A FlaglerLive Investigation
Palm Coast City Council member Ed Danko, elected last November, has been the subject of an internal inquiry triggered by allegations he harassed and bullied employees and was rude to them, records show.
The investigation, which remains open, concluded in a draft report that Danko had “inappropriately attempted to influence staff’s administrative duties.” Interference would be a violation of the city charter. Danko says he never interfered or sought to interfere, and only let employees know that he would, if in no uncertain terms, take up matters in question up with the city manager or the mayor.
“At no point did I violate the city charter, at no point did I instruct anyone to perform any task,” he said Thursday evening in an interview. “If someone didn’t like my demeanor, you know what, I can’t help that. But I didn’t commit any violation against the city charter.”
Statements by four employees gathered by human resources to document three separate instances involving interactions with Danko that employees deemed inappropriate. The instances portray the councilman as raising his voice to them, as boorish and disrespectful to some of the city’s veteran and most highly regarded employees, including City Clerk Virginia Smith and Marsha Lidskin, one of the city’s longest-serving employees–she started in 2005–and one of its most gracious.
Lidskin, a part-time employee assigned to the city’s communications or public relations office, writes the Palm Coaster, the city’s bi-monthly newsletter. Last November she was preparing brief biographies of potential new council members for the December-January issue and spoke to Danko by phone. She asked him standard questions.
Then, when she asked him about organizations in which he served, “he told me that he was President of the Trump Republican Club of Palm Coast,” Lidskin wrote in a Feb. 5 statement to Regina Fuller, the director of human resources. The statement recounted the phone exchange with Danko. “I promptly told him that I would gladly include his position in the article, but I would be leaving out the name ‘Trump’ because we didn’t want to make our newsletter political. He jumped on my response immediately: he specifically asked me, ‘who told me to say this?’ and I answered him that it was my decision, as I’ve been the newsletter editor for 15 years. He then said this to me: ‘What are you – some kind of liberal?’ I was astonished and got quiet for a moment. I tried to move on to ask him totally different question[s] and he interrupted me and said the following: ‘You know what? I don’t want to talk to you anymore. I don’t ever want to talk to you again. Nor do I want to ever meet you or work with you.’ He then hung up on me.”
The interaction had left Lidskin shaken. “No one whom I’ve ever worked with in the City of Palm Coast has ever spoken like this to me. I sat quietly for a moment, trying to keep myself from getting really upset and angry,” Lidskin wrote. “It’s shameful that this all had to happen, but I’ve moved on. Thank you for asking and for caring about precarious occurrences of this kind – things that could often truly affect the job function of our employees.”
Danko doesn’t dispute most of the account. At first he said he did hang up on Lidskin, then walked that back to: “I probably said something like, ‘I’m going to go above your head, goodbye, then maybe I clicked it off after I said goodbye, but I said goodbye.” He didn’t find his demeanor objectionable–only Lidskin’s. He said it wasn’t Lidskin’s place to decide whether to include “Trump” or not, especially if she was deciding it on her own. “She doesn’t get to have her own rules,” he said. (The reference to Trump made it in, as that’s part of the club’s name.) Danko said he hadn’t even been elected yet at the time Lidskin interviewed him and found the statement to HR out of place, since he wasn’t an employee.
But the statement was written in February, months after Danko’s election, and was elicited as what would be termed “similar-fact evidence” in connection with other complaints HR had become aware of. Lidskin had also shared the experience contemporaneously with Smith, the clerk, when it happened.
Lidskin was asked to document the interaction because three days earlier, Smith had an upsetting encounter with Danko before a city council meeting. At almost every council meetings, council members take turns reading proclamations, which tend to be simple, one-page statements recognizing one cause or another, with the standard “whereas” lines. The mayor chooses the council member who reads them, generally pairing a proclamation with each council member’s interests.
Danko felt he didn’t have enough time to prepare the reading of his proclamations, and wanted them sent to him in advance. Smith told him they were all in the packet sent to council members several days ahead: Smith typically sends the entire packet to them, electronically, five days ahead of time .
“He asked ‘How do they get assigned,’” Smith wrote in a February 3 statement. “I explained the Mayor assigns the proclamations at the meeting. As the conversation continues, CM Danko is raising his voice more and more and he is standing right next to me.” (CM is shorthand for Council Member in government lingo.) “I said the Mayor assigns the Proclamations and if you want to know in advance who is assigned, you will have to request that under Council Comments. He responded with ‘I will not, I will not read it then, I will give it back to her and tell her no.’ I said you can bring it up under Council comments … he yelled interrupting me and said ‘She is not my boss, I will not bring this up, I will give it back to her, I will just tell her when she gets here.’ I said you cannot bring this up before the meeting, it is City business.” (Council members are barred by the Sunshine law from speaking about council matters outside of a public meeting.)
“He yelled again interrupting stating she is not my boss, I will do no such thing. I explained the Mayor is the one who controls the meetings in accordance with the Charter, she is the boss of the meetings, she is assigned that duty as the voice of the City in the charter,” Smith continued, accurately: the mayor, like the chairman of a commission, runs the meetings, gives other council members permission to speak–or not–and handles meeting conduct. Danko has never liked the dynamic: him as a councilman, then-Mayor Milissa Holland in charge.
“He continued yelling and said ‘I will just give it back to her if she gives it to me. You tell her,’” Smith’s account continued. “I said to CM Danko ‘I will not tell her; I will not be your conduit, I will speak with Mr. Morton.’ CM Danko said ‘Fine- so will I.’” Smith was again correct to rebuff the councilman: it is illegal for anyone to serve as conduit of city business between one elected official and another on the same board.
Brad West, a city public information specialist who was in the room at the time, corroborated part of the account in a statement of his own, but only in broad brushes that nevertheless described Danko as snapping at Smith and seeming “agitated,” then going to his seat and complaining to fellow-Council member Victor Barbosa. (West resigned this week.)
Again, Danko in the Thursday evening interview did not dispute the essence of the accounts and defended his right to question procedures, finding nothing wrong in his approach–or even the wording of the investigation’s findings. “The findings do not say that I ordered someone to do something, because I cannot direct staff, and I never directed staff. The fact that I told Virginia, ‘Holland is not my boss,’ is not directing staff.” In the interview, Danko recalled Smith telling him that Holland was his boss, as opposed to Holland being the boss “of the meeting,” as Smith in fact characterized it in her statement.
Smith in the account described herself as “upset” by the encounter and discussed it with then-City Manager Matt Morton before and after the meeting. Upset may have been an understatement. That was the encounter that prompted Morton to inquire to human resources about what to do.
“I am facing an HR issue I am not sure how to proceed on,” Morton wrote Fuller, the human resources director. “Mr. Danko ‘exploded’ at Virginia Smith before the Council Meeting last night in front of many employees (Doug, Brad and others) – she was insulted and humiliated and came to me in tears – this is a pattern, Ms. Smith also requested I address this issue, she is concerned about the prospect of retaliation from Mr. Danko that may require an independent analysis.”
Morton then wrote that “Virginia just after election had a similar encounter over the phone and documented it,” and referred to the Danko encounters with other employees, causing Fuller to investigate.
The last incident documented by human resources refers to an undated incident that took place by the side of a road, involving Greg Doston, a public works employee. Doston provided a brief statement to human resources on April 16: “Mr. Danko pulled up to the jobsite and in an unpleasant manner he questioned the crew on why we weren’t directing traffic. During the conversation he aggressively stated that he was a current member of the council and was going to inform the City manager about our lack of safety protocols. After Mr. Danko made this statement we informed him we were within the FDOT required time limit for setting up a lane closure. He then proceeded to drive away aggravated.”
This statement, Danko disputed–not for its inaccuracy but for its incompleteness. He did not dispute Doston’s account, except for his description of him as “aggravated,” saying how would Doston know. He then provided his own version of the encounter in Thursday’s interview: “I pulled up to that site with all those trucks,” Danko said, “I simply said it’s hard to get around, it’s hard to see, shouldn’t you guys have a flag person or something? The guy was very rude. I don’t remember exactly what he said, but he was very condescending, very rude.” So Danko said he told Doston he was a council member and would be speaking with the city manager.
Fuller in a March 16 memo summarized what she called in the subject line the “Investigation into Council Member Ed Danko’s Employees Interference of Duties,” which included interviews with five employees. Notably, the investigation reflected no interview with Danko, which may explain why the investigation hasn’t been closed.
“City of Palm Coast Policies and Procedures, Section 3.04(A-D), states the City will not tolerate harassment or discrimination by anyone in the workplace including supervisors, co-workers or non-employees,” Fuller wrote. Danko falls in the last category: he’s not an employee strictly speaking, but he’s not exempt from city policies.
The policies also state in part: “Except for the purpose of inquiry and information, the Council and its members, including committees thereof, are expressly prohibited from interfering with the performance of the duties of any City employee who is under the direct or indirect supervision of the City Manager or City Attorney. Such action shall be malfeasance within the meaning of Florida Statutes.” The evidence gathered, Fuller said, “supports the finding that Council Member Danko inappropriately attempted to influence staff’s administrative duties.”
“I Did Nothing Wrong”
Of all the complaints, Danko said Thursday, “It’s irrelevant, I did nothing wrong, period. If somebody wants to make stuff up, and claim otherwise, what can I do?” In fact, even Danko has not disputed the accounts themselves: none of the employees were “making stuff up.” He disagreed with their interpretations of his behavior: “I was never bullying or rude. Let’s be clear on that.” And it’s the implication of interference he disputes.
In an Observer article earlier this week, first reporting on a document by Morton outlining various claims about Danko and Barbosa, the Observer had quoted Morton saying Danko was aware of the investigation, and could seek retaliation against employees. Danko called Morton a liar in the article. “Danko,” the Observer reported, “asked by a reporter if he’d been the subject of an HR investigation, said, ‘No — that’s ridiculous.’”
Danko told FlaglerLive he learned about the investigation only on Tuesday, after Interim City Manager Denise Bevan invited him to read the documents that were to be sent to FlaglerLive pursuant to a public record request. (It is unusual for a government agency to signal a record request to a person implicated in it before the records are turned over.)
“I never knew about these. This is the first time I heard anything about those things,” Danko said Thursday. Referring to the city attorney, he said: “Bill Reischmann told me that he thought they were closed out because there wasn’t much to them.” He later walked back that statement somewhat, saying Reischmann may have mentioned the investigation was still open. (“Because this matter hasn’t been closed out yet, I can’t give a comment,” Reischmann told FlaglerLive.)
“If these are all such horrible things, why have they all been sitting around until now?” Danko said. “I know why. Matt Morton, our disgruntled city manager, wanted to throw rocks on his way out the door.” It isn’t clear how that could have been the case: Morton provided neither his own email nor the documents about the internal investigation to FlaglerLive, and in his email to staff cited as a reason a specific tenet from the International City/County Management Association’s Code of Ethics that strongly suggested Morton had been the subject of inappropriate interference from council members: “Resist any encroachment on professional responsibilities, believing the member should be free to carry out official policies without interference, and handle each problem without discrimination on the basis of principle and justice.” Morton didn’t name the council members interfering with him in his email to staff. He did so in a subsequent interview and email: Danko and Barbosa.
The statements and complaints by the various employees and subsequent investigation by human resources provide more context to the dynamics between Morton and council members, and appears to provide more context to Morton’s sudden resignation.
Morton documented interactions with Danko on May 29 in an email to himself, also obtained in the same batch of records. In that email he claimed that Danko knew of the investigation and “was furious with” Morton over it.
Morton’s Email to Himself
Morton wrote the email to himself two days after announcing his resignation, and three days before the Palm Coast City Council waived his 30-day notice requirement, ending his tenure with the city. He described Danko and Barbosa as violating the city charter by interfering with administrative decisions. Danko, Morton claimed, made demands about firing employees with Alan Lowe, one of the candidates for Palm Coast mayor, at his side, when the three had lunch together around the time of the email. Danko is Lowe’s campaign manager. He denies any such demands were made, or that any list about firing employees, exists. To the contrary: he describes the lunch as pleasant, cordial, said Morton even gave Danko a roadmap on how to kill the planned but controversial expansion of the city’s tennis center, and all three shook hands at the end.
Morton’s email to himself describes matters very differently.
“I am writing this 29th of May, 2021 in advance I what I believe could be a retaliation/constructive discharge – certainly a resignation forced due to malfeasance of office and/or threats by Councilmembers Barbosa and Danko,” Morton wrote. (See the full email here. The city provided it attached to an email by Jerry Forte, the fire chief, about the improprieties of Joe Mullins, the county commissioner. Morton had paired both documents. (See the article about Forte’s email here.)
The Morton email claims Barbosa tried to get Code Enforcement Manager Barbara Grossman and Palm Coast Fire Police Chief Steve Garnes fired–Barbosa’s attempt to fire Garnes was documented and reported, including through texts he sent Morton and confirmation by Forte and emails previously obtained from the city–and to get Perry Mitrano, a former Bunnell director of solid waste, hired in Palm Coast. Barbosa has denied the allegations.
The email’s more serious allegations are about Danko, who is described as telling Morton what to say publicly about the recently uncovered “Difficult Citizens List” the city administration had conceived in 2015 and started populating in early 2016. (See: “Here’s Palm Coast’s Full ‘Difficult Citizens’ List, Its Origins, and the Kind of Offenses that Landed People On It.”)
“Ed told me what I am (was) to say in regard to the list – that it was ‘hollands and Landon’s list’ and he informed me Alan was going to do a ‘Santa video’ as the naughty list,” Morton wrote. “Danko made it very clear that if I did not follow his script [it] would go very badly for me and that I was [to] follow along.” Morton then met Danko for that one lunch Danko referred to as cordial, with Lowe among them. Morton continued: “again he mentioned the list and what I am to do – He also had a list of employees he wanted fired/gone among other things. I disagreed with almost all of his nonsense and told him he was wrong, clueless and a ‘political who’re’ who has traded good governance for politics and would destroy this community.”
The Morton email states: “Most troubling Ed Danko has been under an HR inquiry for harassment. Several employees came forward and requested action. He was furious with me. I am also concerned for the employees including Virginia Smith, Renina Fuller and the others named.” Both Smith and Fuller have clean records at the city. Danko, Morton wrote, “seemed intent on revenge and says he will call for an investigation into the list as a means to get Renina Fuller terminated as the list resided in HR, and emails with her name are on them.”
Morton in an interview with FlaglerLive days before the end of his tenure had said essentially what he’d written in his email as he explained his resignation: “Danko called me, told me exactly how the meeting should go, what I was supposed to say. And if I didn’t say it, how poorly it was going to go for me and how everything would be blamed on me. So it was that, it was Victor Barbosa, again, telling me who I needed to hire in the city.” That portion of the interview had been off the record, and so had not been reported until now. The agreement was mooted by the revelation of the email as a public record.
Briefly contacted Thursday, Morton stood by his statements, as Danko stood by his.