Bob Cuff served on the Palm Coast City Council for four years until 2020, when he opted not to run again. His tenure was marked by a distinct lack of partisanship, detailed attention to the city’s governance and a knack for consensus through a combination of seriousness and wit. He brought decades of experience with the city going back to its earliest days as an ITT development, when Cuff was ITT’s general counsel. He remains a practicing lawyer in Palm Coast and an observer, if dismayed at times, of city issues and politics. We asked him for his impressions and analysis of the special election for Palm Coast mayor on July 27.
By Robert Cuff
The government we elect is the government we deserve. There are probably 100 variations of this statement, including credit to Thomas Jefferson, Harry Truman and H.L. Menken. Regardless of its origin, the sentiment could not be more apt when you look at the upcoming election for mayor of Palm Coast. The situation facing the voters this month could not be clearer or more concerning.
The upcoming election pits six candidates against each other in a winner-takes-all format, meaning the person who receives one more vote than the other five candidates will be Mayor for the next 3-plus years. This comes at a time when the council is obviously divided and faced with hiring a new city manager. Considering the importance of that one priority alone, the person elected mayor will be vital to determining how, or if, the city moves forward. Of the six candidates, the field ranges from clearly competent through well-meaning to the truly dangerous.
Despite this urgency, voters still recovering from the bitterly contested elections of November 2020 and distracted by the desire to return to some level of normalcy as the pandemic wanes, might be forgiven if they would rather ignore this odd summer election and be tempted to assume that, regardless of who is elected, the city will continue as it has for its first 20-some years of existence. Unfortunately, I do not believe that is the case. The real contest in this election is whether voters will choose competent, open minded and professional leadership–or divisiveness, partisan politics and governance by individuals who appear to know (or care) little about the form of government used by the city.
We have already seen enough rhetoric, bombast and outright lies to warn us how important this election will be. These behaviors may serve to energize state or national political bases, but they should have no place in local government. We have already seen the disruption this behavior has caused on other elected boards in Flagler County. It would be a huge mistake for the voters of Palm Coast to allow it, by inaction or apathy, to take over our City Council.
A competent mayor, willing to do the hard work needed to understand the workings of city government, willing to learn from different points of view and supported by a like-minded majority of the council, gives hope for the future. A mayor only interested in going along with the divisive elements already in place and ignoring any input other than his preconceived ideas and ego gives only the prospect of the city becoming a running punchline for “Florida Man” articles in social media, as the progress made by past city councils, mayors and city managers is lost or stagnates.
Just as a bad car wreck on the interstate brings traffic to a halt by commanding the attention of passing drivers, inflammatory accusations, unwillingness to consider different views and a willingness to personally attack opponents may get candidates indulging in this behavior the attention they desire. But it also brings the traffic of good government to a halt.
Smoothly flowing traffic is hardly noticed by travelers, just as 90 percent of the activities of the City of Palm Coast occur unnoticed by the vast majority of its citizens. Issues like road maintenance and safety, stormwater upgrades and maintenance, and a properly funded and operated water and sewer utility system don’t attract much day-to-day attention from residents. But these operations, the budget that supports them and the city manager and staff tasked to carry them out are critically important to the day-to-day functioning of the city and the comfort and safety of its residents. A City Council controlled by a majority more interested in impressing their political base and attempting to score points to be used when running for other offices will make it impossible to attract the professional city manager and retain the skilled staff needed to ensure these services continue to be provided in a timely manner.
In addition to the vital importance of these often overlooked day-to-day operations, the city now is at the start of major improvements to the Town Center by continuing the MedNex program and attracting additional partners to this high-tech, educational enterprise that can provide much-needed economic development and serve as a base for further efforts to attract high quality enterprises that support good paying jobs for residents and the graduates from our public schools and these programs. A competent, united City Council with an eye to the future is vital to the city’s credibility and ability to work with the many state and local partners who are needed to make this and future projects successful.
A more cynical version of the line that opens this piece, one that I have heard many times recently, is that citizens who do not vote get the government they deserve. While it is always comforting to quote historic heavyweights, I believe this second version is even more applicable to the upcoming election. The attention attracted by candidates less concerned with the truth and more concerned with winning the approval of a minority of voters who approve of these divisive tactics could well succeed in the format of this special election. Remember that it only takes one more vote than the next highest vote getter to become mayor.
It is vital for all voters concerned for the future of the City to vote for the next mayor. Without a large turnout by voters who truly appreciate smoothly functioning government and who are concerned about the future of their city, there is an excellent chance that we will be saddled with partisanship, division, and dysfunction for the next three years. If the voters take the words attributed to Jefferson seriously and imagine the kind of city Palm Coast could become, there is an equally good chance that the city will continue to advance, be able to attract a professional and competent city manager, retain the professional staff necessary for continuation of the quality of life we are entitled to expect for our tax dollars, and move forward with improvement like the MedNex project.
In the face of the attacks on democracy that we have all seen in the last year, apathy is not an option.
Robert Cuff served on the Palm Coast City Council from 2016 to 2020. He has lived in Palm Coast for 38 years.