Jon Netts, whose 15 years on the Palm Coast City Council shaped the young city and set the standard for measured, commanding and dignified leadership, died this evening at AdventHealth Palm Coast of complications from Covid-19. He was 78.
His death is a devastating blow to a city in whose founding he had played a towering role, and a community he was still serving in numerous capacities. He’d been appointed to the council again just last summer to serve out the term of ex-Council member Jack Howell. He was continuing to serve on the Florida Inland Navigation District and the city’s Code Enforcement Board, where he’d gotten his start in local community service in 1999 after moving from New Jersey to Palm Coast with his wife Priscilla in 1992.
“It’s devastating,” Milissa Holland, Palm Coast’s mayor and a long-time protegee of Netts’s, said this evening, struggling several times to keep her composure. No person other than Holland’s father, former Council member Jim Holland, a one-time colleague of Netts’s, has influenced Holland’s political course and mien than Netts, whose poise and knack for analysis and consensus-building she often channels on the council. “We’re a young city, and although I’m the third mayor, we have a robust history of extraordinary leadership that he was a significant part of, and it’s not just his contribution that I will miss, and those conversations that we had often–it’s the fact that I can’t think of Palm Coast without Jon Netts.”
Holland is not alone. Netts’s influence was still felt, his counsel and the keenness of his intellect still sought from local elected officials–or many who wished to be–from business leaders, from members of civic groups, not least of them the Palm Coast Historical Society, which he’d led in the 2000s and of which he was still a member, the Elks Lodge, which twice named him Citizen of the Year (he was still a member) and Habitat for Humanity, which he’d led for three years, among others.
He was patrician without the presumption, his humor always handy, never cutting. A lifelong Republican, he was nevertheless an increasing minority among public officials: he was not much for ideology, less so for partisan bellows. The vapid bluster of more boorish, bullying or bombastic politicians, a few of whom he felt were tarnishing the council and other elected boards, made him ill whatever their party affiliation. At times the vileness of the public discourse left him bewildered–and this last election season, angry, especially over the slanders against his protegee. In private conversations, he’d been losing heart over the tenor of contemporary politics in general, but never so much as to give up on voluntary service. His last run for office, and his only loss locally or in New Jersey, where he also had a long electoral career, was in 2018, when Howell defeated him, only to step down last year for health reasons.
Nothing had stopped him, including a serious ankle injury a few years ago that left him hobbling for months, and other health challenges that he and Priscilla seemed to defeat with a resilience fueled by eternal optimism. He’d fallen ill a few weeks ago with a recurring cough, developed pneumonia, and worsened rapidly in the last few days before being rushed to the hospital. With Tom Russell, the Flagler Palm Coast High School principal who died last month, Netts is the the highest-profile person in Flagler County to be claimed by a disease of unsparing virulence and cunning, even against those who take draconian precautions–as Russell and Netts had.
Holland announced Netts’s death tonight on the city’s website with a statement. “Mayor Netts has served his community with extreme honor and distinction for 22 years,” she wrote, “a gentle, brilliant and skilled man who never shied from serving his constituents with vigor, decency and integrity. His wealth of knowledge about past and present matters in Palm Coast helped to establish substantive policies while bringing out the very best from all other leaders who served alongside of him. Mayor Netts has championed a philosophy of ethics and solid principles that led Palm Coast residents to a most sought-after quality of life.”
In retirement in Palm Coast, Netts had the kind of lifetime most people don’t quite manage in their prime, with even his record-setting tenures on the city council a relatively small part of his involvements and achievements: he served on the Flagler County Advisory Committee on School Impact Fees, the Public Safety Advisory Council, the Intracoastal Regulation Committee and now-forgotten but once contentious Blue-Ribbon Landfill Advisory Committee. He’d also been appointed to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission’s statewide Boating Advisory Committee on Boating Safety, yet another subplot of a life with endless and unexpected ripples: until a foot injury sidelined him only a few years ago, he was a tow boat operator on the Intracoastal.
After Gov. Jeb Bush appointed him, he served on the Northeast Florida Regional Council for what seemed like two decades, logging thousands of miles in car trips–often with Holland–and getting named Elected Official of the Year in 2015 by the regional council. Gov. Charlie Crist had appointed him to the navigation district, a position to an obscure board–to most–that he nevertheless assumed with as much seriousness as any, and leveraged into more than $2 million in grants to Flagler County and local cities.
“First and foremost he loved his wife Priscilla, and just so admired her passion for getting out to the arts, investing time in that,” Holland said, “you could see them at any given time at any event in the community. They really, truly shared that moment and passion together. But he also just loved the residents of this community. He spoke often about what was important, what was important to keep and what was important to never forget, that’s why he invested his time in learning and volunteering for the Palm Coast Historical Society, and why you’d see them often supporting businesses. It meant something.”
When Jim Holland died in 2002, in his first term as council member and alongside Netts, who’d won a special election to the council (defeating the ingenious Jerry Full), it was Netts who encouraged Milissa Holland to alleviate her grief by starting to attend council meetings so she could get a sense of why her father had invested so much in the city. Jim Holland had encouraged Netts to run locally. Netts would play the same role for Holland, who would win a county commission seat in 2006. She may have once been in his shadow. He’d have been first to say that she’d soon outrun him: their respect was mutual, but they both had their own independent streak.
Netts had actually been a teacher and an educator in his previous lifetime and career, starting at 118 Larch Avenue in Bogota, N.J. He got his master’s from Fairleigh Dickinson University–becoming a districtwide administrator and finishing as director of the New Jersey Provisional Teacher Training Consortium–and teaching college courses in real estate law and investment, because, why not: he was also a real estate broker. While in New Jersey, he served eight years on his local planning board and four consecutive terms–12 years–as a city councilman in Norwood. He chaired a Red Cross chapter and was vice president of the New Jersey Council of Red Cross Chapters, and served on the Red Cross National Volunteer Faculty for First Aid and Water Safety.
Mark Crossley, executive director of the navigation district, had described Netts in a 2016 letter to Gov. Rick Scott as “experienced, thoughtful, professional, timely, decisive, direct, intelligent, educated, informed and fair but balanced,” words that could apply to any venue he gaveled or served, echoed by most who knew him. (Crossley was writing a recommendation letter when Netts was hoping for an appointment to the County Commission. In one of the governor’s copious misjudgments, Scott passed him over.)
“He stood as a man of convictions for his principles and what he believed was right for this city,” Holland said. “It was never about him, it was always about the community, but the depth of knowledge and the understanding and the amount of time he put in to do the work was demonstrated during each council meeting.”
His long-held seat might as well be retired: his tenure will not be equaled.