When it comes to high-speed internet, residents of western Flagler County are treated like second-class citizens.
Students can’t reliably connect to remote classes. The efficiency of business owners, among them farmers–a backbone of the local economy–is hampered by slow connection speeds, making sending an email or looking up a permit a time-consuming hurdle. Parents and others can’t take advantage of telemedicine at a time when doctors’ offices are restricting in-person visits. Residents at the end of long work days can’t relax with Netflix or Hulu. Prospective residents or businesses used to broadband look elsewhere, further limiting the region’s growth potential.
Western Flagler isn’t unique, but it’s part of a very small segment of a population still left behind in the information age. For 25 years Congress has required the Federal Communications Commission to report annually on whether broadband “is being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion.” As of the FCC’s latest report, 6 percent of the nation’s population and almost a quarter of its rural population (14.5 million people) lack broadband. Thousands of those are in west Flagler.
Private-sector service providers aren’t interested in extending expensive fiber to a small population base. That small base, in turn, has little political pull, so elected officials have mostly ignored the problem.
About 18 months ago County Commissioner Joe Mullins, whose district includes the West Side, took up the broadband cause and brought attention to residents’ and businesses’ efforts to improve access as other elected officials, with the exception of then-School Board member Andy Dance, had not. Something Mullins referred to as a “task force” emerged, bringing residents together to meet, plan and work on a substantial United States Department of Agriculture grant that could potentially pave the way for broadband there.
That’s part of the context of the County Commission last fall adding broadband-access in western Flagler as one of its top legislative priorities, though the item was added to the list without financial or administrative commitment. It’s also part of the context of Monday’s discussion at the County Commission, started by Mullins, who asked for just such administrative help for the “task force,” which has reached an impasse.
The group that appeared to be a catalyst for change turned into a recurring Groundhog Day of frustrations for the group’s members, two of whose leading members were interviewed about the group’s recent history. Mullins, they say, has certainly been well-meaning. He brought some attention to their efforts and continued to discuss the matter from time to time, though not with the sort of goal-oriented command group members were expecting.
Mullins’s effectiveness stops there, and has since turned into somewhat of an obstacle of its own as he’s been too unfocused or disorganized to push the matter past the talking stage: meeting after meeting of the group, lightly attended as those have been, would turn into rehashes.
“We’ll talk about tasks, then we’ll come back and talk about the same topics. It’s really a waste of time and effort,” says Katie Biancaniello, a registered nurse who, despite the considerable demands of her job and parenting, poured her energies into improving broadband access since her children had trouble connecting to the school district’s classes last summer. She built a Facebook group with some 300 members and joined the “task force” after her efforts caught Mullins’s attention.
“Honestly, it doesn’t feel like a task force because the tasks are not getting achieved,” Biancaniello said. “I would label it a community discussion group.” If she’d known it was going to be just that, she said she wouldn’t have joined, reflecting the frustrations of other members.
“We’ve been talking about it for a year and a half with very little to show for it,” Marvin Clegg, another group member, said, “and some people are getting frustrated.” He’s glad for Mullins’s involvement, but said “it’ll take more than Joe” to get moving on the administrative help the group needs to meet its grant deadlines.
Even Mullins agrees. “The group feels like they’re spinning wheels and nothing is occurring and they’re starting to get a little upset, they said listen, we’ve been talking about this grant for two years now and we just pushed it away,” Mullins said.
Mullins on Monday told commissioners that he was not the leader of the “task force,” though minutes of the September and October meetings suggest otherwise: he called the meetings to order, and on his Facebook postings he leaves no doubt who leads the group. (“I’ve had the broadband task force going for a while,” he said Monday.) The meetings were held at the Government Services Building (Mullins participated by Zoom). The meetings were also attended by Joe Rizzo, who heads the Flagler Education Foundation, Dance (who was still on the school board at the time), Biananiello, Clegg (the group’s acting secretary, who took the minutes), Ryan Diesing, the school district’s IT director, and, in September only, Andrew Hayes, a grant manager at the USDA, among others.
Mullins told the group that the September meeting’s goal that day was “to decide whether the group wants to go it alone, or get the commission to appoint a project manager” as it pursued the USDA grant. But when Biancaniello stressed the need for help from the county before the next task force meeting, or else too much time would be lost, “No direct response was noted,” the minutes show.
The following months’ meeting, with much the same people in attendance, “it was agreed that the project should be presented to the county commission at its Nov. 2” meeting. That didn’t come to pass as planned, and the grant deadline the following month passed as well.
So it’s not been for lack of effort on the part of group members to catch the attention of the county commission and seek help getting a grant drafted. But it was only on Monday that Mullins finally put the request to the rest of the commission, though he did so in the vaguest terms: “So you guys will be OK if staff kind of got involved with the task force, if the county manager can appoint and direct someone to help us,” Mullins said.
That raised a whole new set of issues: How much help? To what end? Would that turn the “task force” into an advisory committee submitting recommendations, which would then formalize the committee into a group subject to sunshine law and open meeting requirements? What would be the required county match for the grant?
“There’s more to it than just–as far as us giving consensus, because there [are] monetary issues involved with this,” Commissioner Andy Dance said. He also noted the “multiple opportunities” to bring broadband to the west side, not just the USDA grant. “If we’re going to commit staff with the expertise from staff we’d be able to research then other options other than the USDA grant.”
“That’s where we’re at the point of doing, is getting it all together to bring back to the board to present,” Mullins said, “so nothing would be done until the board would approve it, but we’re at that point where we need to see realistically if we can go after that grant and get a grant writer to kind of look at it and approve, but it would all be brought back here for us to approve.”
It was the kind of exchange the “task force” members had been wanting to hear for half a year.
But the commission discussion that followed only reflected the commission’s confusion, the fuzziness surrounding the aims and capabilities of the “task force” and Mullins’s role, at least as the commission understands it, and the county administration’s hesitancy about appearing to favor one commissioner’s project over others, even as the matter in question was ranked a county priority. For all its good intentions, Mullins’s role, because it is itself so often fuzzy and undefined when it comes to county business that isn’t quite (or yet) county business, was muddying an otherwise crucial issue with a clearly stated goal.
“If we do that by consensus, does then this change that committee to one that needs to operate in the sunshine and change the whole process?” Commission Chairman Donald O’Brien asked.
“If you started expanding inordinate amounts of staff time then it would become a county project and would be subjected to the sunshine laws and advertising laws and so forth,” County Administrator Jerry Cameron said. (Biancaniello in an interview today said there’d be no issue with having open meetings or other requirements: she’d welcome any member of the public. The focus, she said, is on getting the work done, whatever it takes.)
“I’m not entirely familiar with the broadband task force,” Al Hadeed, the county attorney, said. “That’s a group that regularly meets? Is it noticed?”
When Mullins said the group meets monthly (it’s scheduled to meet monthly, but it hasn’t), “then that would be already subject to the open meetings law,” Hadeed said. He explained: “If there is a recognition of a group out there that is formulating a policy recommendation for the board, and as part of that process, county resources are being used, then that group is subject to the open-meetings law. No ifs, ands or buts about it. And I don’t know enough about the activities of this group and so on to be able to answer definitively. But I’m more than happy to get with Mr. Mullins, staff, whoever has more knowledge about this to provide direction. I just don’t know enough of the facts. But those are the general principles.”
When Dance suggested that either Mullins would have to “vacate his informal task force or the board as a whole will have to create one,” O’Brien disagreed, saying “plenty of groups” request county staff assistance and labor support. “I think that happens all the time, where we might give support to another organization, right, that maybe needs some help in formulating a grant proposal or some advice? Do we not do that?” O’Brien asked.
It does not happen all the time, at least not outside county-sanctioned advisory panels and the like, otherwise the county would be in a position to subsidize private groups’ endeavors willy-nilly, without a formal process, potentially favoring one over another.
When Dance asked again whether the support the group was seeking was to help with the grant proposal, Mullins said no. “It’s on all options to be able to present and say, hey, here’s what options are available. But the grant is definitely the front-runner because it puts a substantial amount of money.”
“If we’re going to provide significant staff support to them I just want to be comfortable that the board agrees with that,” Cameron said. “I don’t want staff to be criticized six months from now, well, you were doing what a single commissioner told you, we never approved that. I just want it on the record that we’re going to use this group to pursue this objective.”
Dance again pressed for a clear process: “If it becomes an official county task force, then we have to have a specific guidance for the task force,” he said. “We have to come up with guidance, we have to come up with an end result, because the last thing you want is an ongoing, endless task force. They have to have a purpose, and an end solution, so it ends with a recommendation. It ends with some formal action. And if Mr. Hadeed determines that this current task force is doing to cross that line, it needs to come back to the commission, in my opinion, to officially set the task force and the parameters. At least in my experience, that’s the formal process for doing it, especially if they’re going to come back to us with a recommendation.”
O’Brien asked for the group to come and give a presentation, if they are asking for staff time to write a grant, if they see the county as the sponsor of the grant, “then give us a formal presentation so we know what we’re deciding on because at this point we don’t really have a lot of knowledge about it.”
In the end, even the commission’s consensus, as O’Brien described it, was not entirely clear. The commission agreed, in his words, “for a limited staff involvement, to bring it here so we can have a full presentation.” It wasn’t quite clear whether staff involvement would begin now on the group’s grant proposal, or whether it would be geared only toward a presentation before the commission, so the commission would have a clearer understanding of what it would then approve or not approve.
Monday’s discussion was more reminiscent of dial-up connection-era static than fiber-quality sound. What is more certain is that group members like Biancaniello, who have little interest in the politics of the matter, are ready to appear before the commission (Biancaniello has a powerpoint presentation at the ready). Just as certain is the west Flagler community’s unquestioned need to get past its second-class citizen status with broadband access. To his credit, Mullins got the matter the attention it deserves, however fitfully. The question is whether he is now capable of stepping aside to let professionals get the laborious work done.