Last Updated: Monday, March 1, 5 p.m. See below for Harrington update.
Paul Harrington, a candidate in next Tuesday’s two-way election for the Flagler Beach City Commission, was hospitalized last Sunday and has been largely incapacitated by a grave illness since.
His illness has upended next Tuesday’s commission race in which Harrington faces incumbent Eric Cooley. Cooley says he has suspended most campaign activities. Harrington has told his family that he did not intend to address his status as a candidate.
Harrington, 66, had been working hard for weeks of the election campaign, going door to door, planting signs and continuing to be present at city meetings, as he was during the last round of interviews when the city selected its next manager on Feb. 17. But he had not participated in the Flagler Woman’s Club forum–the only candidate forum of the election–the day before. The medical episode that precipitated a rescue response on Sunday took place between 2 and 3 p.m.
Harrington’s wife and daughter, briefly interviewed at their home on Central Avenue in Flagler Beach this afternoon, confirmed that he’d been hospitalized at AdventHealth Palm Coast on Feb. 21, when neighbors saw him being taken into a Flagler County Fire Rescue ambulance from his home on a stretcher. Rumors began flying since. He’s been unable to speak or walk since.
Harrington’s wife, from whom he is separated and who traveled from Maryland to be with their two children–a high school-age daughter and young-adult son–refuted claims he’d had a stroke, but confirmed that he was found to have tumors in the brain, and that he was undergoing surgery for their removal today at Halifax hospital in Daytona Beach. He was transferred from Advent to Halifax at midweek. He has communicated with difficulty with his family. He was aware of the calls, texts and emails he’d been receiving from media in the past week, but told his daughter he did not intend to respond, and asked her not to either, she said. Both his wife and daughter said they were unable to say one way or the other what his status as a candidate was at this point, other than that he had not withdrawn from the race.
The city clerk had been inquiring about his status as well and sent him emails this week to remind him that his campaign finance reports were due at midnight Thursday. They were obviously not turned in, though the clerk was not going to make an issue of it.
If Harrington loses the election on Tuesday, his status as a public official–or a public figure–becomes moot. Cooley would be re-elected and the commission would carry on. (The election also features a three-way race for the mayor’s seat.)
But the city charter is silent on the current circumstances, should Harrington win and not be able to serve, either initially or indefinitely. The charter grants the commission the power to remove a commissioner who is absent, unexcused, for three straight official meetings. But medical absences are almost always excused. Any other removal option as spelled out in the charter does not apply to Harrington. The charter is silent on absences caused by medical issues. It is also not clear what would happen if Harrington were elected and the seat was vacated for one reason or another–whether or how the commission or the governor may appoint a replacement, or whether a special election would have to be held.
City Clerk Penny Overstreet, who also serves on the city’s canvassing board, spoke with City Attorney Drew Smith after Thursday evening’s meeting to appraise him of Harrington’s status to the extent that she knew about it. Smith was to research the matter in preparation for the results of Tuesday’s election.
Flagler County Elections Supervisor Kaiti Lenhart was asked today what happens in an election in which a candidate has been (or is) incapacitated, but has not taken any formal steps to alter his status as a candidate. “The election will go on as planned Tuesday, March 2nd,” Lenhart said in an email. “If a candidate is elected and not able to serve, the seat would be considered vacant. At that point, I believe the City of Flagler Beach charter will determine the method of filling a vacancy. This is a legal question for the City of Flagler Beach.
But the question of when the seat becomes vacant “is difficult to answer, based upon the final results of the election and his condition at that time,” Lenhart said. “Again, the City Charter normally outlines the steps for filling a vacancy and if not, the Governor may need to appoint a Commissioner for the remainder of the term.”
Cooley said he would honor what commitments he’d made with his campaign, such as previously scheduled appearances, but would not actively campaign further or have volunteers wave signs. He directed his volunteers to switch their attention to the the campaign of Suzy Johnston, Cooley’s companion and a candidate for mayor against former Commissioner Kim Carney and Pat Quinn. “I told my team back on I believe it was Sunday or the day of the incident, I told them we were going to put everything on hold,” Cooley said. “I don’t believe in actively campaigning when a person who’s running against me can’t do anything. I just believe it’s bad karma and bad faith and it’s not the right thing to do.”
Harrington, formerly a general contractor in Maryland, ran in the 2020 Flagler Beach election, polling third out of four candidates, when two seats were open. He polled ahead of then-incumbent Marshall Shupe, getting 23 percent of the vote, but behind Ken Bryan and Deborah Phillips, who were elected.
March 1 Update: Teri King, a long-time friend of Paul Harrington’s and the broker/owner of Flagler Realty Inc. in Flagler Beach, contacted FlaglerLive today and said Harrington had made it out of surgery and was in the stepdown unit (the unit between intensive care and general care beds) at Halifax hospital, recovering. She said she had visited with him and spoken with him. “He is cognitive and he is on his way to being quite well,” King said.
She said in their conversation at one point that because of what he’d gone through he thought the election had occurred last week, but that “he will be able completely to fulfill his duties as a commissioner,” in King’s view. Asked if Harrington himself was actively in the race, King again called Harrington to ask him directly, and reported the following: “‘You tell [FlaglerLive] we have a solid campaign,’ that’s what he said,” King relayed Monday afternoon around 4:30 p.m.