Flagler County commissioners–the majority of them, anyway–don’t like to work too hard for their $58,850-a-year salary. Nor do they seem as interested as other local governments with the public airing of public issues. As County Commission Chairman Donald O’Brien put it Monday, “We get excellent documentation from staff. Anyone can go to talk to staff anytime, 24/7, 365, about items of business that we’re responsible for within our purview.” By “anyone,” he meant commissioners.
For years, the Flagler County Commission–in contrast with its counterparts in Palm Coast, Flagler Beach or the school board–has been the least deliberative body in the county. The school board has two scheduled workshops a month, publicly vetting every item that ends up on its agenda. The Palm Coast council has one. The Flagler Beach commission holds them rarely, but only because its bi-monthly meetings stretch to epic lengths, with every item discussed in detail.
The County Commission for years has never pre-scheduled workshops, setting them only on an as-needed basis. That’s led to frequent missteps, surprises or poorly vetted issues, most recently the county’s attempt to get Palm Coast to sign on to an increase in the sales tax, even though the request had not been studies–let alone approved–by the county commission. There’d not been a workshop. The request blew up in the county’s face. The matter recalled the commission’s very costly stumble over the acquisition of th Sears building, which had never been discussed in workshop (the county had to sell the building at a loss), and its drawn-out stumbles over the Captains BBQ lease at Bings Landing. That issue is still being litigated, at great cost to the county. There’s been many others.
For a few weeks in July it looked like the County Commission was ready to get serious about workshops. But what transpired in a matter of three weeks turned into another reflection of the panel’s bumbling approach to public deliberations: on July 12, it unanimously approved a new schedule of workshops starting in 2022, only to vote 4-1 against that very schedule on Monday.
“Having more thoughtful conversations on issues would prevent what’s happening here now,” Commissioner Andy Dance, who joined the commission last November and has been pushing for more deliberative meetings, said at Monday’s meeting, in apparent disbelief at what he was witnessing. “within a matter of one meeting, changing course on something that was done just a little while ago: It’s just kind of baffling.”
O’Brien bristled. “Disagree with that description of ‘thoughtful,’” he said. “I think we have plenty of thoughtful discussion all the time.” He then joined Commissioners Greg Hansen, Dave Sullivan and Joe Mullins in scrapping the more expansive workshop schedule the whole commission (minus Mullins) had adopted three weeks earlier.
After “several conversations with commissioners,” newly-minted County Administrator Heidi Petito had told commissioners at a July 12 meeting, the sense was that building in scheduled workshop time was necessary. Rather than schedule workshops on an adhoc basis, Petito proposed to have each monthly meeting preceded by a workshop. The commission meets twice a month–at 9 a.m. on the first Monday of the month, and at 5 p.m. on the third Monday. Petito proposed pushing the first Monday meeting to 1 p.m., with a 9 a.m. workshop, and holding a 1 p.m. workshop ahead of the meeting on the third Monday, which would keep its 5 p.m. slot. It was a signal that the new administrator was also interested in a more deliberative approach: the more elected officials transparently assume responsibility for their decisions, the fewer the administrative surprises and the less room there is for missteps or misinterpretations at both ends.
“This would only be for us to discuss in more of a workshop fashion,” Petito said, meaning that the workshops would not be held unless necessary. Commissioner Greg Hansen said he had no problem with the workshops being placed on the schedule as “tentative” workshops.
“I think the additional discussions are warranted and necessary on many items and I’m looking forward to having those conversations,” Dance said.
O’Brien called for the vote. “Motion carries unanimously,” he said. The 4-0 vote lacked one commissioner: Mullins was absent.
Then came Monday’s reconsideration. Mullins wasn’t happy with the July 12 vote in his absence. (He claimed to have been out on county business. He did not explain what business.)
“Setting a meeting, and then we don’t need it, we cancel it, is going to ring a louder, negative vibe in the community than it would if we just set them as we need them,” Mullins said. “It’s a lot of work for staff to do these meetings, you almost lose a whole day, and I’m more concerned with what we do, not what we talk about.” Mullins, like O’Brien, was overlooking two aspects in the meeting equation: county government doesn’t function without the guidance of commissioners, which may only take place in open, public meetings or workshops. If that guidance is provided outside of a meeting, it’s in violation of state law. And the function of government is exclusively a public service, making those meetings and workshops the only time when the public gets a complete view of its government in action.
Mullins put the question to Petito. She deferred to the commission, since it’s a commission matter. “We can set up meetings, workshops as items get presented,” Petito said, “whatever the pleasure of the board is, whether you prefer to go back to the way we had handled them previously.”
Hansen, startlingly, did not recall his July 12 vote. “I don’t remember agreeing to do that. I don’t think we agreed to do workshops. I don’t even know what the topic would be,” Hansen said.
“We did,” O’Brien told him.
“I didn’t agree to that,” Hansen said.
But he had. O’Brien then invited Mullins to bring back the matter for discussion. Mullins made a motion to reject the former plan.
“The motion is actually out of order because it’s already been voted on,” Dance reminded Mullins and the chairman. “Somebody who actually voted for it would have to bring that back up.”
“I don’t think that’s true,” Mullins said.
But it is. Al Hadeed, the county attorney, told Mullins that one of the commissioners who’d voted for the measure on July 12 would have to move to reconsider it.
“Actually having them preset as part of the calendar is helpful for public notice, isn’t it?” Dance said.
“Obviously there would be more public notice when you have the dates preset,” Hadeed said.
Other commissioners didn’t seem interested. Sullivan motioned to reconsider the workshop schedule, in accordance with Mullins’s objection and Hansen seconded what O’Brien described as “a motion to reconsider our previously approved item to augment the calendar with workshop prior to each meeting” for 2022.
Sullivan said the 9 a.m. workshop was a problem for him (he didn’t explain why), and that as-needed workshops were preferable. O’Brien spoke likewise, saying he had “buyer’s remorse” about his previous stance. O’Brien, Hansen, Sullivan and Mullins voted for the motion to scrap the workshop schedule then voted to restore the previous schedule.
Dance, sighing, dissented on both votes.