By the time the window closed at noon today, seven candidates had qualified to run in the special election for Palm Coast mayor on July 27, reducing the number from eight who had initially filed. The more recent cost estimate for the special election is $187,764, according to an itemized bill from the Supervisor of Elections.
Lenhart was quick to note that the estimate is at the high end, and may come in at tens of thousands of dollars below that.
Those who qualified are Realtors David Alfin, Kathy Austrino and Cornelia Manfre, Carol Bacha, a nun, inventors Doug Courtney and Alan Lowe, and Kevin Cichowski, who’s only described his profession as “a person that invests in distressed businesses that are trying to make a come back.” Manfre and Courtney are Democrats. The rest of the field is Republicans: there are no independents. The candidate who dropped out is Mark Mistie. (See: “Candidates from the Obscure to the Expected Piling Up to Run for Palm Coast Mayor in Winner-Takes-All Election.”)
Five of the seven candidates (Austrino and Cichowski are the exception) have run political campaigns before, none successfully. Manfre ran for a council seat last year, and Lowe was in the running in a seminally bitter race against Holland, losing by five points.
All seven candidates qualified by paying the $1,140 fee, as none did so by gathering the nearly 500 signed petitions that would have been necessary to avoid the fee. But they had just five days, between May 24 and May 28, to gather those petitions. The council opted against bwaiving either petition or fee requirements to ensure that those who run are doing so with serious intentions.
The race is ostensibly non-partisan, but local parties and political action committees get heavily involved. Democrats, for example, are expected to endorse Manfre, even if not formally (local Democrats in leadership attempted to convince Courtney, a perennial candidate many years ago, to withdraw, but unsuccessfully.) Establishment Republicans are siding with Alfin, while the Trump Club, whose voice consists largely of Ed Danko’s decibels, is endorsing Lowe. Danko was elected to the city council last year and has backed Lowe since, first in Lowe’s run for the council seat Victor Barbosa is resigning at the end of his run for a county commission seat, then in Low’s run for mayor.
Ordinary elections in Palm Coast may have run-offs if more than two candidates are in the running and none clears the 50 percent threshold. That’s not the case in this election. Whoever has the largest number of votes, even if well below 50 percent, is the winner. It is mathematically possible (but realistically unlikely) that the winner could have as little as 15 percent of the vote (up from 13 when there were eight candidates).
The city council set the special election almost immediately after the resignation of Milissa Holland after less than five years in the seat. Holland cited her daughter’s health as necessitating her departure. She had been under significant strain from increasingly raucous and volatile council meetings, on and off the dais. When the council first discussed the special election, its cost was pegged at around $100,000.
“They had kind of guesstimated that it would be around $100,000, and when we got the cost from the supervisor of elections, it was $187,764,” a city spokesperson said today. The city got the new estimate on May 19.
The cost drew criticism from County Commissioner Dave Sullivan at a commission meeting today, an unusual attack from a county commissioner against the city and a veiled slight at Holland: Sullivan had previously spoken of the resignation and required election as an “unnecessary” cost to the city. He did so again today, but from the commission’s dais.
“This is just personal to me as a resident of Palm Coast, I want to make this point because most of us are residents of Palm Coast,” Sullivan said, before attempting a joke: “I’m just asking that none of our current commissioners resign shortly. It’s going to cost the city of Palm Coast $185,000 to run an election that should not have been necessary, and I know that’s a little touchy.” Sullivan said the original estimate had nearly doubled. “But my point is, these things don’t come free. And by the time that’s all done that’s going to cost the city of Palm Coast quite a bit of money to make all that happen, so it’s just the law of unintended consequences I guess kicks in at these times, and it still is taxpayer money that we’re spending.”
Council members had been quietly grateful that, unlike the firing of former City Manager Jim Landon in 2018, which cost the city close to a quarter million dollar in severance, the resignation of City Manager Matt Morton, days after Holland’s resignation, had no severance attached. The special election, however, may now run up a similar cost, especially when the coming cost of a search for a new manager is added in–if the council conducts such a search. (Palm Coast paid consultant Strategic Government Resources $28,000 to aid in the last search for a manager.) That’s assuming the cost estimate of the election matches what the city will have to pay.
“The cost could be up to $180,000 but I expect it to be closer to $150,000 and hopefully less,” Lenhart said today in an email.” I’m working with our local vendors to bill the City directly. The sample ballot mailing should come in under my estimate for this election. We don’t know how many people will request a mail ballot or how many notices we’ll need to send in response to voter activities during the election. We will employ over 120 workers to conduct early voting and Election Day precinct voting at 17 polling locations in Palm Coast. The City of Palm Coast has 72,000 registered voters now, as compared to 50,000 in 2011. There were only six polling locations open during that 2011 election. Postage, people and paper make an election expensive.”
According to Lenhart’s itemized bill estimate for the coming election, the largest costs are for early voting poll workers, with 11 poll workers logging in either 40 or 80 hours, the printing and postage cost of sample ballots, which go to all registered voters, and the printing and mailing of vote-by-mail ballots. Now that the law has changed, requiring supervision of drop boxes at all times, there’s an additional $2,000 cost. The bottom-line cost remains an estimate, and may be lower, considering that, for example, the cost estimates 40,000 election day ballots, at a cost of $12,400.
That cost appears a very high overestimate: in a special election with expected early voting and mail-in votes, it is very unlikely that 40,000 voters will turn out on election day, when all of 11,806 turned out in the entire county last Nov. 6, Florida’s heaviest-turnout general election since 1992.
“We are preparing for the turnout to be similar to the 2020 election for Mayor in Palm Coast,” Lenhart said. “Special elections often have a lower turnout overall, however, voter participation in this county has been on the increase over the past several years. A mayor’s race always brings more media attention and public interest. Hopefully our turnout for this election will be closer to 50% instead of the terrible 11% turnout in 2011. In order to reach that goal, we’ll need 36,000 voters in this election. If the split were similar to the 2020 General, that would be roughly 11,880 voting by Mail Ballot, 11,160 Early Voters and 4,680 on Election Day.”
Tiger Bay, the non-partisan club, will hold question and answer forums with the seven candidates on Wednesday, June 23 and Thursday, June 24, from 5 to 8 p.m., each evening starting with an hour of interaction between voters and the candidates, followed by the more formal questions and answers. The forums are not a debate. The candidates will be split in two batches over the two evenings. The forums take place at the Palm Coast Community Center on Palm Coast Parkway. The Observer and FlaglerLive are also expected to publish interviews with the candidates.