Palm Coast City Manager Matt Morton said he is considering legal action against Council member Victor Barbosa following last week’s meeting when the first-year councilman called Morton “corrupt” and called for his firing based on thin and unvetted evidence and a lot of assumptions. The motion got no second, but left both men fuming–Morton for being defamed in public, Barbosa for not being taken seriously.
“Absolutely,” Morton said in an interview last week in answer to a question about whether he was taking legal action. “I am not going to continue to be defamed and and harassed.” He retained an Orlando attorney who he said has advise him not to discuss his course of action for now, while the attorney reviews the records “from the last several months.” Those include emails, meetings video, videos Barbosa himself posts on Facebook, among them an extended monologue the night after the meeting when Barbosa again called the manager “corrupt.”
“He just continues to double down I guess,” Morton said. “And I think he crossed the line [Tuesday] night. I think he definitely defamed and slandered especially when I had explained to him exactly what had happened.” He did not identify his attorney. But he alluded to the county commission’s turning the tables on former Supervisor of Elections Kim Weeks and her acolytes as a “playbook” at the city. Weeks, the frequent political candidate Dennis McDonald and others several years ago serially filed ethics commission, elections commission, Florida Bar and other types of complaints against county commissioners and members of the administration in what proved to be–what the ethics commission itself ruled as–frivolous actions filed with reckless disregard for the truth, and intended primarily to defame and embarrass their targets. Anyone can file such actions.
The county decided not only to fight them, but to win back attorneys’ fees spent defending officials. Those fees have exceeded six figures in Weeks’s case. Last week she was pleading with the commission to accept a $20,000 settlement. The commission refused.
Morton was paying attention. “I really believe what happened to Kim Weeks and Dennis McDonald is a playbook,” Morton said. “We don’t have to sit here and tolerate the reputation damage and, the whys and the harassment to the degree that it was done, it is absolutely disingenuous. It is meant to be hurtful and destructive. And it is, and it was completely untrue.”
Morton had alluded to legal action when he addressed Barbosa after the meeting last week. The two men were again in a brief confrontation outside the building as both were getting in vehicles to leave City Hall grounds. Barbosa was getting in his pick-up truck. Morton was hitching a ride with Councilman Eddie Branquinho.
“I did not say I was going to sue him,” Morton said, though Barbosa claims he did. “I don’t ever say I’m going to see you. I remembered that. And could I have? Absolutely at that point. What I very clearly recall saying is, you should have probably consulted a defamation and slander attorney, because the way you just defamed and lied is totally, is actionable, inappropriate, I use some kind of word like that. And it was. You can’t claim the corruption, and ‘I have evidence and you’re corrupt,’ and then just drop that bomb and then just walk away. And then the damage is out there. The damage is there today in the News-Journal, last night in FlaglerLive, this morning in the Observer. I mean, at some point, I’m not able to get another job probably after last year’s fiasco and this. My name is mud.”
When Morton referred to Barbosa doubling down, he was referring to the 16-minute video the councilman posted soon after the meeting, when he seemed despondent and disbelieving that no other council member had followed up on his claims. “You people voted for me to be your voice to stop this corruption,” Barbosa says in the monologue, “and this guy, city manager comes laughing, laughing, pointing. This is a city manager. Seriously. He just loved that he got away with what he did. And he told me he is going to sue me. That’s what he wants to do, he wants to sue me for bringing up proof of what’s going on, that nobody cared about.”Barbosa is describing how he perceived his encounter with Morton outside the building, which may yet come in play–from both sides–in subsequent claims, though the key parts about it were not recorded, and will depend on each man’s interpretation. Barbosa says Morton laughed at him. Morton says that’s not quite right.
“I was just, you know, dumbfounded and offended, honestly, and just sort of disgusted,” Morton said, describing his state of mind as he walked out of City Hall. “And I see Victor in the truck and he was acting really weird. Like, I thought he was doing something to be funny. And so I was chuckling, and I pointed it, I’m like, laughing going, Okay, I thought he was trying to lighten the mood out, you know, he’s a weird guy.” Morton referred to a previous text exchange with Barbosa who was excoriating him one minute, asking him to lunch the next and telling him he was doing a good job. “And I thought he was just trying to be funny. And so I kind of pointed out, like I said, I chuckled a little bit like, like, okay, like, I don’t know, I guess you’re trying to lighten the mood a little bit. Great, great. I’m not, you know, gonna meet. And immediately I realized I was baited because the door flies open. And before the door even finishes open, there was two cameras there.”
Mark Philips, a member of the so-called Liberty Coalition–a group of anti-maskers who have repeatedly disrupted county and city meetings–was taking video with his phone, as he and some of his partners have taken to doing, presumably to intimidate the targets of their brandished cameras. The video was later posted online. It does not catch the original gestures or exchange between Barbosa and Morton. It starts with Morton standing briefly in front of Barbosa’s vehicle, and Philips approaching rapidly. Barbosa, seemingly in mid-sentence, is saying something about it not being his fault. As Morton is walking away, Barbosa asks him, “you want to laugh? That’s how a city employee laughs? You’re laughing at city council? That’s what you’re doing.”
Philips’s camera is now near Morton, who walks toward it and asks him his name, waving at him. “I’m a journalist buddy, keep going,” Philips says, “would you like to say anything else to Victor Barbosa?” Morton says he doesn’t know what Barbosa is “complaining about.”
“You laughed at me and you pointed at me, you’re making fun of the city councilman,” Barbosa says. Morton tells him he “lied a lot tonight.” Barbosa replies: “There’s proof.”
“There’s no proof, you’re a liar,” Morton says.
“Now you’re going to drive the corrupt guy home?” Philips tells Branquinho, who is speaking with a woman trying to show him something on her phone about what code enforcement allows.
“Did you get that the city manager wants to sue me for bringing up corruption in the city hall?” Barbosa asks Philips.
“Yes sir, we got the whole thing.” (Actually, the clip does not show the whole thing, and ends there.)
Barbosa has refused to answer questions about the evening when asked by a reporter. In his monologue that evening, he concluded, first referring to council members then to himself: “They didn’t care to see what someone does something against you. Nobody cares. They don’t care. And you have a councilman that cares about you. That is easy access to. You name me one political person that’s out there, that will answer as fast as I answer back to you, and all I do is get slandered, because you have easy access to me, you want to talk, you want to threaten me. That’s not what you do to a person like me.”
Morton said Barbosa’s claims against him are “retaliation and harassment because again, I held his feet to the fire on what I believe is a violation of his oath of office and his duties as a charter, elected official,” a reference to Morton rebuffing Barbosa’s claim that the councilman had “people” inside the administration who were providing him information about code enforcement practices.
The two men, along with the rest of the council, are scheduled to sit again at the same dais when the Palm Coast City Council meets in workshop Tuesday morning at City Hall, starting at 9 a.m.