At the beginning of Tuesday evening’s Palm Coast City Council meeting–a meeting that somehow surpassed what had seemed unsurpassable abominations of council meetings going back to last November, since the accession of Council members Ed Danko and Victor Barbosa–Mayor Eddie Branquinho had a word of caution for the audience.
“We are in a political season,” he told the relatively sparse assembly, a reference to the special election for mayor on July 27 that has drawn six candidates. Two of them were in the audience. “I appreciate that if any candidates for office right now, do not, please do not.” Branquinho didn’t finish the sentence, but meant that candidates shouldn’t use the public comment periods to grandstand. “It’s against our rules or regulations, and it’s unethical to use this podium to campaign, so please do not.”
He had not figured on Danko doing so from the dais, and doing so repeatedly in the course of the nearly three-hour meeting. Danko is managing mayoral candidate Alan Lowe’s campaign. By the time he was done Tuesday evening, his barely veiled campaign stunts from the dais had–as always, on no evidence but that alleged by Danko–savaged City Manager Denise Bevan, City Attorney Bill Reischmann, Council member Nick Klufas, former Mayor Milissa Holland, former City Manager Matt Morton, and the Palm Coast Observer, whose reporter was in the room.
At one point he claimed that he’d received a “confidential” briefing from law enforcement telling him that Holland had resigned not because she wanted to take care of her ailing daughter. “She resigned because there were criminal charges in the ethics complaint that was filed against her,” Danko claimed. (It doesn’t work that way: charges filed with the state ethics commission are civil, and must be found to have probable cause before they are even levied. The alleged complaint against Holland has yet to get to that point. The State Attorney’s Office, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the State Attorney’s Office have all confirmed that there are no investigations against Holland, the State Attorney’s Office doing so again Tuesday evening.)
It is also unusual, if not impossible, that one council member would be given a secret briefing by law enforcement and not others. When Branquinho asked Danko at least to explain what law enforcement agency had briefed him. Danko refused. In full McCarthyist mode, he said it was confidential and “off the record,” moments after blatantly contradicting himself by speaking of the alleged criminal charges against Holland.
Danko declared he no longer trusted either the city manager or the attorney and would, presuming that Lowe won, call for their firing on day one of Lowe’s mayorship.
Bevan has been in her position barely a month but has been with the city a decade and a half in a stellar, spotless career until Danko’s smear Tuesday. The smear echoed that of Barbosa against the former city manager. Reischmann, whose firm has solidly represented the city almost as long, had been keeping what’s left of the council’s decorum together by cautiously intervening from time to time to keep the council’s wheels from falling off entirely.
It was a rank display of the politics of destruction, of an elected official lashing out publicly and brutally against his own colleagues and the only two people on the council who report to him. It was above all a preview of the sort of council to come if Danko gets Lowe elected and aligns with Barbosa, as he has continuously suggested–as he suggested again last night–to realign the council and the running of the city as he sees fit. With a three-voice majority, nothing would stop him but his own careens, though they may take the city down with him, as was proven clearly Monday regarding a routine but crucial item on the agenda.
Danko, who, with Lowe, claim to be supporters of law enforcement, almost succeeded in blocking funding for a routine contract to pay for construction and repairs of the city’s broadband network, called Fibernet. The network is the backbone of internet access for the sheriff’s office, the school board and the city, among other agencies and businesses. Failing to approve the contract would have meant the city had no one to repair a cut cable or any failure in service affecting the physical, 50-mile network of cables. It could have jeopardized the viability of the whole network and cut off the sheriff’s and school board’s access to the internet as well as the sheriff’s access to traffic cameras that have played a central role in local law enforcement. It would also have been a breach of contract with the city’s broadband customers.
Danko and Barbosa were set to vote against it, Branquinho and Klufas for it. With a council of four members, a 2-2 vote would have meant the contract was rejected. The motion to approve at first didn’t get a second.
Klufas spoke with controlled panic: “So if Councilman Danko, you don’t want to vote for this then if something were to happen, the city, and all of our staff are unable to use the internet,” he said. “That is why we should vote yes on this consent item.”
“You can vote yes. I’m not,” Danko said.
“That is very poor, risk management and catastrophic–” Klufas said, before Danko cut him off with a recurring retort against Klufas.
“I don’t need a lecture from you,” Danko said, though his stance on the issue suggested that he very much did. “I know you said that multiple times,” Klufas said. (“We shouldn’t make political grandstanding on certain elements of what we believe in in private versus public funding,” Klufas said later, urging fellow-council members to bring up these discussion points at workshops rather than spring them at meetings immediately before a vote. “It’s meant for workshop we can hash it out there.” But Danko was clearly going for the political splash of a council faced with a vote, which would not have been possible in a workshop setting.)
It was only after Reischmann spoke of the city’s contractual obligations “to maintain this infrastructure in order to continue providing these services,” and after a staffer told Barbosa that the city has made back its $10 million investment in Fibernet, that Barbosa offered up a second and the measure passed 3-1.
“I don’t know if laugh or cry, to be honest with you,” an already deflated Branquinho said. And the last segment of the meeting, with another public comment segment and council members’ comments, was still ahead.
Tensions arose during the initial public comment period at the beginning of the meeting when Perry Mitrano, the former solid waste director in Bunnell who Barbosa brought in to speak with Morton weeks ago about the city’s own problems with Waste Pro, the garbage hauler, asked for an apology from the council on Morton’s behalf. “Mr. Morton sent out a very, I have to say, disparaging email regarding me,” Mitrano told the council.
It’s not clear what Mitrano was referring to in that email. It refers to a conversation with Mitrano, but nowhere shows him in a bad light, or hints at anything like a bad light, at least regarding Mitrano. Morton was concerned about Barbosa’s maneuverings, not Mitrano. In an interview this morning, Mitrano said he was not aware of the context of the issues between Barbosa and Morton, and had read a line in the email (“ I was scared in the moment and was trying to de escalate the situation,” Morton wrote, clearly about his interactions with Barbosa) differently, and as pertaining to him. But he also agreed that the line could be read innocuously in his regard.
Danko, who’s never felt the need to apologize to the three employees who felt offended enough by his behavior to report or narrate it in detailed statements, seized on Mitrano’s appearance–which Mitrano said was not prompted by anyone–to press the council for an apology. It appeared again to be an opportunistic stunt enabling Danko (if not the Lowe campaign) to portray opposing council members as contemptuous of the public: it wasn’t Mitrano who was being shown in a bad light, it was Danko straining to show his colleagues in a bad light using Mitrano’s appearance–and diverting attention from the Morton email’s more damning descriptions of Danko as manipulative and threatening (“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 had written.
Klufas and Branquinho did not find the apology request appropriate, divorced as it was not only from the email’s fuller context but, as Klufas explained, “I don’t feel comfortable reprimanding someone who potentially was sending a whistleblower email, and I don’t know the contents of that email I haven’t read it all.”
When Danko’s turn came in the closing segment of the meeting, his fury was fully revved up: “I just want to make this known now. From now on when either of you folks want to communicate with me,” he told Bevan and Reischmann, “make it in writing, because I will not pick up the phone, I will not talk to you. I do not trust you. And rest assured once there’s a new mayor I will be making two motions on day one. Motion to cancel our contract with his law firm, and a motion to terminate you for cause as our interim city manager.”
Danko was incensed that Bevan had not closed an internal investigation that revealed three city employees’ complaints about Danko’s boorishness toward them. The internal investigation sustained the claim that he was interfering with staffers’ functions, a violation of the city charter. Launched last February after the city clerk lodged a complaint about Danko, the investigation was never closed. Bevan decided to outsource the investigation to an independent investigator with no stakes in the matter. Danko was furious, wanting the whole thing closed. So he attacked Bevan.
It is no small matter that Bevan and Reischmann both represent the last senior executives or council-level officials with any measure of institutional history and experience of the city. Both have deep understandings of the city’s functions, contracts, funds, revenue sources, interactions between departments, and so on, bridging that knowledge gap with a council largely still in its rookie phase. Currently, Klufas, with less than five years on the council, is the council member of longest tenure. Branquinho has just over two years.
Lowe, who usually speaks at council meetings, did not do so in this case. With Danko stage-managing, he didn’t need to. As if on cue, Lowe supporters quickly framed the meeting’s odium as a victory, one of them feeling the need to stress: “I will say one thing Alan Lowe had no part in telling Councilman Danko what to say or do.”
David Alfin was the only other mayoral candidate in the room, and was left stunned by the display. “I’m only as well as all of us today, I don’t have the words myself,” Alfin said this morning, after being contacted by a reporter. When he left the meeting last night, he’d been so troubled by what he’d witnessed that he took I-95 South, opposite the direction to his home in North Palm Coast, and had to turn around at Old Dixie Highway.
“The city council is now broken and is in desperate need of repair in the shortest term,” Alfin said. “The city council is not showing the ability to thoughtfully consider some of the most important issues to the city both for today or tomorrow. I don’t know how else to describe it. Broken. Broken is it. I don’t even know how to comment on the damage. I mean the personal damage–what was done to the city manager.” Alfin was referring to Bevan, and added in Reischmann’s name. “You know if it’s being done at that level, it’s being felt at every level. So the anxiety, fear and panic is palpable throughout the halls of City Hall.”
Contacted this morning, Holland, who has made a point of staying out of the public eye since her resignation, said: “I am really trying to focus on Tori, my mental and physical well being and work. I didn’t sleep an ounce last night, the first time in a while. I watched the meeting and felt so badly for Denise, Bill, Matt, the Observer and the entire City staff that does not deserve any of this.” She called Danko’s allegations “ludicrous, blatantly false and now libelous. Mr Danko is clearly trying to deflect from the issues and investigations he has brought upon himself. I have stated my reason for stepping down. I am at my daughter’s side, right where any loving parent would choose to be.”