It really was no contest.
Jon Netts, the former Palm Coast mayor and city council member may grate some people the wrong way because of his long history with the city, his latter history straddling some of the city’s more imperious years. But among the three candidates who’d applied to fill the seat Councilman Jack Howell resigned last month, there was no question he alone was entirely conversant with the city’s issues and its budget, that he alone knew the city’s history–as few people in the city do–and that he alone was already on a collegial, first-name basis with at least three of the four members of the council.
Besides: the city already had a name-plate for him.
“I’m trying hard to find something that sounds halfway intelligent, Jon, considering the current circumstances,” Council member Bob Cuff said, straining to find a question to ask one of the few people who may know almost more about the city than Cuff does. (Netts is by far the longest-serving elected official in Palm Coast’s history, with 15 years on the council, though Cuff predates him back to the city’s genesis). Cuff finally asked him why he would want to serve again for a mere three months. “Is it that irresistible?” Cuff asked.
Netts reiterated what he’d said in his opening statement: because of the importance of the next three months. “I can just bring something to the discussion,” he said, referring to the budget process.
The council voted 4-0 to appoint Netts as a council member until early November after politely complimenting all three candidates and finding something good to say about each.
“It’s hard to overcome the kind of experience that our former mayor could bring to the short term,” Cuff said, inviting the two others to “continue their interest” in the city.
The other two candidates were William Schreiber, a high-energy but prickly and opinionated candidate, and Hung Hilton, a low-key, humble techie whose intelligence seemed a bit overshadowed by the intimidating setting of a cavernous council chamber and oversized screens zooming in two of the four council members.
After waiting in a back room, they each appeared individually for in-person interviews before the council, with Mayor Milissa Holland and Council member Eddie Branquinho, City Manager Matt Morton, City Attorney Bill Reischmann and Deputy City Clerk Kate Settle on the dais (and a handful of few directors or managers in the room), and Council members Cuff and Nick Klufas on Zoom. (Every person in the room, including the council members, wore mask throughout, never taking them off even to speak–unlike school board members and county commission members, who, inexplicably, hold their meetings mask-less in a building where masks are mandatory.)
Before long, Netts during his interview was launching into his characteristically specific, discursive examples of budgeting for infrastructure, the whys and hows of doing so over so many years, as if a well-worn switch had turned on automatically. One of his specialties on the council was to frame and synthesize issues down to easily understood summaries at the end of long discussions. He did the same when explaining why he should be the council’s choice.
With an effortless nod to his status as a living city monument, in his closing statement he recalled the very first year of Palm Coast as a city, in 1999, when the city and the economy were booming–then the Great Recession that struck at the end of the 2000s, through which the city (and he) survived. He promised the council that the city would do likewise through the current crisis–an upbeat way to end his interview, and to remind the council of his optimism, as eternal today as it had been in the depths of the 2008 recession.
Interviews had started with Hung Hilton, an L-Section resident in the community since December 2015.
Hilton spoke of making a difference and participating in the city moving forward in a place he’s calling home. “I wanted to get involved in more local government and things, what better opportunity than right now to do that,” he said. (He was answering Branquinho, who had two questions for each candidate: “what made you apply,” and “what makes you think you can do it.”) Hilton had taken part in the virtual version of the city’s citizens academy recently, clearly to familiarize himself with his local government. Cuff asked him about his ability to analyze budgets. He answered generally, speaking of dealing with a budget annually, but without figures.
Hilton was among the candidates because Council member because his IT background as a “solutions architect” caught Klufas’s eyes. (Klufas has the same designation.) Klufas asked him if there were any projects he could see himself getting interested in. Hilton cited the city’s FiberNet and its SalesForce systems, but without specifics. He called it a “unique opportunity to walk a mile in you guys’ shoes and get a feel for what that’s like,” then decide whether to run for the seat in 2022.
The mayor asked him what he saw as the top three challenges with Covid. He cited budgeting, caring for the unemployed, and seeking reopening strategies. He said he watched and listened to a lot of the 2019 and 2020 meetings and workshops online. He called himself a “fan” of masks who was surprised by the sheriff’s declaration that the mandate would not be enforced. He conceded that he was “definitely not the most experienced candidate” before council members, but that he was a learner. He’d said nothing to dissuade the council that he was, and he was likely the one they were referring to when they said at the end of the segment, after appointing netts, that they hoped the others would stay involved in city business.
Netts was second.
“My name is Jon Netts,” he started with Spartacan verve, launching immediately into an explanation as to why, as even his own wife Priscilla asked him, he’d throw his name into the mix of candidates. He said it was simple: the budget process will set the direction for the city for the next year, he has the experience, starting with his decades in New Jersey. some of them in elected office, continuing on the Palm Coast City Council–six years as a council member, nine years as mayor. He spoke of his wealth of experiencing in finance and budgeting. “If you pardon the cliche, if I’m appointed, I think I can hit the ground running,” he said (despite a serious foot injury that never quite kept him from his other moonlighting job as a boat-salvage operator on the Intracoastal).
“What made me apply for the job was the fact that I think, especially facing this pandemic, there’s going to be a lot of stress on the city, and I think it’s going to be very, very important that we make good decisions,” Netts said. (Netts was term-limited out of the mayor’s seat in 2016. He’d run for the seat against Howell two years ago. Howell beat him with 56 percent of the vote. The memory likely is playing a role in Netts’ decision to contest the appointment, but not the next election: candidates for the appointment were asked to pledge that they would not run in November, so as not to have an undue advantage.)Klufas asked him how Netts’s responsibilities on the Florida Inland Navigation District, on which he’s served for over a decade, might be a conflict of interest. But that service wasn’t a conflict then, it won’t be a conflict now, Netts explained.
William Schreiber, third in line in tonight’s interviews, spoke of his experience as a research scientist and analyst who’d established his own company and shepherded it over 10 years, then of his decision to spend some time sailing, before settling to teaching physics and math in St. Augustine. But for all his years in Palm Coast–he was a resident before incorporation, since 1995–he’s never served on any city advisory boards. He came close to perhaps serving on the county’s library board, but didn’t. He thought of volunteering with the sheriff’s C.O.P. program, but the idea of being a target in uniform didn’t interest him.
He mostly spoke in vague aphorisms and catch phrases. “I don’t like it when people come in and just present problems,” he said. He preferred to hear “something” by way of solutions, though he did not offer any. Then he said something that was not likely the wisest to say in a job interview for Palm Coast City Council–at least not if the candidate was hoping to come across as a friend of transparency: “I’m not real fond of whistle-blowers, if you will. I understand where they’re coming from. I don’t necessarily agree with them, I don’t necessarily disagree with them.” (He was perhaps pandering to the mayor, the council or the city manager, who’ve contended with a few issues cast, at least by their originators, as whistleblowing recently.)
Schreiber also had no thought to running a campaign. “It’s too nasty, it’s too messy, it’s extremely time consuming,” he said. “I don’t want to get out in public and campaign,” he said.
As to why he chose to try for the job for three months, he spoke of reading about the chance and telling himself: “Wow, I can do this.” He said he knew he wasn’t “going to set the world on fire,” but he felt he could contribute with “some reasonable ideas that might work. I can guarantee you I’m not a rubber stamp, and I’m also not a seat warmer.” Still, he said nothing specific that could give council members something to grab onto–an actual idea, an insight, an indication that he was familiar with recent council issues, let alone budget issues, even in the most superficial way.
Klufas lobbed him a softball: was there something particular, an idea, an initiative, he thought he might contribute in the next few months? “I haven’t given that any thought at this point in time,” Schreiber said. “I’m sure there’s something I could contribute significantly to. I don’t know what it would be at this point in time.”
He said he hadn’t even looked at “the nuances” of the city budget beyond reading the papers. He then cited the Observer and the News-Journal–and made a remark perhaps intended as wit in a Mark Twain sort of way, though it came off as merely offensive about two mainstays of local media: “That means I’m misinformed, instead of being uninformed,” he said, though the thinness of his candidacy and his ignorance about city issues were entirely his own, as his 20-odd minutes before the council had indicated.
After the interviews all three candidates were brought into the council chamber and thanked. Then Netts walked up toward the dais and gave Settle, the deputy clerk, a white envelope. The mystery hung in the air for a few moments before Netts explained: “My resignation from the code board.” (He’d been serving on the city’s code enforcement board, a seat Schreiber may consider if he’s serious about being involved: it requires no public campaigning.)
Settle then read Netts the oath, which he repeated, and at around 7:15 p.m. or so, possibly to the dismay of Priscilla Netts, he was a Palm Coast council member again. He took his seat between Settle and Branquinho, now the junior-most member of the panel (he’d been elected with Howell), who begged Netts not to make him look bad with his knowledge. But it was Branquihno who a week ago had attempted to get Netts appointed without the pro-forma interviews that took place this evening.
With Netts sitting back in his long-missed comfort zone, the council turned to the meeting’s remaining business.