David Alfin doesn’t have to think twice about his happiest moment as Palm Coast’s fourth mayor–so far, anyway, a month into his tenure started out of the twists of the ugliest chapter in the city’s 22-year history. It wasn’t his inauguration. It wasn’t anything at the meetings, which have reclaimed a measure of decorum. It was at an ice cream parlor.
He’d been anxious for Twisters to reopen, and when the parlor opened, he went with his wife. “There was a lady who had been very nice, asking me questions when I was campaigning, so she was there the other night buying her daughter ice cream for her daughter’s birthday,” he said. Alfin wished her daughter a happy birthday.
“I got a message back the next day from this lady,” he says. “She said, ‘You’ve made my daughter’s day, because the Mayor said Happy Birthday to her.’ Now I’m going to tell you, that’s probably more important to me than anything I’ve done so far. It just makes it worthwhile. It makes me feel good.” (You’ll have to wait until February 2 to wish him a happy birthday. He’ll be turning 69 that day.)
Alfin was talking at ease and at length in his new office at City Hall, a smallish room, sparely decorated with oversized photographs of the city, a few face-masks in his rather empty in-box, and very few nick knacks anywhere. “Very few decorations. A little bit of ego, but not a lot,” he says, an accurate sum-up of man and office.
The City Council had met for the last time until after Labor Day, and for the last time before public hearings would decide the coming year’s budget. The budget was the first priority for Alfin as he took over the city’s leadership after a bruising five-way special election. He’d been vilified and defamed during the brief campaign, but not as much as his predecessor, Milissa Holland, had been last fall, and anyway the attacks felt stale and impotent. If Holland had emerged from her campaign worn and disillusioned, Alfin had kept his cheer, and has seemed to pile on the smiles since, almost like a boy taking his first flight and marveling at the sights out the window.
“You know what you’ll see out there?” Alfin says, pointing out of his own view on Central Park and the big building now in part serving as a mini campus for two universities’ satellites. “Nursing students getting out of class from both UNF and Jacksonville University. How exciting is that?”
He spoke of his honeymoon period as still ongoing. Maybe that’s why the exuberance, though one suspects that part of him isn’t about to fade so quickly, even when the honeymoon does. “Nobody knows how long that lasts. When the honeymoon period ends, it’s up to me to shoulder the responsibility and the expectations” he knows are ahead, he says. “But I will tell you this, this city staff has stepped forward, way beyond my wildest imagination to be helpful, hopeful, hardworking, and they can’t do enough to impress me to show me what a talented, skillful hardworking group they are.”
He sees that as adding weight on his shoulders, not lightening the weight, because the staff is looking to him to deliver. “So I am learning the ropes, and I will do my best to satisfy their expectations.” But for now, he’s walked into a City Hall environment no longer hostage to the uncertainty and anxiety of the months before the special election, if not before that. “I think there’s a hopefulness,” he said. “I have to deliver, but I think there’s a great attitude within the city of Palm Coast, and not just here in this building, by the way. I’ve been out to all of the facilities throughout the city. I sense the same thing everywhere.”
He seems to be embracing the change. There’s been adjustments. He is the immediate past-president of the Flagler Education Foundation. He still sits on the board but not as a voting member. He resigned as Rep. Paul Renner’s liaison at the Flagler County Realtors Association (Alfin is a Realtor by profession) because it was a lobbying position, and resigned as the chairman of FCAR’s investment committee, but still remains a member of the organization. He resigned from the board of the Flagler Home Builders Association, and form the board of a fledgling local chamber he helped organize. “I’ve served as members of those organization boards for a long time, they will do fine without me. And perhaps I joined them again in the future,” he said. But he’s still working as a Realtor.
One of the more startling changes for Alfin has been his name change. He’s no longer David. He’s no longer Mr. Alfin. He’s Mayor. Mr. Mayor. Your Honor, if he’s around a particularly pedantic suck-up. He’s not thrilled by any of it. He liked–he likes–his name. He still prefers it: David. And so far he says he’s not been approached by the favor-curriers. “I’ve served on a lot of boards and a lot of different organizations and maybe they read me a certain way,” he says, “maybe they feel like it would be the wrong thing to do to approach me on in such a way, because that would be the absolute way to turn me off pretty much for good. So I’ve not experienced that yet.”
What he is getting is innumerable emails about swales, about school rezoning–over which neither he nor anyone at the city has a say–and “a million other things, many of which I have no business being involved with, but the business doesn’t quite understand that.” Garbage, incidentally, has not been among those recurring email themes, suggesting that the city’s latest difficulties in spring with Waste Pro, its garbage hauler, seem to have been worked out. He tries, with city staff’s help, to answer every email he gets.
But there is that other priority hanging out there: hiring the next permanent city manager. The council appointed Denise Bevan, a 14-year veteran of the city administration, as the interim after Matt Morton’s resignation last May, but unlike a previous interim–Beau Falgout–Bevan’s desire to stay on is not obvious, and the signals Alfin is sending reciprocate the ambivalence. “We have hit it off very very well, and we are communicating extremely well. Extremely often,” Alfin says of Bevan when asked directly about the quality of the interim’s work. The answer, in other words, was non-committal, as was his follow-up: “My second focus is the decision of city manager, so I’ll be honest with you, I’m not there yet, nor has the interim city manager and myself sat down to discuss that yet. But we do know that that conversation is coming.” (That was on Aug. 24.)
He hasn’t been flooded with emails from prospectors but has been hearing “rumor around that there are people lobbying for job,” he said, among them Joe Saviak, the sheriff’s former leadership development director who continues to lead the county’s leadership academy. “We do communicate, but I wouldn’t talk about that with him,” Alfin said, “I wouldn’t talk about it with anybody yet, because that’s not my focus.” Jerry Cameron, the former county interim administrator and also previously rumored for the job, was not a name he was hearing, Alfin said. (Falgout said he and his family are “completely happy in Mooresville,” the North Carolina town where he is the assistant town manager, so he won’t be applying to return.)
Alfin was more effusive about the administration in general. “I have great confidence in staff, I think Helena and our people are superb,” he said, referring to Helena Alves, the finance director who’s continued a city tradition of brilliance in that seat, “and I’m not just saying that because others have said it. I’ve worked with them to some extent so far and I really do appreciate Helena’s resume and what she’s done here in the county over the years.”
Alfin is more comfortable talking about his third priority, third in line though it is: Town Center, which the council has designated as its innovation district and its arts district and where, almost two decades after it was designated an economic enterprise zone (the technical term is Community Redevelopment Agency) is now seeing that long-awaited development: two apartment complexes in the heart of Town Center are complete, a third is on the way, UNF’s Mednexus (or medical-education) initiative and Jacksonville University’s classes have begun, and more is on the way. Daytona State University, AdventHealth Palm Coast and Flagler Health Plus, the parent company of Flagler Hospital in St. Augustine, are all part of the dynamic Alfin sees for Town Center.
In the course of the conversation, Alfin drops a tantalizing hint: he’s been speaking with a third higher education institution. He won’t say which. But the gravitational pull the two universities already in Town Center are exercising appears to be growing.
“This is so big,” he says, again alluding to the next city manager as having to have the skills to manage it all. He sees a lot of development coming beyond Town Center, and more especially on the west side of U.S. 1, growth “that’s going to continue to accelerate over the next three to five years,” with a continued migration from around the country into Florida and Flagler. Someone is going to have to manage it all.
The conversation ranged over various topics but the council itself was not among them. It was as if that subject–the months of intramural bickering, the bitterness, the unseemly behavior of some of the council members and the embarrassment to the city and its residents–had worn itself thin. Alfin during the campaign discussed it only to the extent that it illustrated the dysfunction he wanted to mend.
At least for the first few weeks, he’s succeeded. “I’m trying to encourage that dialogue, we don’t all have to agree and I’m sure we will not. But I want to project a collaboration among city council,” he said in the context of the discussion on the budget.
Here’s an irony: Alfin never thought he’d be in this position at this stage in his life, though he’d run for a council seat in a special election last fall, losing in a field of four to Victor Barbosa. His family, his wife Tammy, was worried for him given recent security issues at council meetings and what seemed like roiling tensions meeting after meeting.
“I said, Tammy, I’m being challenged every single day to raise my bar.” He reflected back on a conversation with the same reporter before he announced for mayor and after attending the sheriff’s annual commemorative ceremony for fallen law enforcement officer, where his own loss was recognized as well: Alfin lost his son, an FBI agent, and his son’s partner, to a murderer’s bullets as they served a warrant in South Florida earlier this year. During that conversation, Alfin spoke of answering a new calling.
“I didn’t really think at this stage in my life I would necessarily be challenged on a daily basis to continue to perform at a level that required me to raise my bar every day. But I find that is just the case. By doing that, that’s the energy I’m getting. The good news is that it’s energizing me.” He describes it as setting a carrot out for himself, and chasing that carrot every day.
“So,” the mayor said at the end of the 45-minute interview, “provided the energy stays intact, okay, I’m thrilled with the opportunity. When people come at me negatively, I find that makes me a better person, or a better servant or a better service, and the reason is because if people tell you you’re doing a good job, that’s fine. It doesn’t really help you a lot even if it’s nice. If people explain why you’re not doing the job, my personality wants to correct that, fix that, and overachieve. So that’s the best way to describe it. And that’s from the heart. I can’t really say it any better than that.”