Milissa Holland today resigned her seat as mayor of Palm Coast just six months into her second term, further shaking up a city council convulsed for months by unruly meetings and a restive public. The resignation sets up a special election that could shift the council–and the city–in a direction unrecognizable with the last 22 years. A special election must be scheduled within 30 days, but may he held weeks or months later.
Holland tendered her resignation to City Manager Matt Morton, the city council and “Citizens of Palm Coast” by email after hours this evening, not long after Holland had presided over her last council meeting this morning (see the documents below). Around 6 p.m. she also announced her decision on Facebook. She said it was not about the unsettling incidents of the last few weeks and months at the council, but about caring for her daughter, who’s continued to face grave health challenges before and since getting a liver transplant.
“It really became an issue of timing and ensuring I have ample amount of time to focus on Tori’s recovery following a series of setbacks after her receiving such a tremendous gift of a liver,” Holland said in an interview. Recent difficulties convinced her that continuing on the council was not tenable. “This decision does not come lightly. A lot of thought and time and energy was put into getting to this point. I have felt it for a period of time now that it was something I needed to do. It just came to a point recently that my time was split in so many directions that something certainly had to give, and I feel like this community deserves a mayor that can be fully present at all times, and the timing is equally important to ensure that that occurs.”
The decision is almost certain to trigger its own series of unexpected if not unintended consequences, rippling beyond the council and emboldening an already surly populist strain in county politics, starting with what could be a free-for-all of an election in coming weeks. Its tone may be reignited by embers from the last election, though it’ll be an extremely short campaign.
The city charter is clear: “If, for any reason other than recall, a vacancy occurs in the office of Mayor, the Vice Mayor shall assume the position of Mayor, and within 30 days following the occurrence of such vacancy, a Special Election shall be called,” and the council will set the date. The charter does not specify how far out that date may be, so it could be June, it could be July or even later. However, the council is heading into budget season, with a crucial meeting on July 13, when it sets its so-called “trim” tax rate, the maximum property tax rate that may be levied starting October 1. City Manager Matt Morton said it’s best to have a council whole when that rate is set and the budget season kicks off, the budget being the single-most important decision a council makes in any given year.
“The Special Election for Mayor shall be for the remainder of the unfilled term.” Vice Mayor Eddie Branquinho will be the mayor in the interim. Because of the charter’s wording and the fact that the council is not scheduled to meet in a business session for another two weeks, it’s possible but not necessary that the council will schedule a special meeting. (In fact, the city manager scheduled a special meeting for Wednesday, May 19, at 9 a.m., with less than 24-hours’ notice–a highly unusual approach: the state Attorney General’s Office, interpreting the state’s sunshine law, recommends at least 24 hours’ notice for special meetings.)
The city has lost council members in office, but never a mayor, and has had only three: Jim Canfield, Jon Netts and Holland.
Morton, who marked the second-year anniversary of his tenure in April and whose appointment had been one of Holland’s signature achievements, replacing the 11-year tenure of his predecessor, said Holland’s decision “came as a shock and a surprise. But I really understand that Milissa has been balancing for the last two years an incredibly sick child, and unfortunately Tori’s condition has only vacillated between bad and worse. It’s continued to be quite a struggle, so in that moment I respect that choice.” Morton said if the choice was to serve the community she loved and to care for her daughter, “obviously there’s no choice.”
A manager’s tenure can be one vote away from demise, and Morton’s may well be since November’s election, when he lost what until then had been unanimous support. His recent evaluations gave him three solid votes, one fairly good vote, and one not so good. But he currently can depend only on two certain votes: those of Branquinho and Nick Klufas. The special election will be as much about his future as about the city’s.
“I’m not nervous, it is what it is,” he said this evening. “The minute I make any of this about me, I’m in the wrong job. I’m here because I believe in the city and the accomplishments,” he said, citing such things as the city’s “citizen-friendly” turn, the arrival of the University of North Florida and Jacksonville University, and last week’s opening of the splash park at Holland Park. “I’m not going to let anything distract the focus, the bullies we’ve just dealt with, this moment. The moment the council decides they don’t want me, that’s their prerogative.”
For all Holland’s stated reasons, it is impossible to ignore the effects the last year’s tenor of local politics–its abrasiveness, its personalization, its cupidity for slanders and fictions at the expense of evidence and governance–has had on her: she had understood too well why Bob Cuff, the former city council member whose statesmanship, intelligence and humor had given the panel a center of gravity it has since lost, had decided not to run again in 2020. He’d had enough of the bubbling crudity.
Two weeks ago Holland was the focal point of a disturbing incident in the middle of a council meeting, when a man rushed toward her aggressively, putting her and the rest of the council in fear in what had already been a tense meeting replete with aggressive comments from the public and combative behavior within the audience. It was the most serious breach of decorum of the last six months but by no means the first, as council meetings had become an unpredictable arena for bellicose discourse, whether among council members or from the audience. Holland had remained above the fray, losing her composure only that evening two weeks ago and otherwise managing crosscurrents even on the council with deftness and diplomacy.
But the streak of ill-tempers followed a savage election campaign in which Holland had been the target of relentless if unfounded accusations of corruption. The attacks took their tolls, resulting in the closest election victory Holland has ever known, and in doubts about herself and her future as she mulled privately about a political climate she was not recognizing.
She’d won her first county commission race in 2006 with 64 percent of the vote–the first woman to win a seat on the Flagler commission–was unopposed in her second. She resigned halfway through that term to run, unsuccessfully, for a Florida House seat. She won her first election to the council in 2016 with 63 percent in a four-way race, and what was seen as a redirection, with different kind of verve and focus, of Palm Coast’s development toward a more urbane–rather than just urban–community combining culture, technology, health care and higher education. But she won her re-election last November with less than 53 percent of the vote and may well have lost had revelations about her opponent, Alan Lowe, not derailed his chances: he’d been a “sovereign citizen” in his past, renouncing his citizenship. Lowe immediately filed to run for the council seat now occupied by Victor Barbosa, though it’s likely Lowe may switch and run in the special election for mayor.
Holland insisted she was not resigning in reaction to that recent past. “I’ve never been one to make my decisions based on the opinions of others, rather what is right and what I believe is right,” she said. “My dad always used to tell me that being a parent is the most challenging job you’ll ever have but it’s the most rewarding one. He’s absolutely right in both scenarios. But being a mom is one of my proudest moments. So I know I have to do what’s right for my family and I will continue to always take that stance, and this is no different.” her father, James Holland, was among the founding Palm Coast City Council. He died in office in 2002. Just last week his daughter was at the park that bears his name, marking the opening of its splash pad in what will now be Holland’s last celebration as an elected official in the city.
She said she told very few people of her decision last week. School Board member Colleen Conklin, a long-time ally whose own tenure in local government has paralleled and exceeded Holland’s, was among them.
“Certainly I believe that this is tragic on many levels,” Conklin said. “I understand her worrying concern. Things have reached a fever pitch, and you just don’t know anymore what could or might happen in some of those situations. But I think it’s tragic that we would lose a representative in local government who in many ways has done so much to help propel Flagler County into the 21st century. I understand that some people may see some of the pieces around parks and the water splash park and trees in the medians and other beautification projects as a waste. But in reality, all of those little things add up to a particular quality of life that we are fortunate enough to enjoy in Flagler County. And to think that people are so enraged by whatever the topic may be that they come across in such an aggressive and threatening way, is just a sad state of affairs.”
To Conklin, there’s little question that the brutality of the political environment is contributing to Holland’s decision. But it was precisely because of that brutality that she could not take a chance regarding her daughter. “I will respect Milissa’s decision to step down, whether she shares it’s because of her daughter or the worry around her own safety,” Conklin said. “At the end of the day, I do believe it is about her daughter, because if something were to happen to her, then what would happen to Tori? It’s just a terrible position to be put in as a mom and a parent. I think for her she is doing the right thing.”
As for the coming election, Conklin said: ““I think Flagler County voters need to be very aware of who they are electing into local office. It has to be well beyond a campaign slogan or a few talking points. People really need to do their homework on who we are electing to local office.” She added, in reference to recent incidents at meetings: “Every elected official in Flagler County has a responsibility to denounce what took place during that city council meeting, and ensure that everyone feels safe in a public meeting. That includes the public attending and the sitting attending officials.”
City Manager Morton, Honorable City Council and Citizens of Palm Coast,
Effective May 18th, 2021, I, Milissa Holland, am resigning from the office of Mayor of the City of Palm Coast. This decision has been made after many hours of deliberation and consideration. As you know my daughter has been through some extraordinarily challenging years health wise that at times became so serious that the outcome could of been very different than what it is today. For all of the prayers, support and words of encouragement that continued to pour in throughout this trying time, I want to say Thank You. Although she was able to receive the tremendous gift of a liver that ultimately saved her life, she has had some unexpected set backs that have required some additional levels of care and as her primary caregiver and of course her Mom, I began the process of assessing and evaluating where I must spend my time and focus and that is right by her side. I am sure every member of our community would chose to do the same.
I love this City and my community. The City of Palm Coast has outstanding professional and hardworking directors and employees that provide this City with excellent services that I am so proud to have witnessed throughout my time on the Council. I am hopeful as much has been accomplished towards the betterment of our City and our residents and the future is filled with transformative opportunities.
Thank you for the honor of serving you, the Citizens of Palm Coast. I am appreciative of your support and friendship. It has been both an honor and a pleasure.
Holland’s Facebook Statement:
They say that people will have a few defining moments in ones lifetime. Loss has been a part of my journey and it certainly has impacted me in a variety of ways but it has also taught me what is important in life. As you know my daughter has been through some extraordinarily challenging years health wise that at times became so serious that the outcome could of been very different than what it is today. For all of the prayers, support and words of encouragement that continued to pour in throughout this trying time, I want to say Thank You. Although she was able to receive the tremendous gift of a liver that ultimately saved her life, she has had some unexpected set backs that have required some additional levels of care and as her primary caregiver and of course her Mom, I began the process of assessing and evaluating where I must spend my time and focus and that is right by her side. So it is with a heavy heart that I have decided to step down from my role as Mayor of the City of Palm Coast. This decision has been made after many hours of deliberation and consideration. This is without question one of my defining moments and I want to look back at this time in my life and know that I made the difficult decision to do the right thing for my family. I love this City and my community. I am grateful for the leaders that came before me and for those I have had the privilege to work with along the way. The City of Palm Coast has outstanding professional and hardworking directors and employees that provide this City with excellent services that I am so proud to have witnessed throughout my time on the Council. I am hopeful as much has been accomplished towards the betterment of our City and our residents and the future is filled with transformative opportunities. Thank you for the honor of serving you, the Citizens of Palm Coast. I am appreciative of your support and friendship. It has been both an honor and a pleasure. #3mayorsofpalmcoast #palmcoastproud #gratitude