Cornelia Downing Manfre is one of six candidates in the July 27 special election for Palm Coast mayor. The election was required by charter following the unexpected resignation of Milissa Holland in mid-May, less than a year into her second term. The candidates who filed to run, all of them paying the $1,140 qualifying fee, are: David Alfin, Kathy Austrino, Carol Bacha, Doug Courtney, Alan Lowe and Manfre.
All but Austrino have run for office before, though none successfully. The mayoral term will run until 2024. This is a non-partisan, at-large election. That means all registered voters in Palm Coast–and only Palm Coast–regardless of party or non-party affiliation–Democrats, Republicans, independents and others–may cast a ballot for Palm Coast mayor. But this being a special election, there will not be a runoff. The winner needs only to have one more vote than the candidate next in line. Theoretically, the winner could garner as little as 17 percent of the vote, with the rest of the field splitting the balance.
The mayor is paid $11,400 a year. Like the four council members, the mayor also gets a $1,200 car allowance and a $910 communication allowance each year, so in sum the mayor’s total pay is $13,510.
FlaglerLive submitted identical questions to all candidates, with the understanding that additional questions might be tailored to candidates individually and some follow-up questions may be asked, with all exchanges conducted by email and on the record. All candidates with the exception of Lowe agreed to participate. Lowe had initially said he would do so as well. He then did not answer a follow-up email to confirm.
The Live Interview’s aim is to elicit as much candor and transparency as possible. We have asked candidates to refrain from making campaign speeches or make lists of accomplishments. We have also asked candidates to reasonably document any claim or accusation. Undocumented claims are edited out. Answers are also edited for redundancy, relevance and, where possible, accuracy. If a candidate does not answer a question or appears to be evading a question, that’s noted.
But it’s ultimately up to the reader to judge the quality and sincerity of a candidate’s answers.
The Questions in Summary: Quick Links
- Comparison with previous mayors
- Coucil dynamics
- Mayoral power
- Continuity or change
- Commercial vehicles
- Next city manager
- Rap sheet
Place and Date of Birth: Dayton, Ohio May 5, 1957.
Current job: First Coast Sotheby’s International Realty- Broker Associate.
Party Affiliation: Democrat.
The 2021 Special Election for Palm Coast Mayor
1. Palm Coast has had just three mayors, the last two, Jon Netts and Milissa Holland, accounting for 14 of the city’s 21-year history. We assume that with your interest in being mayor, you are familiar with Netts’s and Holland’s years as mayor and their legacy. Tell us how you would compare yourself to them, and whether you see your mayorship as a break from that legacy or as a continuation of it, understanding of course that you’re your own person. Put another way: would Palm Coast residents see your mayoral style in a recognizable light, or would they discover in you someone quite different—radically different?—from your predecessors?
With my 41 years of business experience, I will guide the City Council and City Manager to project the best of what is Palm Coast. My educational background and work experience in major corporations has given the extensive background in management, strategic planning, negotiation, and accountability. I will apply these traits as Mayor of the City. I will be transparent, collaborate with the other members of the Council and facilitate decision making to be smooth and effective. Economic development and job creation will develop as the City responds efficiently to the process of expansion.
But you’re not telling us how you compare with your mayoral predecessors: To what extent do you see yourself as either a break or a continuation of that legacy? What can voters expect? Familiarity? Shock? Something else entirely?
As Mayor, I will continue the business-like manner in which my predecessors led the City and the Council. As our predecessors did before, I intend to support our local businesses, ensure that our City roads and parkways are well-maintained and be careful in spending tax dollars. My desire is to find a strong City Manager who will respect the direction the Council applies to issues. Where I would differ will be in being available to residents as much as possible because I believe in a strong customer service-oriented and servant leadership approach.
2. Of Flagler County’s five major government boards (the cities, the county and the school board) the Palm Coast City Council right now is the most splintered, the most unpredictable—not in a constructive way, but a loose-cannon sort of way—and the most prone to doubletakes, to put it gently. First, give us your impression of council dynamics. Second, tell us how you as mayor intend to bring consensus, and whether your aim is to work primarily toward a majority of three, or toward the consensus of the entire board.
I will work for consensus building between the Council members. There will be some disagreements so I will work through those by seeking the common ground to effectively determine a solution. Public meetings, I will conduct in a civil manner, and also ensure that when decisions are made by majority, the entire council should be on board with the best ways to serve the public.
What is your analysis or impressions of current council dynamics, and what do you think is causing an obvious 2-2 rift that the mayor will swing one way or the other?
I see debate between the Council members, not so much a rift. Each councilmember was elected to serve the people and, as a negotiator, I intend to draw out each person’s opinions on issues and find common ground.
3. What is in a mayor’s power, and what isn’t? What is your understanding of when and how, if ever, you may direct or in any way exercise any authority over administrative staff other than the city manager and the city attorney? How would you deal with a problem, perceived or real, regarding a city employee, a manager (not the city manager) or a director?
My goal is to hire a competent, independent City Manager to work with the City Council and the City Attorney. The City Charter provides for the Council with that authority. The City Manager is provided the authority to oversee the City departments and the staff. The City Manager is the contact person who is in charge of keeping the Council informed on the status of the City departments, new developments and responses to the citizenry.
4. You will have a somewhat abbreviated term of a little over three years, coming in—as all candidates in this election do—without prior experience in office, which will steepen your learning curve. What three specific goals, in that shorter time span, do you think you can realistically achieve as mayor before the next election.
First, I would like to hire a competent City Manager who has a proven track record in management of a municipality, and the hiring of experienced staff to ensure the functions of the City government are executed. Second, I would like to develop a plan in attracting jobs and opportunities to the public. Third, I would like to establish new senior services, youth activities and develop an affordable housing plan for our work force. My expectation is to be approachable and ensure that expenses and taxes are kept in line, and create an environment for controlled, sustainable and equitable growth.
What would be one example in your plan that would realistically attract jobs–what jobs?–and opportunities? If the county’s unemployment rate is in the 5 percent range and trending down–what has been considered full employment in post-war economics–where is the issue with jobs, considering that a substantial number of residents appear willing to work in neighboring counties and live in Flagler?
I would like to see an increase in job type opportunities. I believe the MedNex development and the hospital expansion by both Advent Hospital and Flagler Hospital will bring new types of medical careers here and add to the job base. With this medical expansion, what typically follows is development of medical office buildings. This will also help increase our commercial tax base.
5. Former Mayor Milissa Holland had a direct imprint on bringing about the Town Center Innovation District and Arts District and luring the University of North Florida and Jacksonville University to Town Center. Assuming you agree—you may tell us if you do not, and explain why—what are your intentions either in fostering or retrenching from these initiatives, and what will you, as mayor, leave us as imprints of similar consequence?
My goal is to ensure the best planning for the City of Palm Coast. ITT gave the blueprint for the City, the Town Center was well planned and I believe the attraction of the UNF and JU is a footprint for success. With all developments, the City staff is to ensure the proper execution of the planning process.
What will be your equivalent signature imprint, specifically?
As a city grows, it is imperative to preserve the naturescapes we have today along our parkways, our parks and bike paths. I want to ensure these are preserved and maintained and expanded when finances allow.
6. Three initiatives have drawn considerable attention: Palm Coast Connect, the expansion of the tennis center, and the relaxation of commercial vehicle rules in residential parkways. The first two are in the books, but could see revisions with a different council. The third is in the proposal stage. Tell us your [position on each: would you vote to continue with PCC and the expansion of the tennis center? Would you vote for or against relaxing the commercial-vehicle rule, say, to allow one such vehicle with uncovered commercial lettering be parked in a driveway?
It is important to ensure that tax dollars are being spent to provide the best service to the public. It will be necessary to review the costs and benefits of the Palm Coast Connect and the expansion of the tennis center. Regarding relaxing of commercial vehicles being parked in residential neighborhoods, I will need to review with the current ordinances, review the legal ramifications of relaxing parking restrictions. It will require conferring with City’s legal council to see specific caselaw/language to make sure we’re protecting neighborhood property values while still protecting the personal liberties of those who own businesses or work in our community.
You seem uncomfortable with the council’s 3-2 vote approving the tennis center expansion. Is that an accurate assessment? And understanding that relaxing the commercial-parking rules are fully in your hands as a council–you write the ordinance language, you determine the parameters–are you in favor of relaxing existing restrictions?
I think the timing is too soon, I would have given some recovery time past Covid, I also wanted to be assured that the maintenance costs are covered into the future.
Regarding parking restrictions, so much of the current debate seems to be people talking past each other. I need to review the current ordinances to what is being proposed, legal ramifications and the resulting look in the neighborhoods. If we’re going to change an ordinance that has been on the books for over 20 years, we should have strong public approval.
7. If you’re elected, you will be responsible with your four colleagues for hiring the next city manager. Looking back at the sort of city and county managers there’s been in Flagler over the past five years or so—Jim Landon, Matt Morton, Larry Newsom, William Whitson, Alvin Jackson, Craig Coffey, Jerry Cameron (and what a boys’ club it’s been)—which of them do you think reflect the temperament and managerial style that most closely aligns with what you’re looking for? How do you define that style in your words?
We have had several managers that have been very effective.
Having represented several Fortune 100 firms, I am very sensitive to the image we project, the efficiency of the staff and the type of customer service we provide. My style of City Manager, however, will be a bit different. I seek a person who has the background of City management, and potentially with some business experience, that is understanding of how critical it is to train staff and provide an atmosphere of professionalism. He/She will be accountable for all parts of administration, should be a strong leader with clear direction. The position calls for an individual who appreciates representing the quiet side of Florida.
You did not tell us specifically which of the managers/administrators there have been in the cities and the county you find most closely approximates the temperament you are looking for. Can you tell us?
I was always impressed with Dick Kelton and I always had very professional exchanges with him. I felt he truly listened and desired to leave Palm Coast better than he found it. That demeanor is closest to the type of leadership I am seeking.
Note: Dick Kelton, who had been Volusia County’s chief financial officer in the late 1990s, was selected as Palm Coast’s first city manager in March 2000, three months after Palm Coast incorporated. He retired in January 2007. The council hired Jim Landon later that year for what became an 11-year tenure.
8. Apartment housing in Palm Coast: Too much? Too little? What would you do about it? By what criteria other than zoning would you approve or reject apartment complexes? Would you approve raising the density and height of multi-family, or apartment, structures in select areas of the city zoned for the purpose? Same question regarding residential construction (too little? Too much?), keeping the following graph in mind, which shows the highest number of monthly permits for single-family and duplex homes in Palm Coast since August 2005:
The master plan provided for zones for multi-family, commercial retail, industrial, office and residential. This is the masterplanned community with plenty of areas zoned for all different types of developments. While respecting others property rights, I support the plan ITT laid out for the area.
This is an essential question you seem to leave unanswered. ITT laid out a plan, but the city has long since supplanted it with its own comprehensive plan which continues to have periodic amendments, while the council actively votes on specific zoning, planned unit developments, site plans and the like. Your initial response does not tell us what you, as mayor, think regarding the direction of development as it is today. You’re not telling us whether you’d reevaluate height and density restrictions, which are in your power as a council. Vested rights aside, residents frequently complain of too much development at the moment. Do you agree? Do you feel your role as a commercial developer may in any way cloud your judgment about regulating development in the city?
My goal as a 22-year resident of Palm Coast is to retain the natural beauty that brought so many of us here and to respect the current character of our existing neighborhoods. I reject the idea that there would be any clouding in my judgment but certainly if there were any conflict, I would disclose and step aside. I understand there will be requested changes to the comprehensive plan as circumstances change. Each will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis. I appreciate that we have height restrictions and I expect to preserve those. Regarding density, I believe our current codes work. Regarding being a person with commercial background is a huge benefit to being a mayor and no, I do not see any conflict.
9. At the June 8 Palm Coast City Council workshop, Councilman Ed Danko said: “I will not be voting for any tax increase. I expect our taxes to be the same. So that’s going to mean a millage rate rollback. That’s the only thing I’m going to vote for.” His statement prefaces budget season, so the city administration had not yet had a chance to present its budget numbers or any evidence, and the statement precludes so much as accounting for new revenue from new construction. Do you agree with the statement as an a priori position? Is it responsible as a matter of governance? The county is seeking to increase the small-county sales surtax by half a percent, which would double Palm Coast’s current revenue of around $3.3 million from that tax. The county is seeking palm Coast’s support for that increase. Would you support or oppose it?
City services are the priority to ensure they remain intact at the current levels. However, the commercial tax base is at 10% when the carry from commercial base should be at 30-40%. Any tax increase would have to be charged to the current residential base. That would need to be a caution for the residents. If the current revenue covers our services, there should be no need to increase taxes. There must be a plan to bring in commercial revenue to take the tax burden off of the residents at this level.
The question is not about the residential vs. commercial mix of the tax base, which is debatable anyway: commercial and non-homesteaded property owners feel they carry a disproportionate share of the tax burden as it is, while homesteaded property owners are protected from substantial tax increases by the cap on taxable values. That aside, the question is whether you agree with Danko’s a priori statement as a matter of governance, and whether you would support the county’s increase in the sales tax.
I am committed to keeping our taxes where they are at and working to lower our tax burden even further. I don’t want to deal in absolutes either way without sitting down and discussing these very important questions about the future of our community with my future fellow councilmembers in a workshop setting or with representatives from the County.
10. Palm Coast relies on the sheriff for policing. Is there anything you would change about the contract? Do you favor an independent police department for the city, now or in the near future? After the city manager in July 2019 challenged Sheriff Rick Staly’s request for additional deputies in Palm Coast that year, calling the request “nebulous,” the sheriff commissioned a University of North Florida study that by one measure found last June that Flagler would need 70 more deputies by 2025. The sheriff has said that even if 70 is unattainable, a sizeable addition to the ranks would be necessary in Palm Coast and the county even as crime is at a historic low. Do you agree? If so, how would you fund the additional deputies, especially if you take a no-tax approach? What would you cut to fund what would cost well over $100,000 per deputy per year?
Law enforcement is critical to all communities. I support the FCSO and will work with Sheriff Staly on a long-term plan to ensure that Palm Coast remains a safe and enjoyable place to live.
Your support of the Sheriff’s Office and wish to ensure that Palm Coast is a safe place to live was never in doubt, but was not the question. Would you answer the question as posed–your thoughts on a city police department, whether you agree with the sheriff’s need for a substantial increase in deputies, and how you’d pay for it?
No, I do not see the need to have a separate police department. No, I do not see the immediate justification of additional deputies with our crime rate at such low levels, but I’m eager to working with the Sheriff’s office on planning for the future.
11. Would you agree to a rainbow flag-raising ceremony on city grounds on par with, say, those for the Portuguese or Filipino flags? What would you do as mayor to ensure inclusion and diversity—not only of the LGBTQ community, but of all groups, equally?
Growing up in Washington DC, my parents were adamant that we treat all people equally no matter the color of their skin, their religion, their gender or who they chose to love. If an organization requests to have their event made public and the city provides that forum, then those events should be included. I would be in favor of adding these events to our calendar and proud to represent the City at their events.
A Faithful and strong leader committed to family, faith and friends.
13. Have you ever been charged with a felony or a misdemeanor anywhere in Flagler, Florida or the United States (other than a speeding ticket), or faced a civil action other than a divorce, but including bankruptcies, or faced any investigative or disciplinary action through a professional board such as the bar, a medical board or real estate ethics and other such professional supervisory boards? If so, please explain in detail, including cases where charges or claims did not lead to conviction or disciplinary action.
A claim was made by a prior brokerage company for a commission earned on a transaction after I was with another company for over two years. I prevailed.
This is the same answer you provided last year in your interview, but without details, and without explanations regarding a list of civil actions in which you were a defendant in Flagler County Circuit Court going back many years. Can you be more specific, and define what you mean by “prevailed,” especially in cases involving settlements?
Company A that I worked for knew of a deal I procured during my tenure with them. I joined another firm and two years later, I was able to rekindle the deal. I did so and Company A wanted the share in the transaction. The Court determined that they had not been involved for over 2 years and were not entitled to share.
Note: We did not get explanations regarding a case that ended in a final judgment against Manfre and her husband in a civil case involving Ocean Hammock in 2011, or a case in which the Manfres were defendants in a claim by Suntrust that resulted in a settlement in the Manfre’s favor, among other cases listed here.