The next mayor of Palm Coast–currently being elected in the special election that culminates on July 27–will have to break the logjam and cast the deciding vote on whether to allow certain commercial vehicles to park in residential driveways or not.
The Palm Coast City Council decided to take that approach, itself being split 2-2 on what has turned into one of the more contentious code enforcement matters on the council’s agenda. Council members Ed Danko and Victor Barbosa want the rule relaxed, allowing one commercial vehicle, its imprints or commercial signs visible, to be parked in a residential driveway even when it’s not on a work call. Mayor Eddie Branquinho and Council member Nick Klufas are opposed.
The council’s split is reflected in the results of a survey of residents the city conducted in May. But even though the electronic survey appeared to have participation from over 16,000, at least in the form of votes, it was seriously flawed. “How probative it is, I mean, that’s, that’s certainly a matter of opinion,” City Attorney Bill Reischmann said of the survey.
The council got a presentation on the survey results at a workshop last week. (Results of the survey were previously reported in June. See: “Palm Coast Splits 49-49 On Allowing Commercial Trucks in Driveways, But Survey’s Flaws Are Mosaic of Caveats.”)
By raw numbers, 70 percent of responses were opposed. By weighted, or adjusted, numbers, the responses were split almost 50-50. The difference in the two sets of results is due to the survey’s flaws: it allowed voters to vote as often as they pleased. Some voted hundreds of times, some dozens, skewing the results.
To reduce the skewing element, the city’s IT department averaged out all votes by IP address. In other words, if a single IP address voted 100 times for allowing commercial trucks in driveways, the vote was averaged down to just one Yes. If an IP address had one vote for ad one against, the average was 0.5 for and 0.5 against. If it had 500 for and 1 against, the average was 0.998 for and 0.002 against.
“That was part of the reasoning behind it,” Doug Aiken, the city’s IT director, said, explaining how the votes were averaged out from each IP address, almost eliminating the skewing created by anyone who would have voted many times over. “If somebody is submitting multiple times, that that vote doesn’t get counted 3000 times it gets counted once.”
“There’s a public perception out there that the system is flawed,” Mayor Eddie Branquinho said. “We know it’s not but the perception out there it is.”
In fact, the system–the survey–was seriously flawed in at least three fundamental regards. First, it would not have had to be averaged out to account for abusers had it not been flawed. Second, it was not restricted geographically only to Palm Coast residents, so residents in Flagler Beach, or anywhere in Florida and the rest of the world, could and likely did vote. Third, the averaging out of the survey, while bringing it closer to accuracy, also rested on a flawed assumption.
By averaging out every single IP address to a total of one vote (including, for example, 0.5 votes for “yes” and 0.5 votes for “No” in case one IP produced two different votes), the calculation reduces all voting to one IP, one vote. But that’s not necessarily how IP addresses work, and it’s certainly not how public opinion works. Many a household may very legitimately have had two or three “Yes” votes or “No” votes. But all were reduced to a single vote either way, or to what totals one vote in the average.
So for example if IP address A, representing an office with a single IP address, produced 50 legitimate votes, 10 for and 40 against, the average would still be reduced to 0.8 votes against and 0.2 for, thus negating the voice of 39 against and nine for. The one abuser and 50 legitimate voters are thus reduced to the same level of one vote each. That disproportionately obscures the opinions of legitimate voters, giving abusers greater weight. On the other hand, if the assumption is that more people voted legitimately than not, as appears to be the case, the averaging eventually smooths out the skewing toward more legitimate voters, even if not completely.
Branquinho at first said the 50-50 survey result suggests that “the only way to do it” is to have an actual referendum. “I think that we could wait another year, because we’re going to put it on their hands,” he said, suggesting that the matter could be on the 2022 ballot. His issue with the survey was that despite the abusers, the response rate was not high enough, the way it could be in an actual referendum. The council could place that referendum on the ballot on its own.
“I don’t agree with that because I don’t think small businesses can hold on a year,” Barbosa said, though businesses have been holding on–and thriving, for the most part–for the 21 years in the city’s history.
Either way, Reischmann said, a referendum is not necessary of the council itself wanted to make a change. “This council can amend its code of ordinances on its own without a referendum,” the attorneys said. “Referendums can be helpful if it’s something that’s really controversial or the council, the elected body, feels that it’s really important to get the feel for what the voters want.” Reischmann, who’s been a de-facto arbitrator on many issues on a council as divided as it’s become dysfunctional, suggested waiting for the next mayor to be elected, at which point that third vote would break the deadlock.
“I’m pretty sure we can and I hope we do,” Branquinho said, deferring to that approach.
Klufas was not comfortable even with that approach, precisely because of the 50-50 split. “I would just like to see something way more than a 50-50 split before we make a decision that changes the landscape of Palm Coast for all 90,000 people that live here today,” Klufas said.
“I don’t I don’t understand that we’re changing landscape,” Barbosa said, citing instances of commercial vehicles already around town. “What change are we really changing the landscape, rather than helping the working business people?
“This is your view,” the mayor told him.
“That’s a pretty good view because I get most of my voters voted for me for this,” Barbosa said. (In fact, Barbosa in the special election that seated him last November won just with just 24 percent of the city’s total registered voters; since only 63 percent of those voted, he won with 38 percent of ballots cast–still a plurality, not a majority of the vote.)
“But we don’t work with most of your voters, we work with everybody,” Branquinho said.
“The big thing si 50-50, so the big thing is going to come down to us,” Barbosa had said earlier.
Barbosa and Danko, taking an Orwellian turn at one point during the discussion, were interested in detecting who the voting “abusers” were, though there were many more than one.
Barbosa said one IP address returned 3,000 votes. That’s not correct. One IP address returned 2,071 votes–the most from any single IP address–and the next-most vote from a single IP address was 769. (See the raw results here, as provided by the city.)
“I did trace that IP, and it came back to a house in the C section,” Barbosa said, though while IP addresses may be traced back geographically to an area, they cannot be traced to a specific house or owner, absent a subpoena from law enforcement that would have to be complied with by the internet service provider.
Klufas, an IT engineer, tried to explain: “If it’s a an IP block from like, one of our ISPs, they won’t tell you who actually has that IP, so you can do a geographic range, and it’s probably because in the C section is where the multiplexer is. So that’s like the last point of transit. It probably is someone in the C section, but even if it’s on the street, it could be some other area.”
Still, Barbosa insisted he had the actual house originating the votes, that he had “the coordinates.”
“Yeah, and that might not actually be where the IP is originating from,” Klufas said.
“But my only concern is if there was an individual abusing this to that extent, maybe we if we could find out, maybe we should find out,” Danko said.
Klufas and Barbosa showed no interest in pursuing the abusers of a voting scheme the city had designed, with neither disclaimers nor legal means to keep anyone from voting as they did, or as often as they did. But both Barbosa’s apparent sleuthing to try to find the “abusers” and Danko’s explicit statement about finding them spoke of strikingly intrusive instincts in two council members who portray themselves as conservatives, though Barbosa’s interest in protecting others’ privacy has not been a priority, especially regarding code enforcement matters.
Just before the discussion on commercial vehicles, Neysa Borkert, the assistant city attorney, had briefed the council on the code enforcement process–its grounding in law, the code enforcement board’s make-up, the violation process, chances to correct the violation, fines, appearances before the board, what the city can do regarding repeat violators or cases that pose a “serious threat” to the community (such as an unsecured pool), and so on.
Barbosa was himself the subject of code enforcement violations, with improper signage at his business or his previous habit of parking his pick-up truck, imprinted with the name of his business in large letters, in his driveway. The issues were fixed before they reached the code enforcement board. But they’d rankled Barbosa and were part of the context of the animosity he directed at former City Manager Matt Morton. Barbosa on his own also got in the habit after he was elected last year of driving around town, targeting particular properties he thought were in violation of the city code, and shaming property owners by running pictures of video clips of the properties on Barbosa’s Facebook page. Barbosa’s vigilantism drew a severe rebuke from one of the residents he had targeted. (Barbosa is under federal investigation; the Flagler County Sheriff believes he is a fugitive from justice.)