains order, respect, civility and decorum when we conduct official business for the people and the community as a whole,” Bryan said. He’d worked with Drew Smith, the city attorney, and administration members for several days before the meeting two weeks ago to draft what became the proposed rules of decorum. Bryan placed the rules in the broader context of a society he and other commissioners perceive as more temperamentally brittle, as officials increasingly fear public confrontations with constituents seemingly less concerned with filters and behavioral norms.
“There have been times when even sitting where I am, there’s been some uncomfortable exchanges where there was an expectation that you were going to engage with somebody,” Smith said, “and this will eliminate that, where somebody kind of lingers at the podium, and a little bit challenging towards the commission, but you’d still have the ability through the chair to invite somebody back to the podium to engage with that conversation.” But it would eliminate the “potential or expectation of back and forth from the dais to the podium.”
Commissioner Rick Belhumeur, who has previously been the target of a commisisoner’s rudeness–when Belhumeur was still a private citizen–was reserved about the proposed rules, worrying that they would inhibit open discussions between commissioners and residents. “I don’t know that we’ve had any real issues with it,” Belhumeur said. “If we need to ask them a clarifying question we can ask them while they’re still at the podium, otherwise if they ask a question such as Paul [Harrington] did this evening, then he goes back, and at the end of the comment session, then that’s when the chair gets them their answer.”
“In a perfect world, when everyone is being cordial and civil, that works,” Bryan said, “but there’s always the possibility that you’re going to have a situation where someone is not going to leave, and you start engaging, and then that’s when it gets out of hand, so what we’re doing is we’re providing an opportunity for the chairman to have some control, but also have the option to call that individual back by any member of the board or the attorney or whomever.”
Commission Chair Jane Mealy and Commissioner Eric Cooley support the measure. “Even in the short time I’ve been here I’ve seen a lot of changes with the political climate, how people conduct themselves,” Cooley said. “As a chair we can address anything as many time as needed to get it worked out. So we have that freedom to bring folks back, readdress it, it’s not limiting us.”
Ironically, the way the meeting unfolded a month ago was an exception, and a rare exception at that. Though Newsom has had his occasional confrontations with members of the public outside the commission chamber, this was his first such interaction during a meeting. Members of the public have generally followed the “Pledge of Civility” tacked onto the podium, below the microphone (“We will be respectful of one another even when we disagree,” “We will avoid personal attacks”), with some notable exceptions, as when Bob Chase, a resident who had a knack for taunting commissioners at meetings, grabbed Commissioner Jane Mealy’s name-plate during a meeting, threw it in the trash, and walked out.
That was during a 2010 meeting when the commission and its audience, embroiled for months in the debate over hiring a new city manager, often sounded like an unhinged House of Commons at Prime Minister’s Questions time. Other lapses of temper, however, have involved commissioners more than the public, with Mealy in 2010 taking time out to address commissioners’ dysfunction on and off the commission, one of a few unhappy encounters she had with Commissioner Steve Settle during meetings over the years. Settle himself lost his cool against a resident at one meeting, dressing him down in front of everyone. (The resident was Rick Belhumeur, and the confrontation was instrumental in convincing Belhumeur to run and get elected. He took Settle’s seat.) Then-Commissioner Kim Carney also got on Settle’s nerves so much that he tried to kick her out of the chairmanship.
For all that, nothing approached the commission’s intramural conflicts in the early naughts, when conflict became so common that then-commissioners Rosemary Bates, Randy Busch and Bob Mish, seen as forming a voting block, became the target of a homemade DVD called “3-2” and distributed widely around town. The DVD featured clips from meeting video, including the police’s removal of a man who was holding up a sign that said “Save Our City,” and other raucous moments.
In comparison, the commission for the past five or six years has been a collegial body, getting along even through tough challenges and handling occasional meetings rife with public dissatisfaction with diplomacy and patience: Matt Doughney, the chief of police, or some of his officers, are always in attendance, but also always in the back of the room, with hardly an instance when their intervention has been necessary. Most of those calmer years have paralleled Newsom’s tenure (he took over in 2016).
When the mayor asked Newsom to leave a month ago, Newsom was planning to start a vacation that week. The mayor told him to start it a bit early. Newsom subsequently took a medical leave. He was due back at tonight’s meeting. Today, commissioners learned that Newsom would again be taking a leave, though he met with commissioners in turn, as he always does before a meeting, to go over the agenda. He was not expected at tonight’s meeting.