A FlaglerLive Analysis
Palm Coast’s six candidates for mayor gathered Monday evening for the last and most-attended forum ahead of the July 27 special election. The election has been well under way, with voting by mail started weeks ago and early voting starting last Saturday. As of today, 10,000 ballots had already been cast, most by mail, representing 14 percent of the electorate.
The forum was held at the Buddy Taylor Middle School cafeteria, was sponsored by the News-Journal, and moderated by Pat Rice, the paper’s editor. It was revelatory in small ways. With several previous forums’ practice behind them, the six candidates–David Alfin, Kathy Austrino, Carol Bacha, Doug Courtney, Alan Lowe and Cornelia Manfre–were comfortable and at times on auto-pilot, their responses well rehearsed from having heard standard questions many times.
The questions, inspired by readers, did not transgress the ordinary, so none of the candidates was ever outside his or her comfort zone. None was challenged by any of the questions. None challenged or took shots at another, either, with one exception. In a shot at Alfin, Lowe told the other candidates that they owed him a favor “for taking all the crap from the dirty PAC money that’s been thrown around here today.”
Rice dubbed the occasion a “debate.” It wasn’t. As in previous forums, Rice read the questions, the candidates answered. There were no follow-ups, even when candidates would make clearly questionable or false statements.
The format allowed candidates to craft answers that hewed closer to mini-campaign speeches rather than answer questions with any special attention to detail or specifics, banking on the immediate effect of their answers on an impressive crowd of hundreds, itself well stocked with the candidates’ partisans. The candidates’ personalities were nevertheless transparent, as were certain obvious contrasts.
Most of the candidates answered in safe and civil generalities, and with obvious sincerity. The forum at no point resembled the mud wrestling matches that the Palm Coast City Council meetings they want to arbitrate have become. Candidates only occasionally chose more blunt and explicit answers, as almost each one did at one point or another. Most also stayed away from glaring mischaracterizations or inaccuracies even if most also seemed to lack understanding, or context, regarding certain issues: none has ever served in office. That was especially apparent in answers about the city’s stormwater system and trash contract, or in answers about the sheriff’s contract, when some candidates more opportunistically toadied to the sheriff–the most politically powerful figure in the county–than others.
The exception was Lowe, whose particular antipathy for truth and coziness with malicious falsehoods–malicious, because they have already been disproven, but he still repeats them–was again on display, the more so as the forum progressed. The display culminated toward the end when Lowe managed three outright and blatant lies in the space of 30 seconds.
Candidates had been asked what they’d do to ensure smart growth that balances economic development. Lowe said: “We destroyed our economic development department, and shifted the money over to other departments. So recently Amazon wanted to settle here, that was 800 jobs. We didn’t call them back, they moved to Deltona. Recently Costco wanted to come here. Did you know that a Costco cashier makes $15 an hour? We didn’t call them back. They moved to St. Johns County.”
Every single one of Lowe’s claims is false or inaccurate, including his well-meaning mention of a Costco cashier’s pay. (Costco employees start at $16 an hour, the average pay for hourly workers is $24 an hour.)
The Costco pay statement is not malicious. The others are. Palm Coast never eliminated its economic development department. As even today’s council meeting noted, and council materials made clear since they were made available last week, the budget for the city’s economic devel;opment department is nearly half a million dollars, about equal to that of the county. The city only eliminated the Small Business Assistance Center two years ago, deeming it ineffective. Amazon did open a warehouse in Volusia County and Costco is planning a yet-unbuilt new store near St. Augustine.
But Lowe’s claim that either company “called” Palm Coast–or even county–officials and was left hanging is false.
“The City has proactively contacted large corporations, including Costco, in the past expressing interest in those businesses coming to Palm Coast,” Brittany Kershaw, the city’s chief spokesperson, said in answer to a question about the companies sent to Denise Bevan, the city manager, “but there has been no traction from those companies. This would be dating back to Beau’s time with the City. Any claim that the City was contacted by those corporations and “not called back” would be false.” Beau Falgout was the city’s economic development director.
“We are not aware of either company reaching out to Flagler County,” Heidi Petito, the Flagler County administrator, said today.
Lowe did not mention the city’s role in drawing back Brunswick Corporation and reviving the former Sea Ray manufacturing plant into a Boston Whaler plant. (Brunswick’s initial plans to annex into the city, however, have fallen through. It’s not clear if the city council’s recent dysfunction played a role.)
Lowe was given a chance to speak again on the same question after the other candidates spoke. He offered up another falsehood. He claimed that Palm Coast “threw out” its comprehensive plan, the city’s blueprint for growth. That, too, is simply false.
The question that begged to be asked opened the forum: With a divided city council, where votes on substantial issues break down into 2-2 patterns (leaving the issue unresolved), how would the next mayor bring about a more collegial body?
Lowe, who claimed he’d “been to every single city council meeting since the end of the last election” (he has been to more meetings than anyone else, but he has not been to every single one, missing one as recently as last week), said the council needs “unity” and “understanding,” disingenuous statements for a candidate who has explicitly told vast swaths of Palm Coast residents not to vote for him if they are “liberal,” “woke,” “RINOs” (Republicans in name only), and who videotaped himself physically trashing a copy of the Observer, calling it “fake news.” He was equally disingenuous moments later when professing to be non-partisan regarding City Hall. “Never once did I go there with a partisan thought, and that’s the way it needs to be run always,” a statement in direct contradiction with his conduct of the election.
Manfre, displaying the most discipline throughout the forum–she did not wander from a script she had clearly mastered–drew on her experience as a mediator and negotiator to pledge that she’d put that to work to find “the common thread between all five people.” Alfin spoke as Council member Victor Barbosa recently described how things should happen: “Worry more about what the greatest majority, the largest majority of voters in the city of Palm Coast, prefer to happen on the particular initiative or vote.” Austrino was more prescriptive about council members themselves: “All of us could use a little chipping off our egos to get through it.”
The next question was about one of the council’s two foremost priorities: finding the next city manager. (The other, arguably more of an immediate priority, is the passage of next year’s budget, which must be accomplished by September and therefore will not–cannot–wait for the next manager. There were no questions about the budget.) The answers were general, each candidate saying the expected: a strong leader, good with finances, good with administrative relations and operations.
Lowe revealed that since he was “not sure we can find that in a single person, I think we might need to hire a strong assistant city manager at some point.” But that’s not the mayor’s or the council’s call. The only people the council hires or fires are the manager and the city attorney. The council is barred by charter from dictating what other hires are made. The concern about Lowe–and his allies on the council: Ed Danko and Victor Barbosa–has been their inclination to meddle in administrative affairs. Danko is under investigation for alleged interference in employees’ functions, and Barbosa, who is under federal and state investigation over potential criminal matters, operated as his own code enforcement officer.
Manfre’s focus is on a city manager “that knows how to train employees for customer service.” She’s also been focused–in this race as she was in her previous race for a council seat last year–for a manager who’ll streamline the permitting process, a further indication of Manfre’s pro-developer approach. Bacha, in one of her more comprehensible answers, told the audience that former City Manager Matt Morton was “forced to resign”–somewhat of a mischaracterization: Morton claimed he was being said he was being forced to take certain steps by Danko and Barbosa he considered improper, and resigned on his own shortly after a good evaluation and a raise. Alfin said he’d look for character traits in the next manager: “Stability, decency, thoughtful consideration, deliberate action, and the art of listening,” and one that works with an “exceptional” staff. Austrino added “assertive and decisive” to “kind and understanding,” and Courteny said he wanted one who would “speak truth to city council.”
The panelists were asked, in the same question, about “what is broken at City Hall” and would they replace the current city attorney, an apparent allusion to Danko’s publicly stated pledge that on “day one,” presumably with Lowe’s and Barbosa’s votes assured, he would call for the firing of both Interim City Manager Denise Bevan and City Attorney Bill Reischman’s law firm.
The question about the city attorney bears context often lost or overlooked in discussions on the subject. Attention usually focuses on Bill Reischmann, the attorney who sits as the city attorney at most council meetings and workshops. But the city hired his firm, not Reischmann personally, as its representative when it contracted with Winter Park-based Garganese, Weiss, D’Agresta & Salzman in 2008 (one of the names on the letterhead was different at the time). Other attorneys from the firm–for example, Debra Babb-Nutcher–represent the city at the code enforcement board. The thinking behind hiring a law firm was to enable the city to draw on the firm’s various departments, based on need.
The city had used the same firm in its earlier days, then gone with Lonnie Groot, an in-house attorney, for two years. That did not work out. The city returned to the Winter Park law firm, with a current budget of $544,000 (down from $641,000 last year). Flagler County has an in-house attorney and assistant attorney. That department’s budget this year is $774,000. The county still contracts out numerous services it cannot handle in-house.
Besides noting that City Hall is in all respects “fixable,” as Manfre put it, the candidates were non-committal for the most part, saying they’d look at the attorney services’ contract and evaluate it (Manfre, Alfin, Austrino), and make sure not to “throw the baby out with the bathwater” (Courtney). Lowe took the question as an opportunity to claim that he’d watched “people approach the podium, speak, and then be rudely dismissed by the city council,” which is not accurate. The only person “dismissed” during a meeting is Lowe ally Mark Phillips, a carpenter who does not live in the city and continues to take part in pro-insurrectionist demonstrations. He was trespassed for a few weeks after aggressively rushing the dais, putting the entire council and particularly then-Mayor Milissa Holland in fear. But he, too, said he would wait until he’s “in office” to decide what to do with the law firm contract.
The candidates were not more forthcoming about removing partisanship from council dynamics, though Rice’s question unfairly indicted the entire council. Every member of the council is Republican. Partisanship has been limited to its two most ideological members, Danko and Barbosa, who routinely import partisan, national talking points into council conversations, however divorced the talking points are from administrative realities. Today’s discussion on setting a tentative tax rate was a case in point as the pair’s ideological doctrine trumped–and prevented–what would normally have been a routine vote on an ultimately irrelevant number: the tax rate is set in September. The draft rate is just that, a draft.
Alfin started his answer by stating that he’s read “every page of the city charter, which currently has 522 pages.” (It is a 22-page document. The city’s code of ordinances is much longer.) He then stressed the character’s directive against partisanship in elections, and said he would “stick to the city charter.”
Courtney said it’s up to the mayor, who controls the meetings, to control the partisanship. “That city council area is the citizens’ temple,” he said. “The mayor is in charge of that citizens’ temple. And this is where we are getting heard, this is where we hear from you. And if partisan politics wants to enter that room, it’s the job of the mayor to make sure that the partisan politics is gently taken out and put outside of that room we’re here for you.” Courtney was overstating the case: the mayor may prevent speakers from, for example, campaigning for a candidate while addressing the council (just as there are legal rules against, say, businesses promoting themselves at meetings on the public’s dime). But a mayor would be violating a speaker’s rights by more strictly proscribing what is said, even if it were partisan–as many public comments to the council have become.
“If you call 911 and a deputy shows up at your door to help you, do you ask them what their party affiliation is? I don’t think so,” Manfre said. “That is how I want to be able to run city council.”
Some of the questions were posed in a way that gave the candidates little guidance as to what, exactly, was being asked. “How would you approach the issue of trash pick-up?” was one such question. So was the one that followed it, a de-contextualized question that implied the city had a flooding problem: “What Does the city need to do to lessen flooding.” No homes in Palm Coast have been flooded, even during the hurricane emergencies of 2016 and 2017. That’s been an issue in north Flagler and in Flagler BEach, but not in Palm Coast, where the stormwater system, while at times briefly overwhelmed, has operated as engineered, with water pooling in swales, even on streets, but gradually, and not too slowly, seeping out to the canals. The city in 2017 also increased its monthly stormwater fees–to the discontent of some residents–to better invest in the city’s stormwater infrastructure.
So when Austrino said that “absolutely flooding is an issue, obviously, in a variety of places around Palm Coast,” and when Lowe said that “the strategic stormwater drainage system–let’s face it, it’s broken,” that’s simply not accurate. The rest of Austrino’s answer–citing tackling stormwater issues as a priority–has been a priority for the council. The recurring complaint the city gets is from residents who haven’t had their swales maintained rapidly enough, or on the promised schedule: that’s an issue, but it’s the result of the city having a limited number of crews to address 1,222 miles of swales, and residents opposing yet another increase in the stormwater fee, which is no different than a tax. As it is, the council agreed to double the fee between 2018 and 2024, after which the fee will be indexed to inflation, ensuring an annual increase. So when Lowe says that “what we need is more people to be able to do it,” he is contradicting his pledge not to raise taxes: the city cannot add more crews without increasing stormwater costs to residents. (See: “Palm Coast Residents’ Stormwater Cost Will Double Over Next 6 Years and Utility Bills Increase By $30 a Month.”)
Rice did not contest Lowe’s claims. Other candidates didn’t make false claims, but were no less misinformed about the current stormwater program. And when it was Bacha’s turn to speak, she sang “You Can Never Go Down the Drain” by “my buddy,” Fred Rogers. “I’ll have to reach down deep to follow that,” Alfin said, though his answer was not little more than pandering to the DeSantis crowd as he talked about relying on state dollars to combat coastal flooding.
Regarding garbage, the city has seen complaints about Waste Pro, its contractor since 2007, pile up: streets often missed in haulers’ routes, recycling not picked up, and so on. The city is soon issuing a new request for proposal for hauling companies as the Waste Pro contract expires in 2022. So the candidates took the question from various angles.
Courtney and Lowe suggested hiring two haulers instead of one. Lowe said the fines against Waste Pro collected by Palm Coast could be used to increase haulers’ pay. (That would be a conflict of interest, however, since haulers would be encouraged to fall on the job to incur more fines that would find their way to their paychecks. Palm Coast has fined the hauler just over $25,000 a year over the past two and a half years.) Alfin was opposed to breaking up routes between haulers. “As a city we command a better performance if we are more important to the vendor.”
Most candidates, including Manfre, attributed the issue with Waste Pro to the employee shortage of the Covid period. In fact, Waste Pro has been incurring significant fines since 2017, long before the pandemic or the current labor shortage.
Every candidate spoke supportively of law enforcement, though when it came to the sheriff’s recent request for 10 additional deputies for the city, Courtney said it may be time to discuss a Palm Coast Police Department, even though “Sheriff Staly is doing an excellent job.” The city’s responsibility, however, is to its residents, not to the county. Lowe was “fully supportive” of the 10 additional deputies, but didn’t say how he’d pay for them. Alfin and Austrino said likewise, deferring to Staly. Manfre relied on her experience as the wife of former Sheriff Jim Manfre, conceding that growth is significant but not that the ratios the sheriff is using to justify the expansion is necessarily the way to go, especially in light of dramatically falling crime.
Courtney, given another chance to speak, then addressed the issue more bluntly: “Very easy to sit there and say what Sheriff Staly wants, we’ve got to give to Sheriff Staly. He wants 10 deputies, let’s give him $1 million, give him 10 deputies. Oh, didn’t we just have a discussion about swales? Didn’t we just have a discussion about flooding? Didn’t we just have a discussion about waste management? If we give Sheriff Staly all of those things, then we kind of cut all of that out. OK?” It’s not as drastic as that: the city budget as submitted today includes money for six of the 10 requested deputies, but at the same tax rate that was in effect this year, and at the expense of a few other city priorities that are being set aside. But Courtney’s point was that demands on one side of the ledger have to be sustained by another.
Rice closed out the forum with a question that echoed the first one, about the perceived dysfunctions at City Hall and how the candidates would handle it. Prefacing the question, Rice inexplicably raised the matter of an ethics investigation “hanging over [ex-Mayor Milissa Holland] and therefore, as a result, over the city,” though in fact the city, like Holland, has moved on but for the investigation’s political fodder. Rice left silent two current ethics investigations hanging over two other council members (Ed Danko and Victor Barbosa), an internal investigation hanging over one (Danko) and a federal and state investigation hanging over the other (Barbosa).
Candidates closed with their own quirks. Alfin chose a metaphor: “Rough Seas require a steady even hand on the tiller to navigate a course that leads us to calm waters and safe harbor ahead.” Lowe made his inelegant quip about other candidates owing him a favor for the “crap” he took. Courtney went lyrical about what had attracted him to Palm Coast and what’s keeping him here: “The sea was blue, and the grass was green. And I like to keep it that way.” Manfre stuck to the themes that informed almost every one of her answers, summing up her closing in the form of her own past resume and the one she promises for the city. Austrino appealed to her personality as a “regular person” (and alone asked for votes).
And Bacha sang. It was something about babies, or perhaps an allusion to Thomas Pynchon’s “Gravity’s Rainbow.”