Last June, a resident of Ricardo Place hurled a spear at a Palm Coast city employee’s truck while the employee was inside. A few months before, a man was trespassed from the city-owned Palm Harbor Golf Course for targeting city employees with golf balls. The man was allegedly “suffering from a persecution complex.” A man trespassed from the local hospital made threatening calls to city staff and had to be trespassed from a city-run summer camp for children. There are also documented threats of shootings, anger from an ex-employee, from someone with a code enforcement case before the city, and numerous cases of harassment.
Those are the type of cases on the city’s “Difficult Citizens List” that the Palm Coast City Council on Tuesday unanimously voted to abolish, at least in its present form. The list will not actually go away. Secret as it was in all practical purposes, it remains a public record. And the city does not intend to scrap the process that would land someone on such a list in the future. It intends to revamp the process so that it isn’t a violation of due process. (See the full list, its names and addresses redacted, below.)
But how did the list come to be in the first place and why?
In May 2015 a B-Section resident was so abusive to Palm Coast city employees that the city filed a police report. A waterline at the resident’s home had broken, damaging the house and running up a large water bill. The amount was lowered by $200. He he refused to pay any part of the bill. His water was eventually turned off. He ended up “continuously calling and harassing the utility department,” according to the report, allegedly threatened that “Someone is going
to get hurt soon,” called employees by the vilest names and found various ways to insult them.
To then-City City member Bill McGuire witnessed one of the residents’ outbursts. To McGuire, the incident was the last straw. McGuire had become aware of other repeated incidents between residents and city employees, whether at City Hall or in the field, that caused him to worry about employee safety. That June, he asked for a city task force to devise ideas on better protecting employees from abuse.
Then-City Manager Jim Landon agreed. Landon set up a task force that included Landon, Mark Carman, the sheriff’s commander of the Palm Coast precinct at the time, and three others still with the city today: Barbara Grossman, the city’s code enforcement manager, Bill Reischmann, the city attorney, Virginia Smith, the city clerk. By August, the city administration had produced a six-page, color-coded document called “Dealing with Difficult Customers,” later appended to a five-page restatement in more narrative and graphic form intended to be used by city employees.
“The City is committed to providing a safe work environment,” the document states. “While we acknowledge that some of those that we come in contact with may be angry or upset, we want not only to provide you with guidelines and tools for dealing with difficult customers, but also want you to feel free to discuss any concerns or issues you may have. Following, you will find Procedures and Protocols by environment that can be utilized as a tool.”
The procedure cautions employees against over-reacting, using sarcasm, arguing, giving ultimatums or dismissing the customer as a chronic complainer, recommending instead to be patient, empathetic, calm and allow the person to vent, but also to stay in control and state facts. The document goes so far as to provide body-language directions: “Do not stand face to face/shoulder to shoulder, this is perceived as a challenging position,” “Do not cross your arms,” and so on. The color-coded portion provides a gradual list of behavior types and directives on how city employees should respond, whether it’s vulgar language, insults, direct or indirect threats, up to physical violence or property damage.
As soon as the customer uses vulgar language, harasses or makes indirect threats, employees are directed to warn the customer that the behavior is unacceptable, ask the customer to leave if the behavior doesn’t stop, and “Report the incident to your supervisor and follow-up in writing. Supervisors should notify Human Resources immediately and forward written information to Human Resources.” Direct threats of or actual violence require contacting 911 and pulling the silent alarm as well as written documentation.
So was born the “Difficult Customer List,” with its first entry dating back to March 2016, its last dating back to just last month. There’s been a total of 38 entries, some of them affecting the same customer.
The city’s handbook at no point addresses the public-record nature of the documentation. It does not set out a process by which those named may be informed that their behavior is being documented. It does not set out a process by which those named may challenge their inclusion. The document is silent on–and blind to–due process.
The list of names has its its first entry dating from March 2016: Raymond Crown, a Flamingo Drive resident, had made “miscellaneous threats.” The resident is named in the city document, his full address given, and is said in a note written by city staffers that he “Seems to have mental stability issues” and “Believes himself to be D. Trump’s running mate. Claims to be able to get staff fired.” The recommended course of action: “Be cautious around him. The FCSO is familier with him as well.” (That’s the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office.)
If anything, the information about Crown–who is named here because he is a convicted felon serving time in prison–is an understatement: he would subsequently be arrested in an unrelated confrontation with another man that involved the destruction of property and Crown threatening to bomb the Sheriff’s Office, Oklahoma City-terrorism style, and kill the sheriff. He seemed to have enough knowledge about Oklahoma, a terrorist act against a government building, to speak of getting “a garbage can of ammonium nitrate” to carry out his threat. He also said he wanted suicide by cop and told a sheriff’s deputy he had “a fuckin’ bullet coming in the head.” In January 2019 he was found guilty of making threats, among other charges, and sentenced to three years in prison.
Crown was released last November (he had many months’ jail credit and was eligible for release after serving 85 percent of his sentence). He is on probation until 2025.
He’s just one example. The first six names on the list and several others further down have faced criminal charges at one time or another (not from the city). Hardly any behavior listed on the list is defensible, and no employee in any sector could conceivably be expected to tolerate any of the behaviors described in the list. The list reflects a presumption by some customers (very, very few, in context) against customer service personnel in many fields–whether government or private sector–have been a pervasive problem going back many years. Palm Coast isn’t unique, and there’s a cottage industry dealing with it.
The uniqueness of Palm Coast’s approach was its own presumption–that the method did not need to be transparent, vetted, or, as the case may be, liability-proof. Matt Morton, the city manager for only a few more hours at the time, attempted to address that when he summarized a recommendation to the city council Tuesday evening. It would prove to be one of his last acts as manager, other than negotiating the contract of his interim successor.
“The most important thing: in the interim there is no list and the list should be kept, until council adopts a process and you guys have public comment and people are comfortable with whatever it looks like,” Morton said. “In the interim, absolutely, stop the list, frame it, have a public meeting about it.” The administration is to bring back what would amount to a policy. As Morton saw it, he said a list has its place for employees’ safety’s sake, but “the substance of the interaction, if it rises to that–there’s been very few since 2015–but it needs to be documented in a police report, not in some statement or on a spreadsheet. The person needs to be notified in writing that they’re intended to be put on.” He recommended changing the name away from “difficult citizens.”
“There’s a situational awareness list or citizen contact list,” Morton said. “That person has opportunity to appeal that decision. Usually it’s administrative, it’ll be to your new city manager. After that they have a second appeal to usually some kind of quasi body, either the code board or a special magistrate. When that’s done, they would then be placed on the list. The only thing that the list should be is a name if appropriate, an address or location if appropriate, and no longer with what happened to [others] with comments from anybody. It should just be, ‘please respond with two people,’ or or ‘citizen has requested no response,’ or ‘respond with FCSO’ to just simple instructions to just completely changed the nature of this to get it to what it supposed to be.”
Morton’s last day was Wednesday. He left City Hall around 2 p.m.