Not long after four of the five Palm Coast City Council members were sworn in for their new terms and took–or re-took–their seats this morning, council member Eddie Branquinho told councilman Ed Danko that as long as Danko wouldn’t apologize for calling him corrupt during the election campaign, Branquinho would call Danko “councilman corrupt.” And did so, several times.
Danko called Branquinho “Councilman Full of Crap.” Several times.
Mayor Milissa Holland looked stunned and taken entirely off guard. City Attorney Bill Reischmann looked pained, and at one point intervened to remind the panel of its own rules of decorum. City Manager Matt Morton buried himself in a laptop.
A minute after the meeting adjourned, Branquinho, still on the dais, repeatedly yelled at Danko to “get away from me!” The sheriff’s commander and liaison with the city had to trod toward the men to ensure the clash wouldn’t escalate.
So began the new era on the Palm Coast City Council.
The swearing-in of elected officials is almost always a happy occasion, no matter how abrasive the campaign that may have preceded it. Family members, children, friends turn out, decked out, cameras at the ready, applause for all.
Not today. The ceremonial segment was barely a footnote. The meeting of the council was tense from the start, cell phone cameras brandished and videos rolling like weapons from several members in the audience used to doing the same at defiantly confrontational demonstrations. It had nothing to do with Danko or Branquinho. It was the same group that calls itself the “Liberty Coalition” and that several weeks ago disrupted a County Commission meeting for refusing to wear masks. Its members were doing so again this morning. Mayor Milissa Holland cautioned them they’d be asked to leave if they didn’t mask up in compliance with city regulation, then asked Cmdr. Williams or staff members to escort them out when they refused.
Some left, some appeared to comply, and some of the coalition members addressed the council. As they had at the commission, they again peddled false, discredited and dangerous claims along the lines of masks being a choice not an echo, and that the city had to return to normal, “not a new normal,” as one of them put it.
The disinformation was characteristic of anti-maskers: Candace Stevens, a Palm Coast resident for five years, urged the council to “get back to normal, let’s start off the new year, let’s get Christmas.” As evidence, Stevens said: “We have a governor in North Dakota, she’s a female, she never even closed her state, there’s not people dropping dead there. Everything is fine. They didn’t close their economy.” In fact, North Dakota, which has a male governor (Doug Burgum, a Republican), as of now has not just the nation’s but the world’s leading covid-19 rate of infection. South Dakota has a female governor (Republican Kristi Noem), and is second only to North Dakota in infections in the nation. People are, in fact, “dropping dead” in both North and South Dakota, which are currently the leading and second-leading states with the highest seven-day-average death rates in the nation.
The speakers done, they again doffed the masks and were asked to leave. They did, first taking their huff to the hallway adjoining the council chamber, where they meddled with staff members, then just outside the building, where they simmered a little more before dissipating.
It was still a regular business meeting with the usual agenda items. The swearing-in segment wasn’t until the end of the agenda. So the council went through its various items, made new appointments to the Code Enforcement Board–among them Jon Netts, the former mayor and council member many times over who today was ending his latest stint on the council after being appointed to fill the seat Jack Howell resigned halfway through his term.
Then came the ceremonies. Holland was first, followed by Danko, who wore his Trump mask and carried a family bible, then Victor Barbosa, who, black-masked, took the oath with his father at his side, then Nick Klufas, who won a second term. Alan Lowe, whom Holland defeated, sat in the audience two rows back, also in a scarlet Trump mask. There was applause every time but nothing like it was four years ago, when the chamber seemed far less riven than it was today, more by factions than distancing.
The first order of business for the newly constituted council was the nomination of vice mayor. Branquinho got it, taking over for Klufas. Committee assignments were then parceled out before it was time for the customary welcome speeches, the thanks, the congratulations, the pledges to be the best council member that could possibly be.
Audio: Eddie Branquinho and Ed Danko
Not this time. Danko had a motion on his mind. He wanted to reverse the city’s decision not to have an in-person Christmas-tree-lighting ceremony this week. “It’s certainly a welcoming break from all that we’ve been through,” he read from notes, citing promising developments with a vaccine ahead and the possibility of a return to normal. He said the tree-lighting lifts spirits and inspires, “however, at present, this is planned as a video, virtual event on YouTube that excludes the public’s participation. Well, I’ve got to be honest, that’s not going to lift any spirits or inspire anybody. You’d be better off staying home, watching a Hallmark movie. This is an outside event. We can follow CDC guidelines. We can social distance outside and we can wear masks like we’re doing inside.” He then made the motion to instruct city employees to open the event to the public.
Holland reminded him that the motion had to be added to the agenda. He turned that into a motion. Barbosa provided his very first seconded. It never got to a vote. Klufas recalled that last year’s event had drawn some 1,000 “jam-packed” people, and that a large gathering of the sort wouldn’t be wise. (The city has also cancelled its annual Starlight Christmas parade.)
Then Branquinho spoke, calling it irresponsible, and very quickly launched into his first salvos against Danko. It was clear he’d kept it bottled up for a while. “Up to now, everything is based on responsibility,” he said. “We don’t allow–there’s one written rule, I was going to talk about it later, that we do here, one written rule: we don’t bring politics”–he stabbed the dais loudly twice–“here. We leave politics outside. What we do is for the better, for the safety, for the safety of the people of Palm Coast. That’s why we’re wearing these masks. And believe me: I hate it. But you know what, for your safety, for your safety, for your sake and for my sake, I wear it. But that’s something I’m going to talk about a little later, and I think what we’re doing is not to hurt people, it’s not to kill the spirit of Christmas, it’s for their sake, for those kids that go out there that could actually get this darn virus that was basically imposed upon us, ok? that I’d do anything that I can to save one life.”
Branquinho described the “soldiers” fighting to save lives, “and I’ll be darned if I’m going to be against saving one life myself,” he said, “and that’s the reason why I’m doing what I’m doing. That’s why I’m so passionate about it. All we do is bitch about this friggin’ mask. My son, God rest his soul, wore it 12 hours a day in that hospital, to save lives. He never bitched once, never once complained, that’s why I’m so emotional, that’s why I live this from the bottom of my heart. And when someone tells me we could do this, we could bring 1,000 people here, that’s no danger, sorry. Be responsible. That’s all I’m asking.” Branquinho’s young son died earlier this year from complications of a medical procedure.
“Well, I think I am being responsible,” Danko said.
“No you’re not!” Branquinho snapped.
“Yes I am, and I don’t appreciate you raising your voice to me,” Danko said.
“No, it’s my emotion. It’s my emotion.”
“Keep your emotion in check,” Danko said, continuing to make his case for a public tree-lighting, which was scheduled for Wednesday. He said perhaps the city could organize the event the way it has previous, ticketed events where attendance was controlled. But when Morton spoke of a city staff already stretched–and with more staffers in quarantine or in the hospital than at any point since the beginning of the pandemic–Danko backed off his proposal and withdrew his motion.
A few congratulatory words were exchanged, Barbosa proposed a couple of breaks to give businesses more visibility, though those would be code matters that would have to be approved by ordinance.
Then came Round 2. Or 3, counting back to the beginning of the meeting. Branquinho again turned to Danko, who had been seated immediately to his left, which may change after today: the two are likely to be separated.
“One of the things you said in your campaign, sir, is that you’re going to do away with corruption in city hall. I’m part of city hall. You put me under the same umbrella. The only thing I have that I pride is my name, my family name. I had my first pair of shoes when I was 7 years old, sir, the only thing I have is my name. Now, due to the fact that you called me corrupt, until you either apologize to me personally, right here, or find out where did I get involved in any corruption, I will refer to you as Councilman Corrupt. I will not use your name.”
“I’ve never referred to you as corrupt. Get your facts correct, Eddie.”
“Excuse me. Excuse me. I’m talking,” Branquinho said.
“No, excuse me. You’re accusing me of doing something. I never singled you out. I singled you out?”
“No, but you put me under the same umbrella, and until the day you apologize to me personally right here, or prove that I’m corrupt, because I was part of city hall–”
“I never called you corrupt, Eddie.”
“You will be called Councilman Corrupt by me.”
“You will be called Councilman Full of Crap as far as I’m concerned.”
So it went, back and forth as the two men debated semantics and Danko rehashed “concerns in this community about what’s been happening right here” before Reischmann, the long-time city attorney, who looked and sounded pained by what he was having to say, intervened to note that council rules and procedures require speakers, council members included, to be recognized by the mayor before they speak. Branquinho got the floor and repeated his statement to Danko.
“Well,” Danko said, “the only thing I have is my name too, so I don’t appreciate you abusing it, Number 1. But if you want to call me Councilman Corrupt, you can do it until the sun comes up on Santa Monica Boulevard, for all I care. I will refer to you as Councilman Full of Crap, OK?” He said he’d never singled Branquinho out, “and for you to single me out is obnoxious. So, Councilman Full of Crap, knock yourself out.”
“Thank you very much, Councilman Corrupt,” Branquinho said.
“You are welcome, Councilman Full of Crap.”
By then in a thinned out chamber heads had bowed, jaws had dropped, eyes were beyond rolling. When Barbosa entreated the members to look past the election–“It’s time to move on, people were elected, I think we need to work together in a professional way”–he got a smatter of applause.
Holland, who had actually been the focus of the bitterest and most unsubstantiated slanders of the local election cycle–and has had her moments of indignation from the dais and doubt about go on beyond it–spoke as if from the Sea of Tranquility this time. “A lot happens during election season, obviously, and I believe in the process. I believe in the residents’ right to choose who they would like to see represented. I have great respect for the results. I really do look forward to working with both Council member Danko, Council member Barbosa. I think they’re both going to bring about some ideas and concepts that are beneficial to our community as a whole, and I agree. I look forward to moving on, moving forward, and I look forward to having a great collaboration up here that will offer residents everything they’re looking for in their government. So thank you both for stepping up, and thank you both for serving your community, and congratulations again, Council member Klufas for the second term. I really appreciate everyone who’s also come out today and participated in this process. So thank you.”
Perhaps lost in the din were the markers the council members were setting down: Branquinho made it clear whose side he was on in what is starting out as a deeply divided council, and it’s not on the side of the newly elected members. Holland, her characteristic self-assurance as if restored after a few months’ rattle, implicitly spoke the language of consensus and conciliation from the center–two qualities to which Danko, for all his public bluster, is not entirely foreign, when the stimulus of public lights dim.
But Netts, who has been on the council for almost 16 of its 21 years, and on the city’s code enforcement board the rest of the time, , seeing it all, had seen something new and grim today. “I’ve never seen that kind of behavior,” Netts said. “The problem is, it takes two to tango.”
Branquinho just then walked off the dais and fist-bumped Netts. “Try to keep it chill, OK?” Netts told him.
The former mayor said the incident hurt. “It does, because it demeans the office, it diminishes the ability of the office to function productively. You can disagree without being disagreeable.”