Larry Newsom, who Flagler Beach City Commission Chairman Jane Mealy termed the best city manager she’d worked with among a half dozen, died this afternoon at AdventHealth Palm Coast after seesawing between serious illnesses ad recoveries over the past year. Newsom was 56.
Beloved by his staff and fiercely protective of it to the point of willingly risking his job in his staff’s defense, Newsom was outspoken, folksy, at times salty-tongued and unafraid to be confrontational, a tendency that had become a bit more acute recently, and caused the commission to warn him of such recurrences. But he still had most commissioners’ backing.
“It comes with a heavy heart to announce the passing of our City Manager, Mr. Larry Newsom,” a city-issued memo stated this afternoon.
“This is a profound loss for our family here in Flagler Beach. Our saddened hearts are with Lisa during this most trying of times and our community will miss Larry’s dedication to our City,” Mealy was quoted as saying, referring to Newsom’s wife, who had herself been in his care for many years because of a disability. In an interview later, Mealy said she was “sad for the city, I’m sad for his wife, I’m sad for the commission. He did do an awful lot of good for the city,” bringing a lot of prior knowledge to the job, “and he did in four years a lot of very good things for the city. Now we have to go and see if we can find somebody who can do the same.”
The city commission will hold a special meeting sometime this coming week. The date and time have not been set.
The city did not provide a cause of death. But Newsom had been hospitalized several times, and for long stretches, since early 2019, and had taken several medical leaves this year, returning from one just this month, only to be hospitalized again. Several city commissioners had expressed concern, especially since the beginning of the year, some of them worrying about his drinking–and Newsom himself addressed it openly in interviews.
In recent weeks Newsom, who’d always had an imposing stature, had become rail thin. “I saw him Thursday before a commission meeting, we had our one on one, but he was thin as bones,” Commissioner Rick Belhumeur, who also happens to be his landlord, said. Newsom missed two budget workshops and last Thursday’s meeting, though he called in for a time.
He’d been going to City Hall frequently in recent days, but not working full-time, after weeks on medical leave. He went to AdventHealth Palm Coast as a walk-in either late Friday night or early Saturday morning.
Because of his multiple absences, Newsom had instituted a succession plan that installed Fire Chief Bobby Pace and City Police Chief Matt Doughney, in that order, as acting city managers in his absence. Pace had sat in his stead at recent commission meetings or workshops. The commission is in the midst of its budget process.
“I started shortly after he did, so I learned massive amounts from him as far as city management,” Belhumeur said. “He was a friend, and he’ll be sorely missed. I hoped that his health that he needed to do what he had to to turn it around but I guess it caught up with him before he had a chance to do that.”
“He taught myself and the city a lot of things about how to professionally run things, and we’ve got some contacts as a result of his tenure here. We’ll just have to move forward,” Belhumeur said.
At the beginning of August Newsom was mourning the loss of Bruce Garrison, a long-time supervisor in the city’s sanitation department. Flagler Beach mayor Linda Provencher today was on her way to the Beachfront Grill for a memorial event in Garrison’s memory when she heard about Newsom’s death.
Newsom arrived in Flagler Beach at the beginning of 2016 after the at times tumultuous tenure of City Manager Bruce Campbell, only to face a series of tumultuous events out of the city’s control in three of his five years: Hurricanes Matthew, Irma and Dorian, with Matthew ravaging the beach and State Road A1A and Irma causing unprecedented flooding in several parts of town, what one resident and long-time School Board member Colleen Conklin described as a “major disaster.” Newsom put his previous experience in the Panhandle, and his contacts with state transportation officials, to work to the city’s benefit. He’d make frequent trips to Tallahassee as well.
The news was quickly rippling beyond the city. “I spoke with Larry frequently during the legislative session as he was in Tallahassee often fighting for dollars for Flagler Beach,” Palm Coast Mayor Milissa Holland said. “He was a wealth of knowledge when it came to all things FEMA, including how to coordinate and work with all the agencies. This is a tragic loss and my thoughts and prayers are with his family throughout this difficult time.”
Joy McGrew is no longer on the city commission but had been among the commissioners who hired Newsom. She recalled the interview process. The commission had been ready to hire Joe Gerrity, a former city manager and city commissioner in Fernandina Beach, but newsom had yet to interview. When he did, the Flagler Beach commissioners all looked at each other. “Every one of us said, no, this is our guy. So I think he just was who we needed to face the issues we had no ideas were coming down the pike,” McGrew said of Newsom, who’d started work in government as an $8-an-hour surveyor before rising to assistant county administrator in Escambia County. He’d worked there 14 years before taking the job in Flagler Beach.
“Larry was probably the best thing that happened to Flagler Beach in the time that I’ve lived here,” McGrew said. “I don’t think we’d have gotten through any of the stuff we got through, two hurricanes and coronavirus, if we hadn’t had him. Everybody has issues, everybody has to own those and face his own demons, but as far as a city manager he had the best of the city at heart.”
McGrew had last seen Newsom recently.”I knew he was not well, I think the last time I saw him was probably last Thursday, he just wasn’t well. I just didn’t know it was that bad.”
Unexpected catastrophes had a way of tripping Newsom’s path as an administrator going back to Escambia County, as when a natural gas explosion demolished the county jail, killed two inmates and injured 180 inmates and staffers in April 2014. He’d moved quickly to preserve eyewitness accounts through statements from all those involved, which was to help in subsequent litigation.
“I had the privilege of interviewing on behalf of the county all key personnel involved with the administration of the facility regarding the events that occurred prior to, during, and immediately following the explosion,” Edward Fleming, a Pensacola attorney, wrote Newsom in February 2015. “The bottom line, to put it in southern vernacular, ‘you did good,’ as did those working under your supervision. I hope, for the sake of this community, that you stay in this area, and continue devoting your considerable talent to public service.” By then, Newsom had just resigned his post in Escambia, and was less than a year away from taking over in Flagler Beach.