For Palm Coast–its identity and its future–it’s a choice between shake-up and continuity.
The races for Palm Coast City Council add up to a slate of 10 candidates and the unprecedented potential turnover in four of five council members in a single election, with a guaranteed turnover in two of those seats.
The council could be heading for immense flux and uncertainty, taking the city through a radically different if not quite defined direction. That’s not just because of the potential turn-over, but because the council could end up with four members who’ve never served on an elected board before, and with a fifth member who’s still in his rookie phase, with less than two years into his term.
Dynamics of that sort would normally shift power to the administration, which would provide a measure of stability as it schools the newly elected along their learning curves. But not this time. The changes the new slate proposes (in most combinations or likelihood of electoral outcomes) could be very significant in tone and substance down to shaking up administrative ranks yet again: the likelihood that City Manager Matt Morton would be retained if a majority of the seats go to the more insurgent-minded candidates is slim to none. His departure, likely to be accompanied by others, would further diminish institutional history in administrative ranks already slim on that count.
If the council experiences less turn-over, it could hold the line for a measure of continuity and stability. Six of the 10 candidates, including two incumbents, are on the more conservative side of continuity, though the three insurgents (Alan Lowe, Ed Danko, Victor Barbosa and Dennis McDonald) very much define themselves as conservatives.
An unsettling irony: those challenging candidates who would effect the most change on the council and the administration are the same candidates who claim the current council and administration have been too unstable, with too much turn-over in top administrative ranks (though Morton was brought on to be a change agent). None of those challengers address that paradox when they criticize the administration or the current council, and none of those present was challenged on that score in a candidate forum featuring eight of the 10 candidates last week.
What follows is a comprehensive analysis of the four races through the lens of last Friday’s Flagler Tiger Bay forum, a 65-minute event held in person for the candidates, at the Government Services Center in Bunnell, but viewable only on the web for voters. (See the full forum video below the article.)
The panels featured all but two of the candidates for the four seats. The forum warmed up the non-existent in-person audience with questions to the council candidates in three segments, working up to the main event: the race between incumbent Mayor Milissa Holland, who never thought she’d find herself battling for survival or polling as low as 32 percent in the primary, and her challenger, Alan Lowe, a political novice who considers himself an “inventor” with a past in various businesses. The analyses begin with that race.
The Mayoral Race: Milissa Holland and Alan Lowe
It wasn’t exactly Ali-Frazier at the forum, but perhaps more like a set-up to Ali-Shavers, the late-career bout when Ali appeared more vulnerable than he really was, and eked out a win in the final round. At least that’s how Holland would hope to see it: for all the attacks, whisper campaign and reporting–mostly in the News-Journal–she’s weathered in the last few months about her misjudgments, her employer Coastal Cloud’s intersections with the city’s customer service platform and her close identification with the turbulent tenure of Matt Morton, the city manager who replaced Jim Landon after Holland led the charge to fire him, she appeared as confident and energetic as if it were her 2006 campaign for the County Commission. She even made a point of nodding to those years as she settled in the very chair she’d held for six years in that role.
Holland immediately leaned on that record then and now, underscoring an obvious contrast with Lowe: “Have been proud to represent this community for many, many years in a variety of boards that not only include local, regional and state. In the last four years we have sustained three hurricanes and a global pandemic. We have responded quickly with public safety as a priority,” she said, referring to the funding of additional deputies this year and in 2018. “We have also been able to achieve something miraculous in bringing the first university to the city of Palm Coast in the middle of a global pandemic, and surviving the governor’s billion-dollar veto pen. That will not only create better access to health care, better job opportunities for our students, a feeder through Daytona State College, and that could not have happened [without] the support of many stakeholders.” Holland then rattled off those stakeholders, never mentioning her own role, though MedNex is, in fact, one of her signature achievements.
Lowe was immediately on the offensive, but mildly, as would be the case for the rest of the segment: his criticism of Holland was muted. “With all due respect, although my opponent Milissa Holland must treat the office of mayor as a part-time job, because she has another boss, I am fortunate enough to give it my full-time attention,” he said, referring to himself as a self-employed person who has “no other boss to be beholden to,” other than residents. “I also think it’s important for all city employees to feel safe in their jobs and to have a non-toxic work atmosphere, which I believe is what’s going on right now. A smooth, well-functioning, well-led city hall will greatly improve the city-public interaction and enable us all to be proud to call Palm Coast our home.”
Lowe was referring to the numerous resignations and firings that have taken place on Morton’s watch, including some of the managerial employees Morton himself hired. But Lowe was also telegraphing that he would get rid of Morton, if he has the vote. But other than internal wrangles, Lowe did not at any point in the forum cite issues hampering the city or the city’s management in actual governance.
As questions turned to such details, Holland spoke of the challenges ahead–ensuring the development of MedNex, relationship-building (“I’ve built those for over 20 years in local government, and I think that’s given me the ability to be successful as mayor, bringing these projects to fruition,” Holland said). She also cited the city’s 40-year-old infrastructure as a main challenge. She wasn’t pandering or grasping at straws–there’s nothing sexy about discussing infrastructure at a rare forum–and in routine interviews, Holland’s attention often turns to the nuts and bolts of city issues, from stormwater planning to infrastructure. But her answer was an indication of the contrast between a candidate clearly immersed and aware of city issues in their details and one attempting to make a mark from a distance, with little more than a short list of mayoral missteps as his principal weapons.
More startling was Lowe’s answer to a question about affordable housing: rather than say how he proposed addressing the problem of families with poor credit and their inability to get into housing, he proposed literally segregating low-income housing from other neighborhoods to protect richer neighborhoods’ property values. “What I think really should be looked at though is setting up affordable housing, meaning we should be able to set up a gated community somewhere, out of existing neighborhoods, use smaller lots and smaller houses that won’t interfere with existing properties and interfere with those property values, and then come up with some type of subsidizing program in order to get people into those homes. That’s something we really could look at as long as it doesn’t interfere, you know, like it would be a gated community in a different location that doesn’t interact with existing property.”
Both candidates were questioned about their past–Holland about her “conflict of interest” with Costal Cloud, Lowe about the opacity of his past and business issues. Holland said what she’s said several times before: that her relationship with the company was kept at arms’ length at the city itself, where she recused herself in any vote regarding Coastal Cloud, and where the company’s voluntary work led to the establishment of the customer service portal. (She did not mention her lapses, as when she used the city’s email account to send two emails that tangentially referred to Coastal Cloud. No other such emails were unearthed, and neither email led to any business results benefiting her.)
When Lowe was asked about his own ethics, he said he was not familiar with what the question implied, “although I have seen a hit job program out there, there’s only one opponent to me so I have to assume it came from somewhere in that area, and a lot of the information that I saw was either skewed, lies or incorrect, and I’m not going to go down that rabbit hole and try in 90 seconds explain why it’s all lies, incorrect and skewed. So what we would have to look for is today. The information you’re talking about happened some 20 or 30 years ago and was skewed around. There’s nothing current in my life that would interfere with ethics or anything that would allow me to function properly.”
The “hit job” Lowe was referring to is a website set up on Sept. 11 by an anonymous entity aware enough not to leave fingerprints–there’s little doubt that the website is the product of Holland allies–with links to documents that point to legal, financial and business issues in Lowe’s past. Lowe did not dispute the authenticity of the documents, which raise questions about his financial savvy. (FlaglerLive in 2010 reported on Lowe’s coral-rebuilding initiative, when he was seeking to develop a coral farm at Matanzas High School, and asking for the school board to lease him land there. Lowe’s proposal was too vague for the school board’s comfort.)
The candidates also discussed public safety, MedNex on several occasions (which Lowe guardedly supports, questions on finances) and the environment–a question that gave Lowe a chance to talk about hos coral work and mention of it in national Geographic–before their closing statements: Lowe arguing that the city is not welcoming of public voices and lacking transparency (an odd statement regarding the current administration, which has been a sieve compared to the previous, more secretive administration), and spoke of the possibility a “rail spur” between Palm Coast and NASA. Holland spoke of a bright future but said it needs “consistency in leadership,” then tactically dropped the names of Sen. Travis Hutson and Rep. Paul Renner, “who have both endorsed me in my race for mayor, and they’ve done that because I work closely with them.”
District 1: Sims Jones and Ed Danko
In other races, there were two no-shows. Victor Barbosa, who’s running in the special election to fill out Jack Howell’s seat, and Ed Danko, who faces Sims Jones in the seat being vacated by Bob Cuff. Barbosa, a barber shop owner who says his most important priority is to give people a voice at City Hall, chose to silence his own at the forum, without giving a reason. Barbosa appears largely to be conducting a campaign-by-signs, with the bulk of his family-funded campaign ($2,000 of his $3,600 campaign chest) devoted to signs and the like. Danko, in a statement, sent his “:sincere regrets” to Tiger Bay and WNZF, saying he was unable to attend “due to a previously scheduled commitment.”
So Jones, a pastor and retired New York City firefighter, had the floor to himself for the segment devoted to District 1 (or Seat 1, as the city calls it). Jones made news, retreating from his previous call for a Palm Coast police department–what could be a calamitous judgment call for any candidate, as one could tell just from the tone of Gail Wadsworth’s question to him–with a sincere admission: his earlier analysis was incomplete. “I didn’t have all the figures and the information that I needed,” Jones said. “When I did my own research and I looked at one of our neighboring cities, I saw that it was almost $20 million to run a police force. And when I put that up against what we are paying now with the sheriff’s department, it was kind of a no-brainer.”
He then sought to turn the flub to his advantage: “One thing about me, I’m going to keep digging and looking until I get all the facts, and if I make a mistake, I’m going to correct it, and my mistake was, I didn’t have all the right facts. When I did, I changed my mind, and no, we can’t.”
“Thank you, that makes me feel better,” a clearly relieved Wadsworth said.
Jones, who lost a race for council previously, said he’s been involved in numerous local civic groups and has an ear to residents’ concerns. Aside from one other question on MedNex, that was it for Jones, who capped his appearance with one of his rhetorical flourishes. “I’m not running for the President of the United States. I’m not running for the Senate. I’m not running for a party. I’m running for the people of Palm Coast. I’m here because I want to do something for this place, this city, and I want to be the voice for the people. I want to be a servant for the people.”
MedNex–the planned medical-education hub that will result in an extension of the University of North Florida in Palm Coast’s Town Center–was in fact the single-most spoken word at the forum, cliches aside. Everyone supported it with one exception: McDonald.
District 3: Nick Klufas and Cornelia Manfre
In the District 3 race opposing first-term incumbent Nick Klufas and semi-political novice Cornelia Manfre, a commercial Realtor (married to former Sheriff Jim Manfre, she could not be called a political novice). Both are high-energy, fast-talking candidates, the type who’d have had their hand up more often than others in class and who wear more competitive verve than emotion on both sleeves. They did so in spades at the forum, though Klufas stuck to generalities while Manfre was far more specific, albeit with numbers that didn’t always match up with the evidence.
Klufas isn’t quite the underdog: he polled 40 percent to Manfre’s 33 in the primary, sending both to the November runoff (a third candidate who did not have a serious campaign polled 26 percent, likely keeping Klufas from clearing the 50-percent mark). But Klufas spoke as an underdog, as if defensively listing council accomplishments as his own–improvements to the city’s cell phone coverage with three towers, supporting “responsible growth” and the formation of an innovation and arts district–two initiatives that have Mayor Milissa Holland’s name more clearly engraved on them, and the commission’s unanimous support–as well as the “splash park” at Holland Park, a costly council pet project that hasn’t stopped getting perked up for the past four years. He also cited the addition of sheriff’s deputies, also a unanimous council initiative.
Klufas also defended taking part in the unanimous vote to fire City Manager Jim Landon over two years ago, and said he’d do it again if presented with the same set of circumstances.
Manfre, a city resident for 21 years, says she’s bringing 40 years of experience in Real Estate and “running because I got mad. In my work I’ve been disappointed with the lack of friendly service and administration when people come to this city for approval and permits, disappointed with the lack of economic development for job creation, disappointed with the lack of interest in finding workforce housing solutions.”
But as with many such forums where neither the moderator nor those asking questions require candidates to back up what they say with at least some evidence, the picture is not as black and white as Manfre was painting, at least based on some available data. The city’s independent 2019 survey of residents found 78 percent satisfaction with the city’s customer service, and 75 percent satisfaction with services provided by the city. Those numbers don’t reflect satisfaction specific to Realtors or builders, who tend to want their regulatory paperwork executed yesterday. But the city isn’t running an operation favoring builders and Realtors, either, but answerable to residents and businesses as a whole.
While only 43 percent rated economic development in the city positively, that’s actually a record improvement and the highest level of satisfaction by far since the question has been asked going back to 2002, when it’s been in the 20s and 30s.
Another set of numbers may show why. While it is a favorite talking points of candidates running for county or city offices to decry the lack of economic development, and the claim tends to resonate with the public, the jobs figures simply don’t support the talking points: In January 2017, soon after the current council took its seats, 42,800 people in Flagler County held jobs (the overwhelming majority being palm Coast residents), in a labor force of 45,000. In February this year, just before the coronavirus pandemic struck, employment was up to 46,000, a gain of 1,000 jobs per year with little or no local government involvement. (The county disbanded its own largely non-performing but expensive economic development department along the way, with no effect on job creation. The figures are based on Florida Department of Economic Opportunity data.)
Nevertheless, Manfre’s claims went unchallenged.
Klufas was asked about challenges in the next few years. He, too, cited economic development, along with affordable (or “workforce”) housing, resting on Town Center as a solution to both. Since candidates were not asked the same questions, Manfre was then asked about how she’d balance out property tax revenue, which is overwhelmingly drawn from residential properties. That opened up the way to another frequent and frequently misleading claim by candidates: that cities like Palm Coast are in an unsustainable course due to the imbalance. In fact, the imbalance was built into the city as a residential community, it has been in place since before the city’s incorporation, and it has not affected a relatively low property tax rate, of which incumbents boast at every turn. The 3 percent annual cap on how much homesteaded properties’ tax bills may accelerate is another neutralizing agent on the imbalance, though it points to a different issue: commercial and non-homesteaded properties end up subsidizing homesteaded ones, though in Florida, the ratio is not as bad as in many other states. That was not Manfre’s complaint, however.
“Ninety percent of the tax revenues, according to our Palm Coast Observer, comes from the residential people, that’s a huge problem, most cities have 30 to 40 percent coming from your commercial buildings for that tax revenue,” she said. The numbers are somewhat overstated: according to 2019 Flagler Property Appraiser data, in the county as a whole, 79 percent of the county tax base, in valuation, was from lived-in residential properties, but that doesn’t mean 79 percent of tax revenue was drawn from residential properties, because commercial, industrial and non-homesteaded properties account for a disproportionate share of that revenue. For example, the largest tax payer in the county is FPL, and most of its taxes are drawn from tangible property (which accounts for 3.6 percent of the county’s tax base), not commercial or residential. (The 90 percent figure could not be found in the Observer except in an article about manfre, where she was quoted as giving that figure.)
“That’s a huge problem,” Manfre said, then shifting to a different focus: “We have to be able to service the people that are coming in and applying for both development and getting it executed through [City Hall] expeditiously and timely,” she said. “There’s too much lag, there are too many problems. I deal with a lot of national developers and national retailers and it is a serious problem with our City Hall and it has to be corrected.” (She did not provide an example.) Manfre also noted the very high median cost of single-family homes, which place them out of reach of most local wage earners–citing figures of $239,000 in June 2019, $269,000 this June.
She was close: according to the Flagler County Association of Realtors, the median sale price in June 2019 was $259,000; it was $263,000 last June. But her point was not diminished: “Anybody who is a service person making between $50,000 and $70,000 can’t afford that. It is impossible. So we have to look for alternatives here to be able to bring in affordable housing and allow these people to have a great place to live with great work areas that they’re servicing for us now.”
When Klufas was asked about his next term, he again relied on his 2016 campaign pitch: FiberNet subsidies. “What we can do is offset the cost of their telecommunication bill every month,” he said of businesses that could be lured to Palm Coast. (But FiberNet remains a promise, with the latest director brought in to take it over, at Klufas’s behest, pushed out a few weeks ago, for lack of performance, according to the city manager.)
District 2: David Alfin, Bob Coffman, Dennis McDonald
The District 2 (or Seat 2) race has drawn four candidates–David Alfin, a Realtor, Bob Coffman, a pilot, Dennis McDonald, a retired developer and perennial candidate for office, and Barbosa. None of the four has served in office before.
McDonald spoke adamantly against an electric franchise tax–a proposal that was briefly floated twice in the past few years, only to run into immediate and decisive public opposition, with no apparent hope for revival any time soon. McDonald thinks it will rise again. He wants a referendum. His approach at the forum was similar to his approach at the innumerable Palm Coast and County Commission meetings he attends, speaking frequently with an accusing and indignant tone. “One of the things that I was really appalled at in 2019 was that the city moved $1.5 million from the general fund to a non-budgetary departmental fund for MedNex, without any information on MedNex,” he said, repeating an inaccuracy he would repeat again and again at the meeting: the MedNex initiative was outlined by UNF and vetted repeatedly through the UNF board and the University Board of Governors (twice), as well as at Palm Coast council meetings. Still, McDonald said that when he contacted Jerry Cameron, the county administrator–and not quite a gold standard of information on matters beyond the county building–“he had no information at all.”
His flair for the absolute undiminished, McDonald was categorical when asked if he supported the current city administration. “Absolutely not,” he said, suggesting he’d fire everyone in charge, though as a council member, he would not have that authority except regarding the city manager and the city attorney (neither of whom McDonald maintains on his Christmas-card list). “New broom sweeps clean, I think that’s what should be done at the City Hall, as far as the administration is concerned,” he said, lowering his voice ominously. (The recurring rumor among political circles, including among candidates, is that if Alan Lowe defeats Holland, and Danko and Barbosa win, they would fire Morton and install McDonald as city manager: the prospect has city staffers nervous, according to people familiar with the current atmosphere at City Hall. On Saturday, Danko in a phone interview said that while he’d heard the rumor, there was no truth to it. “I can tell you categorically right now I would not vote to install Dennis McDonald as city manager,” Danko said. He also said he had no association with Barbosa.) McDonald took advantage of his platform at the forum to again allude to FBI investigations and how “there’s something going on here.” He stopped short of producing a list of culpable individuals from his breast pocket.
The bluster tended to overshadow the more tempered and reasoned approaches by Alfin and Coffman.
Alfin, who gives the impression of an over-preparer, had read-made answers to questions he’d anticipated, reading his answers from a prepared text when he supported MedNex, for example, keeping his answers brief and to the point. “I believe in a balance in the housing options in the city of Palm Coast,” he said, when asked one of the most recurring questions at these forums: affordable housing. “A one-salary household finds it difficult to afford a mortgage and to purchase a home in the city of Palm Coast, especially with the appreciating value of our homes. So we need a balance of housing options.” But he didn’t explain how as council member he would work toward that balance. Alfin has been exploring a run at local public office for years, coming close in previous years but never quite jumping in. He’s attended citizens’ academies in the county and the city to prepare.
Alfin ended his segment by referring to him in the third person: “I believe David Alfin is the candidate for optimism and opportunity,” he said. “I believe a focus on tax conservancy, public safety, quality jobs and more health care services is our path forward to the opportunity our city has to offer.”
Coffman, like Alfin, seldom used the full time allotted to him. “The voters of Palm Coast don’t know me that well,” he said modestly, only to then miss an opportunity to let them get to know him better when he suggested that they could look him up in public records to find out about his involvements. He elaborated more easily when speaking of his support of MedNex, noting that 28 percent of Palm Coast now looks like him–meaning demographically (he’s not quite in the Medicare bracket yet). “We need some young folks, we need the kind of people that that industry attracts,” he said. Asked about the budget, Coffman borrowed from ex-Mayor Jon Netts’s language about the “nice-to-have” and the “have-to have.”
“I am passionate about this experiment of our country and our democracy called self-governance,” Coffman ended. “I want to make sure that the voters understand–these are non-partisan offices up here for a reason. We represent everybody, and I seek the input of the constituents,” whom he also referred to as customers. He invited voters to join him on “this voyage of self-governance.”