The Palm Coast City Council’s evaluation of City Manager Matt Morton’s second year can be read as straight numbers. They can also be read for the politics: Morton has his three solid block of supporters in Mayor Milissa Holland and Council members Eddie Branquinho and Nick Klufas. He has a vote that may swing–though not quite a swing vote–in Ed Danko, who is “pleased with Mr. Morton’s overall performance.” And he has a barefaced antagonist, or at least not a fan, in Victor Barbosa.
For those familiar with the council’s business, the numbers are not a surprise.
For Morton, the evaluations are a slight improvement over his first year’s despite the very low marks of the one unhappy council member–the one who called for Morton’s firing earlier this month, days before his second-year anniversary in the city.
Morton scored an overall average of 3.84 out of 5. Last year, he scored a 3.73. A grade of 3 “meets expectations,” a grade of 4 “exceeds expectations,” so Morton is exceeding more than meeting expectations.
The evaluation form was scaled down from last year’s seven-page, 11-question form, which had the appearance of a standardized test answer sheet: each question had extended phrases defining each possible answer, each to be rated on the same 1-to-5 scale. This year, the council went to something more like the IRS’s EZ Form–a two-page document with just five categories, each described in a few sentences. Council members could choose to just give a grade or give a grade and add comments to each category.
Morton’s two highest scorers were Mayor Milissa Holland and Council member Eddie Branquinho, both of whom gave him 5’s across the board, with no additional comment. Under overall performance, Branquinho just wrote: “Wealth of knowledge.” Both council members’ grades were a significant improvement from last year, when Holland’s grades were between 3 and 4, leaning toward 3, and Branquinho’s were heavy on 4’s.
Perhaps the two council members anticipated that other council members might want to give him far lower grades, and they didn’t want the overall score to be skewed by that. If that’s the case, they were right: Council member Victor Barbosa graded Morton quite brutally, with comments to boot. His overall score was a 2–“improvement needed,” with a couple of “unsatisfactory” ratings along the way.
“Does the city manager inspire others to succeed?” the first question reads. “Does he actively promote efficiency in operations? Does he demonstrate a high regard for personal ethics?”
Barbosa gave him a 1. “He inspires some but not all,” Barbosa wrote, saying efficiency is in “need of great improvement.” The evaluation does not include examples. Regarding demonstrating ethics, Barbosa wrote: “I believe he could but he has not shown his best behavior.”
On decision-making, thoughtfulness and judgment, Barbosa again gave him a 1, saying Morton doesn’t discuss matters on a one on one basis. “He can sometimes be [led] by any one council member to their point,” Barbosa wrote. He gave the manager a 3 on both planning and budgeting, though his comments were no less severe, saying Morton “could use some additional training” on setting realistic objectives and appropriate timeframes. The grade falls back to a 2 on communication and responsiveness, where Barbosa declares that Morton “not professional” and does not respond to council or citizen requests in a timely manner.
“Wish he becomes more professional less emotional and works things out with a clear mind,” Barbosa wrote in his concluding comment, a statement that could also describe many of Barbosa’s prolonged Facebook videos, where he discusses city matters and his opinions at length.
Palm Coast City Manager Matthew Morton, 2021 Evaluations
|Planning & Organization|
1. Unsatisfactory, 2. Improvement needed, 3. Meets Expectations, 4. Exceeds expectations, 5. Outstanding
Barbosa was elected to the council last November, along with Ed Danko, so the two council members were not part of the group that hired Morton, and on the campaign trail both had been intensely critical of the city and its administration. Danko’s criticism cooled considerably soon after his election. Barbosa’s was never apparent on the council itself: until his move against Morton at the April 6 meeting, when Barbosa got no support from any other council member, he had not voiced the sort of issues, concerns or criticism he did in his evaluation, which appears to have been influenced by that meeting and its aftermath.
Danko was less critical, rating Morton a 3.2, or somewhat above “meets expectations.” Morton got 3’s across the board but for communications and responsiveness, where Danko gave him a 4. “Communications between myself and Mr. Morton have been excellent. He has responded quickly to my concerns, and more importantly, to the concerns and issues I have presented to him on behalf of our residents,” Danko wrote–a comment telling as much about Danko’s satisfaction as for how the comment is diametrically opposed to Barbosa’s on the same score. Since three other council members gave Morton either a 4 or two 5’s on that category, Barbosa’s outlying score raises questions.
Danko–who comes across in his evaluation, as on the dais in meetings, as more measured and thoughtful than the shrill and bombastic voice that animates his Trump Club persona–was reluctant to be too judgmental on such things as the budget or Morton’s leadership skills. But from what he’s experienced, Danko wrote, he’s liked what he’s seen. “From what I have also witnessed so far, I’ve personally have seen no issues regarding ethics,” he wrote–a particularly measured line whose use of personally nevertheless suggests something less than finality. Again, on the campaign trail, Danko’s criticism of the city had been more pointed, and his reckoning may be his gradual way to conceding that he may have been off base.
Danko’s evaluation may be summed up by four of his words: “So far, so good.” Not a rousing endorsement, not a condemnation, and room to go either way.
“While we may disagree on some spending issues (Jacksonville University comes to mind),” Danko wrote in his concluding remarks, “I do believe he does have the best interest of Palm Coast in his heart and mind. I have been very impressed with his willingness to accompany me and meet with residents and work on finding solutions to address their concerns. However, I do have concerns about our city’s future and I am expecting Mr. Morton to work the remainder of this year coming up with a long-term plan to address and fund dredging of our saltwater canals and a plan that will focus on real efforts to attract businesses (as opposed to universities) to relocate or expand in Palm Coast. We are a changing community and we need high paying jobs.”
Danko’s relatively recent move to Palm Coast–he bought his house three years ago–may explain his statement about attracting business as opposed to universities: both the city and the county for years had attempted to attract businesses, with a steady record of fiascoes and little to no success despite lavish subsidies, rare and oversold exceptions exceptions aside. Drawing the two universities to Palm Coast amounts to the most significant and presumably lasting economic development success a local government has scored in over a decade. A close second is the return of a Brunswick Corp. subsidiary, Boston Whaler, with the promise of 300 to 400 manufacturing jobs, to replace the loss of Sea Ray a few years ago–a gain in which the city, not the county, played a key role. (The county had one exchange with Brunswick.) Boston Whaler’s plant represents the largest manufacturing operation in the county, with some of the county’s highest-paying jobs.
In sum, Morton’s watch over the past year has ticked to three economic development coups of unparalleled magnitude when compared to the years going back to the housing crash. A previous administration was far more adept at patting itself on the back.
None of the evaluations made reference to those seemingly significant developments–nor to the challenges of the Year of Covid, with one exception: that of Council member Nick Klufas, who referred to the pandemic: “Over the past year we’ve experienced some of the most difficult times I’ve seen on City Council. Mr. Morton you did a tremendous job migrating our staff to a virtual environment and navigating the Covid-19 pandemic from my perspective,” Klufas wrote in his concluding remarks. With his across-the-board 4’s, Klufas had given the manager high marks, including Morton’s improvement in “getting ‘in-front’ of issues before they come to Council.” There was much applause throughout. But Klufas gave no explanation about why the 5’s were lacking, or what Morton is expected to do to get there.
Last year when Morton was evaluated just as the pandemic’s first wave was crashing over the community, he turned down a $7,000 raise, calling the timing inappropriate. It would be seven months before he’d accept it, without backpay. That was last January. The latest evaluation puts him in line for another raise–and the odd position of becoming eligible for one just months after taking his last.