Bob Coffman is one of four candidates for Palm Coast City Council, District 2.
Ordinarily three seats on the Palm Coast City Council would have been up in this election cycle: the mayor’s and the council’s odd-numbered Districts 1 and 3. But in July Jack Howell resigned his District 2 seat for health reasons. The council appointed former Mayor Jon Netts to the seat for the months until a special election could seat the candidate who’d finish the two years left in the term.
That special election is taking place in conjunction with the general election. In an unprecedented turn in the 20-year-old city, four seats are up, and all four may see a new member seated. Two most certainly will, since Bob Cuff elected not to contest his District 1 seat, and the special election for Howell’s seat will lead to a new council member regardless. The mayor’s race, the District 1 and the District 3 races have all resulted in runoffs as none of the incumbents managed to clear the 50 percent threshold to make a runoff unnecessary.
The special election has drawn four candidates: David Alfin, Victor Barbosa, Bob Coffman and Dennis McDonald. Three of them appeared at a candidate forum. See the details here. None of the candidates has held public office before.
This is a non-partisan, at-large election. That means all registered voters in Palm Coast, regardless of party or non-party affiliation–Democrats, Republicans, independents and others–may cast a ballot in all the council races.
Palm Coast mayor and council members normally serve four years, but the District 2 term will be for only two years. They’re paid $9,600 a year, $11,400 for the mayor. The council members and the mayor also each get a $1,200 car allowance and a $910 communication allowance each year, so in sum council members’ total pay is $11,710, the mayor’s is $13,510.
FlaglerLive submitted identical questions to all candidates, with the understanding that additional questions might be tailored to candidates individually and some follow-up questions may be asked, with all exchanges conducted by email and on the record. The Live Interview’s aim is to elicit as much candor and transparency as possible. We have asked candidates to refrain from making campaign speeches or make lists of accomplishments. We have also asked candidates to reasonably document any claim or accusation. Undocumented claims are edited out. Answers are also edited for length, redundancy, relevance and, where possible, accuracy. If a candidate does not answer a question or appears to be evading a question, that’s noted.
But it’s ultimately up to the reader to judge the quality and sincerity of a candidate’s answers.
The Questions in Summary: Quick Links
- Aging Palm Coast
- Economic development
- Matt Morton
- Council dynamics
- Social media
- Rap sheet
Place and Date of Birth: Renton, Washington, 9 April 1958.
Current job: Small Business owner, retired airline and military pilot.
Party Affiliation: Democratic.
Net Worth: Between $500,000 and $1,000,000, depending on markets.
At first blush, this seems like a fair question, but there’s a fundamental flaw. My top three policy priorities must be determined by input from the citizens of Palm Coast and District 2 within Palm Coast (roughly the northeast sector). Then, consensus must be reached by the rest of the Council (including the Mayor), in order for there to be any realistic opportunity for those priorities to be accomplished. The pandemic has created an altered state in which to conduct meetings, but citizen involvement must be solicited and acted upon, transparently. That being said, as a concerned citizen, my input to policy would be to continue to seek balance in maintaining those qualities of the community that are endearing, such as the parks and trails, and make sound, strategic decisions regarding targeted growth. Diversity of occupations, business and residential opportunities will attract a broader range of new citizens and help create opportunities for young people to remain in Palm Coast if they so desire. That in turn will diversify revenue streams for the city and county.
Council members are expected to be responsive to constituents but also to ensure that the city is steered in the right directions: Do you have any specific areas of policy interest you plan on pursuing that the city isn’t currently pursuing but should?
A review of the Council’s internal ethics policies is probably in order, particularly regarding disclosure and any appearances of conflicts-of-interest. I would prefer to serve on a Council that is widely acknowledged for being above board and beyond reproach, than on one that finds itself continuously defensive. A general policy review to look at activities and proprietorships by the city that would be best served through competitive bidding and outsourcing to appropriate professional management, rather than the costs of organic or “home-grown” managerial expertise.
The 2021 city budget page includes the list of the Councils priorities. It really is pretty well thought out. I am not an advocate of radical change.. Palm Coast isn’t perfect, but it’s pretty good. That’s why we all choose to live here.
This questions posits some of the same issues as the first question, and again presupposes that the citizens need to prioritize these concerns. Also, personally, I need to review the most recent budget and council decisions, as my concerns may already have been considered and even started acting upon. However, that being said, recent high city employee turnover needs to be addressed, the office and decision-making regarding the office of economic development, and addressing the mounting infrastructure challenges of aging systems and strain from growth (think traffic, water, waste, etc) are on my personal radar.
There is no office of economic development. Would you restore one? The city manager is more focused on hiring a deputy city manager. Would you redirect him?
My preference, and again acknowledging citizen input and Council consensus, would be to have an office of economic development. It appears to me, that the relationships, networking, scanning and preparing for opportunities to attract valuable, sustainable businesses to Palm Coast requires a broader and deeper effort than can be accomplished through assigning these tasks as “ancillary duties.”
3. The city’s budget, like all local government budgets, will likely face revenue shortfalls in the next two years. How will you make up the lost revenue? Short of new sources of revenue, what areas of the budget are ripe for cuts? Please be specific.
The budget for the coming year, which is half of my term, has just been decided by the existing City Council. I have not had a chance to review the documents yet, so a little of this is “wading into murky waters.” The question, however, is legitimate. I propose to start with an assumption of a balanced budget, and identify the size of the shortfall. Like any budgetary decision-making, there will be those items that are already existing obligations, that fall into the “must pay” category. In the discretionary portion of the budget will be new projects. Understandably, there will be constituents who feel that their particular pet project is a “must have” versus a “nice to have” item. The input of the citizenry must be solicited for guidance in the prioritization of these items, and consensus must be achieved amongst the decision-makers. Frankly, I do not have a personal list of “low-hanging fruit.” As indicated, my personal idea of frivolous may be someone else’s imperative. As an individual, my opinion is just that, my opinion. Only through consensus does the collective opinion become one of governance.
Budgetary decisions are notoriously alien to constituents in most regards unless there’s a sharp hit on pocketbooks, whether it’s a big increase in taxes or in utility costs, or garbage fees. None of those are expected beyond the usual, annual–and disappointingly surreptitious–increases built in as cost-of-living “adjustments” or the like. The challenge for the council will be to contend with potentially less revenue from a slower economy, leaving it almost entirely in the council’s and the administration’s hands to manage. The council (or any local government, for that matter) has never turned to residents and asked: what would you like us to cut or shrink. Can you give us an idea or two of what you’d consider frivolous, or at least ripe for cutting?
I just reviewed the 2021 budget. Unfortunately, there isn’t enough granularity in the report, and I wasn’t an “insider,” to see if there are many “white elephants” in the budget. There is a pretty good bump in the IT budget, for instance. Is all of it absolutely necessary, or are there some places to trim? Corporate belt-tightening exercises that I have been through come through a directive from the top, such as “every department is going to submit a new budget with a 10% cut.” Some of the bigger budget areas, such as Holland Park improvements, the Community Center, would seem that some of the planned expenditures may be able to be delayed or adapted to smaller numbers. Some areas are already pretty lean. For those of us in District 2, the saltwater canal budget takes a hit in 2021, but there’s a corresponding increase elsewhere in the line for storm water/sewage. But these budgets as a whole are under $100,000, where some of the budget items are in the millions. Storm water really gets big in 2022. Keep in mind, that some of these items that look ripe for cutting, have offsetting grants. I don’t know, but it appears that some of the planned expenditures for the Lehigh Trail Head may have grant money coming in. In years past, some items in the Holland Park budget and things like the costs associated with narrowing of Whiteview were easier targets for cutting.
My approach for taking office is to acknowledge that I don’t know everything, particularly those stories that are “behind the scenes.”My motto in coming into office is the medical credo, “above all else, do no harm.” History is full of stories of those who forced a “new” idea into place, only to find out that it had already been tried, and discarded.No need to go down that path, it’s expensive, time-consuming, frequently causes loss of morale amongst those who have been around for a while, all negative consequences on the taxpayer’s dime!
4. Evaluate the city’s response to the coronavirus emergency. As of this writing, the city, unlike a growing list of local governments across Florida, has not mandated the use of masks in public places, though it’s in the council’s power to do so. Tell us how you’d vote on a mask mandate, and explain your answer, citing appropriate authorities.
Given a lack of a nationally planned response, and similarly disjointed state level guidance, I think Palm Coast has done pretty well. I haven’t seen tracing that would lead one to believe that any of the municipal facilities is responsible for “super-spreading,” and I have been led to believe that the city employees feel relatively safe. There are municipal services that create exposure opportunities to those on the front lines, and that seems to be well-handled, with safety in mind as well.
5. Palm Coast has the authority to impose a public service tax on your utility bill of up to 10 percent, and a franchise fee on utilities, which would be passed to customers, of up to 10 percent. The money may be spent at the council’s discretion. Many counties and cities around the state partially or fully levy one or both the taxes. Palm Coast considered imposing a 6 percent electric franchise fee and a 2 percent public service tax in 2012, but reversed course in the face of strong public opposition. Either of the new taxes, proponents argue, would diversify the city’s revenue stream. Either could be used to generate revenue that would otherwise have to be generated by property taxes, though the public service tax and the franchise fee are regressive in comparison. Where do you stand on either new tax becoming part of Palm Coast’s taxing structure?
This one is pretty short and sweet. I am opposed to either tax.
How would you respond to a 2008-style housing crash that brings general revenue crashing down with it? It’s not an entirely hypothetical possibility, given an expected increase in foreclosures as homeowners out of work are unable to meet mortgage payments.
I certainly acknowledge the dangers of a budget that is based on the cyclical whims of the real estate market. Likewise, Covid-19 is decreasing the number of brick and mortar businesses as virtual businesses and workplaces gain strength. That acknowledge also, a dilemma for simply a call on business properties and taxes to diversify the revenue stream for the city. The City gets a small portion of sales tax, contributing about 8% of the 2020 budget, and reflecting some of the Covid-19 downturn. Of the City’s 40 million-ish dollar budget, roughly 24 million comes from property tax, the remaining 40% of the budget comes from direct service charges, fees, the before mentioned-sales tax, and so on. In the event of a crash, I suspect that in addition to expenditure-reducing budget cuts, the consensus will be to increase revenue by looking at other services that the city provides that are not universally enjoyed by the community, with an eye towards having those specific users pay more for the cost of having those services available. I would prefer to see sunset clauses on any of these adjustments. No Council wants to go to the citizens and ask about how to re-arrange the budget priorities, but that is exactly what should happen.
6. Just in the last 10 years, Palm Coast has grown by 15,000 people, but it has grown older, with people 65 and older representing nearly 28 percent of the population, up from 23 percent in 2010. That’s a substantial increase, almost all of it as the proportion of school-age children has diminished: the school district’s population has remained at around 13,000 for 10 years. Should Palm Coast encourage that accelerating retirement-community trend? What would you do to ensure that Palm Coast is addressing the needs of its growing elderly population. Alternately, what would you do to reverse the trend, if you’re more interested in broadening the working-age population base?
I thought I had an easy answer to this. The facts are, this is complicated. We have an aging America. Declining birth rates and increased longevity couple to make this a national phenomenon. (National policy issues of accurate census data and immigration policy affect these core statements.) Florida acts as a multiplier of this disparity through a combination of climate, tax policy, housing/property availability and job opportunity. Our county and municipality are at the epicenter, given the history of Palm Coast’s development. I don’t feel that the trend needs encouragement, in response to the first third of the question. The key to having a balance of demographics is to encourage skilled labor and professional level jobs in Palm Coast. That means paying attention to attracting business to the community and attractive housing for their employees. It means a commitment to maintaining a superb public education experience for our youth, and assuring a welcoming posture for those who provide care and facilities for our aging population. I believe our MedNexus program is just such an opportunity.
7. Some apartment complexes have gone up in the past two years, but the city still faces an affordable housing shortfall as housing prices have risen steadily. How do you propose to diversify Palm Coast’s housing options? By what criteria would you approve or reject apartment complexes? Would you approve raising the density and height of multi-family, or apartment, structures in select areas of the city zoned for the purpose?
The answer is yes, we have to diversify the housing options, and unfortunately, the fact is, that to decrease the cost to live in Palm Coast, the density will have to increase. These increases in density must be limited, and well-thought-out. It is so easy to overwhelm the infrastructure, including the impact on the environment, with thoughtless expansion. Traffic, water, energy, waste (solid and liquid), the need for green spaces, and so on, will be impacted. As tempting as it would be to “just freeze everything,” all that would do is increase demand, increase prices and add to the problem that we are trying to solve. Executing thoughtful plans while remaining competitive in the building sector with communities that are “a little less careful” in their planning will be the next issue. As in all things, maintain a balance.
I think the reason that the perception of “only talk” is because this isn’t an easy problem to solve. There is intense competition amongst communities. There are those within the community who don’t agree with a particular goal, or company, or aspect of attracting new business and sustaining that business, who can effectively “sabotage” the effort. I define economic development to be mostly along the lines of bringing new businesses and business models to Palm Coast. Will I be any more or less successful than my predecessors? Each of us serve Palm Coast in unique times and circumstances. This term is a short two years, that may very well be defined by the Covid 19. It is entirely possible that new business models from where we work, how we interact with existing and potential customers, how we go about the financial and product transactions, will evolve in a manner that make traditional approaches to planning seem obsolete. I perceive that, while it is tempting, running for a political office, to speak in absolutes, the reality is far different.
With what covid-19 is doing to change what we understand as the workplace, reducing the emphasis on actual work locations, emphasizing remote work, do you consider Palm Coast to be in a good position to be on that vanguard, or to be behind? Either way, what could the city do to maximize its attractiveness as a remote-work hub?
Some of my earlier conversation directly affects this response. Our physical infrastructure, directly impacting the quality of life of our residents, is top-notch, making Palm Coast a very attractive place to live. It is aging, though, and it is capacity-limited, both of which require wise use of resources and money to maintain and/or expand. Our unique Florida coastal environment is a big part of that quality, and sustainability and preservation of water use, land use, wise land development, and so on are paramount. (My district, District 2, encompassing most of the canal community, already has water frequently over the top of the seawall instead of just below.) And of course, connectivity to the state, national and global marketplace is critical. This usually means electronic – high speed internet with a great deal of band-width being optimum in today’s parlance, but also physical, roads, rails and air cannot be ignored either. Palm Coast is fairly well-positioned currently, but the future will be intensely competitive as other communities vie for similar markets.
I have no real “insider” information to add in addition to the storylines in our local media. As an outsider, all I can offer is that the city manager is the operational agent of the Council/Mayor. Good working relationships are based on mutual trust, built on communication, transparency and accountability. It is clear that Landon had lost the trust of the Mayor and the majority of the Council. Morton was given the opportunity to start with a clean slate. Even though I have spoken with a couple of recent Council members to get generic background information, I have not asked about the current relationship, as I didn’t want to arrive with any bias based on someone else’s experience.
10. Evaluate your own successes and shortcomings, with specifics, telling us why you’re better suited to be elected than any of your challengers. Do you see your role in the next two years—since your term will be limited to that—as continuing in the footsteps of Jack Howell, or is Howell’s approach now irrelevant to you?
My experience has been mostly on the federal and international level. I worked both sides of the aisle in the Senate and House, advocating for legislation helpful to airlines, the profession of pilots, and aviation safety. There were successes, there were failures. Similarly, I was attached as a labor representative to the State Department negotiating team in charge of bilateral and multilateral aviation agreements. There were more successes than failures, but all my endeavors were team efforts. My strength and weakness as a candidate for City Council are the same – my lack of experience at our municipal level. It is true that I don’t know where all the skeletons are buried. It is also true that I have no skeletons, and owe no allegiances to anyone other than the collective will of the citizens of Palm Coast.
How do you see the completion of the next two years in relation to what Howell brought to the council–or is Howell simply past, and there ought to be no allegiance to his term? The question can be posed both ways: if you do feel any sort of allegiance, why so?
Jack Howell won a close race against Jon Netts for the honor of representing District 2 on the Council. I have spoken with both of them to gain background perspective. The voters spoke in 2018, so I picked up the phone and asked Jack about unfinished business going forward. His first response was, “Bob, be your own man!” Which of course, is totally what one would expect Jack to say, and what I intend to do. By that, I seek support, council and advice from my fellow citizens of the second district. I reject the notion that special interests should hold any sway in the decision-making process, as well as any “favor trading” amongst Council members. Jack used his military leadership experience to know that speaking directly and earnestly with the city employees is a critical part of the feed-back loop. These are the folks on the front line, and the early warning mechanism of unintended consequences of policy changes.
11. Palm Coast relies on the sheriff for policing. Evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of that contract, and tell us what specifically you would change about it. Are some areas of Palm Coast less effectively policed than others? Do you favor an independent police department for the city, now or in the near future?
An independent police department is a very expensive undertaking. The relationship between the City and the County is very good currently, and having the policing provided by the Sheriff’s Office is currently working. This situation eliminates paying for redundancies in expertise and facilities. It also eliminates jurisdictional squabbles. For now, it works. That isn’t a guarantee that it will always work, so I am not closed-minded to change, if the circumstances warrant.
12. Elected office is no stranger to bluster. Tell us about you as a person: your character, your temperament, your foibles. Tell us who do you admire most in office today among elected officials in Flagler County—the person you’d consider a model of leadership.
I was fortunate in my years in the military and in the cockpit and on Capitol Hill to be exposed to many good leaders as well as some that were less effective. I tried to emulate the collective characteristics of the good ones, and try not to fall in the same traps of the poor ones. Every leader has an ego. It comes with the job description. The good ones recognize and seek affirmation, but try to avoid the pitfalls of over reliance on pride of authorship of ideas and so on. Similarly, I served for some very charismatic individuals – born with special DNA for leadership, but had neither the ethics or the vision to lead in a worthy direction. My own foibles are just like anyone else’s. I am human, I will need to acknowledge mistakes and misunderstandings from time to time. The key to professionalism is how gracefully we recover from those mistakes.
13. Should you be held to account for what you display on your social media pages any differently than for what you would say anywhere public? Do you have different standards of behavior between the way you’d conduct yourself as an elected official—in a meeting, at an official function—as opposed to on your social media platforms?
I suppose there is a normal human tendency to separate our “professional persona,” from the one we project personally. But public service, like being members of the military, mean that we accept being held to higher public standard, and that any opinions expressed, regardless of medium, carry with them the requirement for accountability.
14. Have you ever been charged with a felony or a misdemeanor anywhere in Flagler, Florida or the United States (other than a speeding ticket), or faced a civil action other than a divorce, but including bankruptcies, or faced any investigative or disciplinary action through a professional board such as the bar or a medical board? If so, please explain, including cases where charges or claims did not lead to conviction or disciplinary action.