An unnerving, and to Mayor Milissa Holland frightening, incident interrupted tonight’s Palm Coast City Council meeting as a man menacingly walked up to within a foot or two of the mayor before a Flagler County Sheriff’s commander quickly stepped between him and Holland and eventually directed the man away from the dais.
It was the latest in a series of confrontational incidents that just weeks ago required Holland to be escorted to her car by a deputy while the same man was shadowing the city manager and a city council member in another part of the grounds following a tense meeting, and that previously had caused the manager to hire additional armed security. But tonight’s aggression was unprecedented and signaled yet another escalation–or degradation–of public misconduct toward officials and civil servants.
Palm Coast City Manager Matt Morton was just beginning to introduce the sixth item on the council’s agenda this evening when one of the people in the audience–Mark Phillips, familiar to council members as a shrill opponent of all things masks and a member of the so-called “Flagler Liberty Coalition”–briskly walked past the sitting deputy and toward Holland.
He had done so on previous occasions, walking up to the mayor or to other officials, cell phone brandished and video rolling, but never during an actual meeting item. This time he wasn’t holding up his phone (it’s not clear what he held in his left hand) but he walked up to Holland and she immediately reacted: “No, sir, NO SIR!” The Sheriff’s commander began walking toward him.
Holland’s voice rose, to a pitch unheard in her five years on the council: “NO, SIR! ABSOLUTELY NOT,” as Cmdr. Phil Reynolds stepped in between Phillips and the mayor. She was incensed and shaken. Reynolds gestured to Philips to move aside.
“We’ve got to take firmer action,” Vice Mayor Eddie Branquinho said. A security guard–one of the newly hired security guards the city administration felt compelled to bring on months ago because of rising tensions and security issues in public meetings–walked up near the dais as Reynolds was beginning to direct Phillips and another man who’d joined him out of the room while Branquinho was pleading with Phillips: “Please, please, you’re disruptive.”
Bill Reischmann, the city attorney, leaned over to Holland and told her Phillips was just trying to unnerve her. “I know,” Holland said, indignant. “I know. I’m not getting scared in the middle of a council meeting,” she told him. “ENOUGH!!” Someone in the audience yelled out something about “listen to the people.” Council member Victor Barbosa suggested a break.
Holland would have none of it: “We’re moving forward.” The situation appeared back in control, though Phillips refused several times to leave the room before he finally did. A group of people remained in the parking lot. (Philips is an ally of County Commissioner Joe Mullins, who sponsored Philips’s bus trip to the nation’s capital on jan. 6, where a pro-Trump rally turned into an armed insurrection against the U.S. Capitol.)
Reischmann, who just two weeks ago had read an impassioned proclamation, written by the Florida Bar, about civility and the importance of civil discourse in public settings, artfully asked to have “a conversation with the mayor and the council.”
“What just happened is unfortunate and it’s not productive to the results that we’re trying to achieve,” he said, though he addressed council members as much as he was addressing the audience. “And I would request going forward that–and I know this Council supports that objective–of having a productive business meeting. I would remind all of you to understand that the council rules and procedures provide that the mayor does have control of the meeting, and I would ask all of you, so that we can work as a team to try to conduct these meetings in a professional, civil and business situation–which which we have, and which we just did.
“The mayor has a large responsibility, it’s a difficult responsibility. I think tonight is a perfect example of what you face when you’re running a meeting with people that their comments and their behavior are done to be disruptive. And that’s why we have these gentlemen here.” He pointed to the deputies. “Thank you very much. And so I would simply ask this council to continue to support your mayor, she has a duty to warn disruptive citizens and participants, and if those warnings are not heated to ask these gentlemen, to be removed from this council so that this council can conduct its business in a professional civil manner.”
Reischmann then returned the floor to Morton. Council members had all remained in their seats, silent (but for Branquinho’s entreaties) and the meeting resumed. At the end of the meeting, each council member in turn, and in varying degrees, condemned the disruption.
Before the incident, the discussion had for some 40 minutes or more turned to the city’s proposed expansion and rebranding of the city’s tennis center near Fire Station 25 off Belle Terre Parkway. It’s an ambitious plan that would see the addition of tennis courts and the construction of pickleball courts, a low-impact, rapidly growing sport especially among older athletes. Anticipating partnerships beyond city government, the tennis center would be renamed the Reilly Opelka Racket Center, after the tennis player who attended Indian Trails Middle School and is now ranked 46th in the world.
The plan has drawn some opposition from residents who consider it too ambitious (“are you all out of your mind up here?” a man who identified himself as Nick DeSantis, and who wore a “Ron DeSabntis for Governor” shirt, said, drawing a rebuke from the mayor, who reminded him of the council meeting’s procedures. He was followed by Phillips, who twice called the plan “insane.” But he was controlled at that point, and was followed by numerous other speakers, some for the plan–among them Wally de Aquino, the Chief Operating Officer at AdventHealth Palm Coast, and George Opelka, Reilly’s father–some against. But the tension was evident.
The man who followed DeAquino, a Woodlands resident and an opponent, referred to a city staffer as a “clown,” was immediately rebuked by Holland. He argued with her and talked over City Attorney Bill Reischmann, who warned him that if he continued violating procedures, he’d be removed. He continued, turning political. Others followed, those against clearly outnumbering those favoring the proposal, most of them speaking respectfully. But periodically, a speaker would veer toward menace, as when a man wanted to criticize Council member Nick Klufas for “talking down to us” about masks. Reischmann cautioned the man, who walked away from the podium making a veiled threat.
Council members then discussed the issue, with Council members Eddie Branquinho and Nick Klufas in support, Ed Danko asking for “more facts” and public voices. Council member Victor Barbosa seconded Danko’s motion to table the matter. The motion failed. Klufas made a motion to approve the design and construction contract for the expanded tennis center. That passed 3-2.
Holland was announcing the next item, a site plan application for an apartment complex–“Mr. Morton, go for it,” she told City Manager Matt Morton–when, as many people in the audience were leaving, the meeting veered off course.
What happened here tonight, pretty bad,” Branquinho said at the end of the meeting, calling for the likes of Philips to be barred from the room. “This is embarrassing for all of us and this, this started not long ago, we never had that before,” he continued. “It’s a shame, what happened here tonight, and if any one of us here is friends with anybody that did this, and doesn’t do anything, or recriminates them or comes here tonight and say that he’s completely against it and call them by the names, because they know the names, shame on them.”
“I would just suggest that everyone recognizes that we are the average of the people that we surround ourselves with,” Council member Nick Klufas said. “So if you look around and you see who you’re surrounding yourself with and you don’t like the direction that they’re traveling as a whole, just know that you’re going to be lumped in with them.” Barbosa said it was “great to see the community, or get involved,” but asked that it be done respectfully.
“What happened tonight was way out of line, shouldn’t have happened,” Danko said. “I know that’s happened before to Mayor Hollande when she was going to a vehicle, I’ve seen it happen to Mr. Morton, and it is an excusable, it’s not a way to conduct a business meeting, or even a workshop.”
Finally, Morton, subdued and dismayed, closed the meeting, saying: “27 years I’ve not seen this level of intentional, intimidation, and intentional intent to just bully. And it’s quite disgusting, and I’ll be very candid about that,” he said. “It’s very hard to keep the morale of an amazing staff when very few group of individuals want to bully harass and intimidate.” But he said the staff has received far more praise than disrespect.
The city manager concluded: “This inflammatory rhetoric that’s going around that they think they’re some part of mafia, or worse, denigrates our community. This is disrespectful, it’s demoralizing to staff. I’ve never seen anything like in 27 years. And it’s led to death threats, it’s led to death threats to our code enforcement officers, threats of, ‘I will shoot them in the head if they come on property,’ you were there for that one,” he said, pointing to members of the board, “and, ‘the streets will run with their blood.’ it’s time to have enough of this. Enough.”
Holland again had to be escorted to her car by deputies, who followed her home for her safety.