If you thought election season was over, think again: Flagler Beach’s is just beginning. With the city’s elections set for March 2, the first qualifying window opened today, and two candidates announced their intentions: incumbent Eric Cooley will run again for his commission seat, and Suzie Johnston, a near-lifelong Flagler Beach resident and a member of a Flagler County political dynasty, will run for mayor, as Linda Provencher will not run for a fourth term.
Provencher’s decision was not a surprise. She’s spoken of it repeatedly in recent commission meetings. “Ive done it for three terms, I think that’s enough,” Provencher said today. “I’m not going away. I will still stay involved with the Flagler Beach All Stars,” a civic group of volunteers that includes Cooley and that’s Johnston, “the beach cleanups, all the good for the community, and I’ll still make my opinions known for those who will listen. It’s time for the next generation to step up.”
But the mayor’s decision is nevertheless a significant change for the commission, which will lose one of the more knowledgeable and assertive champions of the city. Provencher served two terms as a commissioner, from 2006 to 2010, took a break, and was elected mayor in 2012, serving three terms, for a combined 15 years’ service for Flagler Beach. The mayor on the commission has veto but not voting power. Provencher held the city’s first Kids’ Town halls, organized food distributions at Thanksgiving, Christmas and during the coronavirus emergency, and of course tireless beach cleanups over the years.
Though seemingly ceremonial, the position nevertheless adds an influential sixth voice to all commission deliberations, depending on its holder’s disposition. Candid, opinionated and forthright–but never abrasive–Provencher didn’t sit back, taking an active and deft role in all policy and budget discussions and the hiring of two managers, soon to be three (the commission intends to name a new manager before the March election). She was also effective in the the management of managers, displaying skillful diplomacy in her interventions regarding Larry Newsom in his difficult last months.
Provencher’s role extended beyond the city, whether on the Tourist Development Council or through the Flagler League of Cities, where the county’s mayors discuss common approaches to key goals. The League of Cities was behind the swift and collective enactment of Bunnell’s, Flagler Beach’s and Palm Coast’s mask mandates, unenforceable though they were (Flagler Beach renewed its own Thursday evening for the next 60 days), and behind the unified, countywide pitch to bring the University of North Florida’s MedNexus initiative to Palm Coast.
“She and I had spoken many times over the last year about her decision to not seek re election,” Palm Coast Mayor Milissa Holland said. “Of course I would be remiss if I did not say a part of me was disappointed but not for her but for Flagler Beach. She is what you want in a mayor. She has a love for her community, the people, the businesses and the beautiful character it has to offer. She is principled and stands strongly in her convictions and what she feels is in the best interest of the city. I have admired that so much about her as I watched her lead over the many years we have worked together. As for my friend, I am happy that she is going back to private life after giving so such much time and energy to helping improve the quality of life for her residents. I know she will always be a phone call away, or taking part of another beach clean up as that is who she is. She has most definitely left her imprint in the sand.”
Johnston is a friend and protégée of Provencher’s. The two think alike, and their assertive personalities are more alike than not in a political world where Johnston is nowhere near a rookie: her mother has been Tax Collector Suzanne Johnston for the past 16 years and just won re-election unopposed for the fourth straight time, her father was a county commissioner, her grandmother on her father’s side was the first female school board member in Flagler. “If Suzy does win, I know that Milissa and Catherine [Bunnell Mayor Catherine Robinson] will help her along as well, and she’s used to politics, I mean, her mother has been in politics how long know? She knows the good the bad and the ugly.”
Johnston’s first discussion about running was with her 11-year-old daughter Sydney Adams, who gave her the green light. Sydney told her she’d “spice up the meetings.” (Sydney spiced up her own meeting Thursday evening when–though AdventHealth Palm Coast was making a presentation in recognition of diabetes awareness–she and her friend Penelope McDonald brought cookies they’d baked and distributed them to everyone present.) Johnston’s second conversation was with her mother. And of course there was Provencher, who’s “really going to put me under her wing and help guide me through the learning curve with the city,” she said, assuming she wins in March.
“I’ve been volunteering with Flagler Beach for essentially my entire life, almost the last 30 years since I’ve been old enough to make a difference,” Johnston said, “and progressively over the years my involvement has gotten deeper and deeper,” whether through organizing the Flagler Beach Parade and her involvement with the Flagler Education Foundation or with the All Stars. “I knew that Linda was looking to pass that torch on so I thought there’s no time like the present.”
Johnston also happens to be Cooley’s partner: she was at his swearing in three years ago and has been accompanying him to county and city meetings since, learning the issues. Would that not pose a potential problem with the sunshine law, or with each trying to influence the other? Both have thought it out.
“We know Eric Cooley, there’s no swaying him, he’s a determined man as it is,” Johnston said, words that could apply equally to her. “Two, I’m not as voting member, and we have our careers. We don’t want to talk about work, we don’t want to talk about the city, we want to talk about our interests and our hobbies, the fun part of life.”
Cooley said there’ll be “home law” as much as “sunshine law,” both prevailing: “One of the things that her and I are very adamant about, we have such little spare time, the last thing we want to do is talk about work related things in our spare time, because we only have a couple of hours a week. Our spare time is very sacred.”
It was that lack of time that had Cooley debating whether to run again. He was on the fence for a while, “just because of the workload I have at the store, ” he said, referring to the 7-Eleven he owns on State Road A1A in downtown Flagler Beach, “because it’s a different financial climate than it was three years ago and it’s also a different political climate than it was three years ago. Things have gotten more negative, we’ll call it–for lack of a better word–more nasty.” It’s not that he didn’t want to run again, but he didn’t take the time commitment lightly.
Then he thought of his impact. After a quieter first and second year, he made his mark in the past year with three key issues. Calm, deliberative and data-rich in his approach, he convinced the commission to adopt the rolled-back rate for next year’s taxes, resulting in no tax increase for residents and businesses. He redefined the discussion and the city’s conditions regarding The Gardens, the controversial development planned for John Anderson Highway (the county is scheduled to vote on the development next week). And he took a strong stance on pandemic restrictions and masks, at one point calling out baseless and inflammatory claims peddled against the city over the restrictions by County Commissioner Joe Mullins. Cooley, Provencher and Commissioner Rick Belhumeur have been among the few elected officials who have publicly rebuked Mullins’s frequently offensive and groundless statements.
Cooley three years ago won the seat for his first term without opposition, so he’s never faced a competitive election. It’s not yet clear whether he will this time. Paul Harrington, a close follower of city issues who ran unsuccessfully in last March’s election–he financed his campaign with the $1,200 stimulus check Congress approved as part of covid relief–is mulling his options for 2021. He picked up papers from the city clerk today, and had been waiting to see if Cooley is running. “He is running. He and I have a lot of common thoughts and would likely work better together,” Harrington said. “Several people said I should run for Mayor and that was a thought however Susie Johnston is running. She is my neighbor and again we might likely work better together.”
“My third thought was to run as a write in to keep my name and a small town discussion in front of the public for a run next year, 2022,” Harrington continued. “A lot of people are saying that’s where we need a change. If I go in that direction I would probably be low key, knocking on doors, handing out a flier. I like the environmental and cost aspect to that approach.”
Other names fleetingly mentioned as possible candidates include Carla Cline and Kim Carney, the former city commissioner who resigned her seat and was was defeated in a run for county commission, but Provencher said Cline will not run, and people who have spoken with Carney, who is politically unpredictable, said she is not likely to run.