Last Updated: 5:57 p.m.
The very first conversation Flagler County Supervisor of Elections Kaiti Lenhart had when County Administrator Jerry Cameron took the job a year and a half ago was about ensuring better parking during the 2020 elections at the Government Services Building, where the supervisor’s office is located.
It didn’t stick.
On Sept. 25, the main road into the GSB and the elections office was closed for a $737,000 construction project, right as voting by mail was picking up and voters were driving to the supervisor’s office to drop off their ballots. The rare detour signs have been causing confusion and anger among voters–and no small amount of displeasure from Lenhart.
Faith al-Khatib, the county engineer, had pledged to her that construction would be suspended at least during early voting. In August, Lenhart wrote Cameron and other county officials on Thursday, “I raised the concern of voter access to our polling location and Faith assured me that she would work with us to make sure the road was open for voters. I have received no communication to the contrary.”
Thursday morning, Lenhart learned Cameron would not stop construction. Lenhart was livid. “I went upstairs to the Engineering Department and spoke with Richard,” she wrote Cameron, referring to Richard Gordon, the assistant county engineer. “He is ‘working on it’ and compared it to pulling teeth. I can’t imagine a trip to the dentist taking two months. This should have been part of the planning process since our initial meeting.””She’s quite upset over it,” County Commissioner Charlie Ericksen, an alternate member of the canvassing board for this election, said. “Which I would be too.” Ericksen suggested that the county commission, meeting on Monday, might raise the issue with Cameron. Ericksen favors a work suspension.
But late Friday afternoon Commission Chairman Dave Sullivan said the matter is out of the commission’s hands. “Basically it was a decision reached by the county administrator and he takes full responsibility for it,” Sullivan said. “We the commission was not involved in the decision other than a while back to say we do need more, I guess, an increase in parking, 70 spaces. There was nothing mentioned about voting and that kind of thing because it was a long time ago.” Sullivan said it was “too late to intervene” to suspend construction, with early voting starting Monday. “I do understand people’s concerns and I would never want in any way to hinder somebody from voting. I’m sorry I’m being evasive on this, but that’s where it is, that’s the way it is. I can’t do anything about it.”
Last week Lenhart had written Cameron of receiving a phone call from a voter-protection group that had received a complaint about the lack of access in the parking lot and the confusion being created. She said she’d receiving “MANY complaints about the parking lot from voters who are visiting the office to return their mail ballot in person. I just got off the phone again while typing this email from someone who said ‘older folks’ are getting lost in the parking lot and don’t know where to drop off their ballot. I am making a sign to help direct people to our office.” She asked that the road be opened from Oct. 19 through Nov. 3, covering the two weeks of early voting and Election day itself.
Lenhart spoke with Cameron Thursday morning. “It wasn’t very productive, to say the least,” she said. And she was stunned by what Cameron told her: “If they can’t understand the detour they shouldn’t be voting.” (Cameron didn’t respond to an email asking him about the statement, nor did he respond about his refusal to suspend the project.)
Ironically, the project is filling a ditch for the eventual addition of 62 new parking spaces, among other improvements. The bids were received on April 29. The County Commission approved the project only in mid-July.
“This is along overdue project, and the county took the first viable opportunity to address the severe lack of parking at the GSB,” Julie Murphy, the county’s spokesperson, said in an email today. “Administration is going to great effort to ensure this is the easiest process in the history of the GSB for voters to access the polls. General Services is providing signage and or volunteers to direct voters to reserved parking by the SOE office.”
Murphy was repeating talking points set out by Cameron in an email to Lenhart Thursday: “We are taking extraordinary measures to make sure voting is as easy as possible. With the measures we are taking, voting this year should be more convenient than ever. Measures taken include[:] electronic signage directing voters to turn right instead of left when entering the parking lot, extensive directional signage to the next electronic sign directing them into the same parking they would have entered had the originally turned left and followed the road to the parking lot, we are asking employees to park at the Courthouse or the EOC, we are reserving large portions of GSB parking for ‘voters only’, and have offered to hire people to direct traffic during voting hours.”
Cameron’s statement is deceptive. None of the elements he is describing were in place since construction began and the elections office began receiving what has now totaled 18,000 ballots by mail or by drop-box at the elections office. This afternoon, a lone, meager detour sign was planted at the main entrance into the complex, without any additional signage pointing to the elections office or the drop box. For that, a driver would have had to go counter to the detour’s sign and cross through the courthouse parking lot than go around it. For those going around it, they would eventually come across a small sign pointing them back into the GSB parking lot and through a weave of turns to make it to the elections office. Cameron’s claim that voting would be “more convenient than ever” is simply false.
Yet he repeatedly told Lenhart that the county was taking “extraordinary” measure, then echoed, in writing, the contempt he’d spoken to Lenhart: “It is difficult to imagine how anyone who can drive to the complex would not be able to expediently find a parking space and vote with less inconvenience than in previous elections. We are literally asking folks to turn right instead of left on the same road, drive approximately the same distance, and enter the same parking lot in order to vote. They will have vastly increased directional signage and much more set aside parking than ever before.” (Cameron is, again, wrong about the distance traveled by detour, which is significantly longer than the normal way in.)
None of those projected measures, presumably starting next week, addressed the confusion of the last few weeks, nor is it clear to what extent volunteers would be available for all 12 hours each day of early voting.
“It’s hard not to assume that elections are viewed as an inconvenience,” Lenhart wrote Cameron this week. “Here we are on Thursday, prior to early voting starting on Monday and there is no solid plan to open the road for voters. Let me remind you again that 8,820 people voted early at this location in 2016. Please, please, please, just open the road.”
The detour is expected to remain in place until Nov. 24. Construction isn’t scheduled to end until Dec. 23.