A Note on Services: Visitation will be held on September 10 at 4 p.m. at Craig Flagler Palms Funeral Home, 511 Old Kings Road South, Flagler Beach. Prayer Service will be held on September 10 at 7 p.m. at Craig Flagler Palms. Church Visitation will be held on September 11 at 1 p.m. at St Elizabeth Ann Seton Catholic Church, 4600 Belle Terre Parkway, Palm Coast. Funeral Mass will be held on September 11, 2020 at 2 p.m. at St Elizabeth Ann Seton. Donations in Mary G. DiStefano’s memory can be made to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
Mary G. DiStefano, a 28-year resident of Palm Coast who served two terms on the Palm Coast City Council through its most booming, then most dire, years, died early this morning in the city. She was 83 and had been in ill health in recent weeks.
Born in Altoona, Pa., on Oct. 30, 1936, DiStefano was trained as an x-ray technician and retired to Palm Coast in 1992. Not keen on idleness, she joined Florida Health Care Plans, managing its Palm Coast operation for five years, then Karpetmaster, where she was a marketing manager for a year, before joining Palm Coast Imaging Center in the marketing department.
In August 2003 DiStefano, 66 at the time, decided to run for the Palm Coast City Council from District 3, the seat initially held by Jim Holland, one of the founding council members, until his death in 2002. The council had appointed Tom Lawrence to the seat until the 2003 election was held. Lawrence opted not to run. DiStefano was one of two candidates. The other was B.R. Sedelmyer, at the time a more recent arrival in Palm Coast.
“The qualities they bring forth, from their knowledge of the issues to their respect for Palm Coast’s suburban character, give voters a tough but fortunate choice,” the News-Journal editorialized at the time. “Both are political newcomers who don’t sound it. Both have decades of business experience grounded in solid education. Both want to preserve the city’s fiscal stability by increasing its commercial tax base through annexation and by attracting new businesses with tax breaks. Both believe in environmentally responsible growth. But between the two candidates, there are subtle, if important, differences that give the edge to DiStefano.” Those differences included DiStefano’s willingness to campaign for the city’s half-cent sales tax that helped resurface Palm Coast’s 550 miles of roads over the next several years, and her foresight about a need for a comprehensive stormwater plan, which was eventually adopted.
She won handily, taking 69 percent of the vote out of 6,200 ballots cast–and became the first woman appointed to the council which, of all local governments, has insistently remained a men’s club. Only two other women have won election to the council since: Heidi Shipley, who served one term and did not seek a second, and Milissa Holland, who won the mayor’s seat four years ago and is in a run-off for the seat in November.
DiStefano would win again four years hence, defeating Nate McLaughlin, who would eventually become a county commissioner, and Joseph Mulhall, a retired supervisor for Norfolk Southern Railroad. She won in the primary with 58 percent of the vote, clearing the 50-percent threshold and making a runoff unnecessary. That was also the year Meeker was elected, livening up what had become a council of retirees.
“She was a wonderful person to work with,” formner Mayor Jon Netts, who served with DiStefano for eight years, said today. (Netts is currently an appointed member of the council.) “She had a very interesting background in medicine, but she brought to City Council a very even-minded, unbiased approach, very practical in her approach to city issues–just very good to work with and no political aspirations, no political influences. Everything that she did, she did for the best interest of our community. She will truly be missed.”
DiStefano, a past president of the Atlantic Coast Society of Radiologic Technicians, had been named president of the Flagler County Personnel Association in 1998 (the association focused on human resources, held annual symposiums and used to meet at the school district’s office once a month). She was a Rotarian, and after eight years of perfect attendance was named the Rotarian of the year in 2007, an honor she earned because of her efforts to raise $7,500 for the Free Clinic in Bunnell, the clinic founded by the late Faith Coleman and Dr. John Canakaris. DiStefano was also named Woman of the Year by Flagler Business Women. A lifelong Republican, DiStefano was not ideologically minded on the council or off, her pragmatism usually framing her perspective.
On the council, DiStefano quickly made her mark among the sort of council members who spoke their mind sharply and wryly, like Meeker, if–unlike Meeker–without too much political daring. “I think personally that being a woman isn’t the issue as much as the fact that people sit around and think that nobody is going to vote for them or they have nothing to say,” DiStefano was quoted as saying after her election. “You have to contribute to your community and you have to have some background.” At the time, the crusty and imperious Dick Kelton was city manager (one of her first acts was to join her colleagues in granting him a $6,000 raise).
Three years later she joined her colleagues in hiring Jim Landon the city’s second manager, and soon became among his champions, rarely challenging or directing him. The council largely left the direction of the city to the manager through the recession, signally approving an expansion of the fire department and the addition of new fire houses and other capital projects–some of them less than successful, like the four-laning of Old Kings Road south in anticipation of a Walmart that never came–despite the downturn
DiStefano could show dissent from her colleagues, more so in her earlier years. In 2004 she voted against the rezoning that would lead to the construction of European Village, considering the rezoning out of character with the region–and in contravention of the city’s comprehensive plan. But she was in a 3-2 minority. Not that she wasn’t a friend to homebuilders: later that year she was the lone dissenter in a vote approving higher park impact fees, the one-time levies assessed on new construction to defray the cost of development, she dissented again in a vote setting strict regulations at the marina, considering the rules too strict, and she was all for the development to raze Harborside Inn and build a 187-room hotel and 169-unit condo in its place.
Less than a year in, she made a blunder: she called for more than tripling the salary of council members, to $19,000–what would have amounted to a 300 percent pay raise. Her colleagues were not happy, with the late Jim Canfield and Ralph Carter reminding her that the salaries were set low to attract the civic-minded, not the money-hungry. She dropped the call. She’d also been part of the push for a new city hall and community center, financed with bonds. The proposal was overwhelmingly defeated by voters. DiStefano never stopped calling for a new city hall, even after she left the council. She’d also been behind a plan that would bring an independent traffic-policing unit to Palm Coast, what was seen as a first step to giving the city its own police department. But she had to abandon that track in the face of public opposition.
In 2011, her final year on the council, she joined her colleagues in opposition of a sales surtax to pay for economic development, ended the city’s support for what was then known as Enterprise Flagler, the public-private partnership intended to spur economic activity locally, and voted for a ban on internet cafes, all at a time when the council acted with consistent unanimity. That year, District 3, Jason DeLorenzo and Dennis Cross competed in the race to fill her seat, and DeLorenzo won. (DeLorenzo is currently the city’s development director.)
After leaving the council, DiStefano stayed active through the Palm Coast Historical Society, but otherwise diminished her public activities.
“I had worked with Mary while I was on the County Commission and she was on the Council,” Holland said this afternoon. “She was a fierce advocate for our senior population, often times trying to find ways to improve transportation opportunities and social interactions for them. She made her position known when it came to Palm Coasts needs and priorities at our joint meetings. I always appreciated her perspective, our conversations and her sense of humor, which provided some much needed levity at times.”