At a special meeting of the Palm Coast City Council Tuesday morning, Jerry Forte, the city’s fire chief and its interim assistant city manager, explained why he was sending his deputy fire chief, Bradd Clark, to be the county’s interim chief for the next few weeks.
Forte said the county approached the city to provide Clark “for a very, very short period of time” to help with the transition to a new leadership in the county’s fire department, where Mike Tucker is taking over as chief after Independence Day. Forte said he himself played a similar role for the county during the 2011 wildfires, under direction from then-Emergency Management Chief Kevin Guthrie, now the state’s emergency management director. (See: “Flagler Administrator Jerry Cameron Ends Tenure, Interim Salinas and New Fire Chief Mike Tucker Start July 7.”)
“I equate this to if you’ve got a neighbor that’s coming over, wants to borrow a cup of sugar, you don’t ask them why you want to have a cup of sugar and you don’t charge them 10 bucks,” Forte said. “At one point, you’re going to need a cup of sugar from your neighbor, and in the same token, we’re building relationships with the county, and I will tell you at one point we will probably call on them for some assistance as well. So I think it’s a good opportunity for us to help them out, and then in the future they will be able to help us out as well.”
Forte’s words were carefully weighed. He did not want to send the wrong message, especially in a county that has seen its share of county-city rivalries regarding the fire services over the years, though under different chiefs and political leadership. (See: “Palm Coast Mayor Rips Waste of County’s EMS Service and Says Do It All Or Pay the City,” from 2015, “Palm Coast Floats New Rescue System in Name Of “Efficiency,” But County Sees Many Flaws” and “County Takes Dim, Caustic View of Palm Coast’s ‘Efficiency’ Push in Ambulance Services from 2016. In previous years, it was the county that had floated a proposal to take over city services, drawing city rebukes.)
There was more context to Forte’s words–and to seemingly disconnected statements and Facebook postings by County Commissioner Joe Mullins about the county’s fire services. On May 28, he’d posted about how “There is no reason to double tax residents with duplicate services.” He also posted praise for the county’s fire services, and on Monday, when the County Commission approved the same bi-lateral agreement for an interim chief with Palm Coast, Mullins wanted to stress: “We’ve got a great staff. We’ve got a great group of guys and gals that do an incredible job. They’re some of the best in the state, some of the best in the country.” He added: “We are really behind them.”
The words may have surprised Forte. In late May, and not for the first time, Mullins had approached Forte to tell him he thought Palm Coast should take over the county’s fire services. According to Forte, Mullins had made similar statements at Rotary Club meetings, at Firefighter Appreciation days, and at an Elks club event, “where Mullins outwardly criticize[s] Fire Chief Bobby Pace,” the Flagler Beach chief–who was, unbeknownst to Mullins, standing right there.
This week on his weekly radio infomercial, Mullins calls Flagler Beach leaders “cowards” for cancelling July 4 fireworks and the parade and implied the city was misusing money supposedly budgeted for the fireworks. The decision to cancel the fireworks was made jointly by the city’s police and fire chiefs and the city commission. Mullins’s accusation drew a rebuke from Flagler Beach Commissioner Rick Belhumeur: “Speaking of cowards, why haven’t you come to one of our Flagler Beach Commission meetings to make your accusations and call us cowards in person. Why do you have to lie about ‘missing money’ unless it’s just to agitate? You know very well that there has been no money transferred to the City of Flagler Beach for fireworks.”
Mullins’s statements to Forte at the recent Touch a Truck event organized by Palm Coast Public Works in Town Center in late May had troubled the fire chief enough that Forte decided to write the county’s administrator and assistant administrator (Jerry Cameron and Jorge Salinas), copying Clark and then-City Manager Matt Morton.
“To begin, I don’t have serious confidence in most political figures today since they are not subject matter experts but they tend to speak in public” as if they were, Forte wrote, “this one included. My concern, which should also be yours, Mullins stated he feels strongly that Palm Coast should take over the County Fire Service and that I should be at the forefront of that leadership process. He further added that the current state of the County service is the entire reason Palm Coast should take over the county service and since there is change in the future City Council his ‘friends will push to move in that direction.'”
Mullins has allied himself with Council member Victor Barbosa and Alan Lowe, the mayoral candidate last year and again in the special election for mayor on July 27. Council member Ed Danko is managing Lowe’s campaign.
“You should also know that this particular commissioner has suggested the same over the last three years and each time him brings it up to me, I remind him that he does not have the experience that we do as leaders and he should stay in his own lane,” Forte continued, citing the many instances when Mullins pushed for the take-over. “I can assure you there is no love loss I hold for Commissioner Mullins but he is not my problem until he becomes my problem. Reality is, I believe he is a wrecking ball and seeks to [incite] hostility to create confusion everywhere he goes.”
Forte’s scathing assessment of Mullins is not the first by local officials: Flagler Beach City Commissioners Eric Cooley, Rick Belhumeur and Ken Bryan and School Board member Colleen Conklin have all publicly condemned his actions on various grounds, and Commissioner Greg Hansen and former Commissioner Charlie Ericksen wanted him censured for his open insults at the two men during a public meeting (Mullins allies Donald O’Brien and Dave Sullivan blocked the move). Privately, many more elected and administrative officials have spoken of their distaste for Mullins.
But Forte’s is the first and highest sitting administrative official to do so openly and as severely. In a county with a dearth of administrative leadership (the city and the county are both without permanent administrators or managers), Forte’s voice, because of his longevity, a stellar reputation, respect from ranks likely unequaled in local government, and Forte’s remove from politics, resonates louder.
“This ‘boys club’ discussion is not new for this county and unfortunately, it will continue while simple minded people continue to run for office,” Forte said in his letter to county officials. “I can further add that I have had a similar discussion with Council Member Barbosa in December when he suggested I speak with ‘his friend on the County Commission,'” a reference to Mullins. “Barbosa was told by me that the problem with the fire service happens when political hacks get involved in the growth process just so they can get their picture taken in front of a fire engine. Barbosa was further told by me that when he has 31 years of experience in the fire service, I will listen to his suggestion.”
In 2011, two respected members of the fire services at the county and the city–Richard Bennett, whose name Forte invoked Tuesday morning when speaking of cooperation, and Jason Laughren, each of whom was president of his firefighter union at the county and the city respectively, proposed a consolidation of the fire services as county and city governments were grappling with drastic revenue shortfalls because of the housing bust. But the two firefighters had decades of experience between them. Bennett has retired. Laughren is now a Battalion Chief in the Haines City Fire Department.
Referring to Mullins and Barbosa, Forte continued: “I consider both of these instances rantings of a politician and not worthy of further discussion, until a County Commissioner disgraces the hard working men and women of Flagler County Fire Rescue with venomous talk. You are also at a pivotal point in new leadership, planning future infrastructure in the fire department and building a program that you all can be proud of. I have always said our organizations need the autonomy that the citizens voted for 21 years ago and it is only now, through relationship building, that we are not afraid to share ideas and interests without the worry of reprisal. The future is uncertain with the Mayoral race that is about to take place, but you both should know my commitment to the success of the Flagler County Fire Department comes from my organization and not a political hack trying to score a point. Your staff need to know they are valued and not a pawn in a fo[o]l’s game. Your next fire chief needs to have the support of a strong leadership team and their partner agencies in order to have success. Any planning that occurs in the region for fire protection will happen with subject matter experts and not on street in a City event.”
Forte told the county officials they needn’t respond: he was merely informing them of his encounter with the commissioner “in a format that I was not comfortable with,” he said, “and any other discussion that are had without my being present do not represent me or my organization.” He ended his email with a suggestion: “Feel free to share this with anyone!”
Mullins, who subsequently posted flattering remarks about Flagler County Fire Rescue in an apparent effort to signal his support in light of Forte’s email, also wrote Forte, starting with “let me be very clear,” and that he represents “the citizens of every part of Flagler county,” a statement he has himself contradicted on numerous occasion, offensively attacking constituents who don’t follow his ideology, proposing to ship them out or behead them. Nevertheless, he told Forte that “Public safety has and will be my #1 concern.”
Boasting of his family owning “THE top burn center in the world” (the Georgia facility he is referring to is actually the largest by number of beds, in the United States; the largest in the world is in Bangladesh), he told the chief he is “always seeking direction” on fire safety, training “and specifics like fireworks and other unnecessary risk we can avoid.”
He then addressed Forte’s comments more directly (his email is quoted as he wrote it): “While I have a lot of respect for the city of Palm Coast and City of Flagler beach staff, as well as a tremendous amount for Chief Pace. (Whom I will add I have never heard promote to anyone it’s ok to shoot fireworks off personally). I would put up any of our guys as equal if not better in areas. This county Fire department truly has the best of the best. I will not argue their stations and equipment may not be equal but they certainly are. My comments were on duplicating services and personnel. That is and has been a concern of this community.
“In a time where we are using technology as well as other advancements we need to be also considering lowering the expenses to our tax payers. I will say better words for me to have used in this case would be collaboration and non duplication oppose to consolidation which one day may become necessary in some areas.” He then wrote of the “need to show we will work together like never before and leave the egos at the door.”