Faced with a rare, unanimous backlash against its arbitrary decision to end the city’s lease with the Green Lion restaurant at Palm Harbor Golf Club last week, the Palm Coast City Council executed a 179-degree turn Tuesday morning, dropping its order to sever the lease and opting instead to reopen negotiations with the restaurant, toward a five-year extension of the current lease.
Supporters of the Green Lion thronged the chambers of the council and an overflow room this morning to voice tart, disbelieving opposition to the council’s sudden decision last week. Residents, associates, employees, owners of the business and of other local businesses, used words like “baffled,” “disappointed,” “shameful,” “narrow-minded,” “sabotage,” “grave error,” “boiling,” the last an echo of a word Council member Eddie Branquinho had used last week when he describing himself as “boiling” over a lease fellow-Councilman Ed Danko called a “sweetheart deal.” (See: “Palm Coast Turns Nasty Against Green Lion Café Lease After 5 Successful Years and Turnaround at Palm Harbor Golf.”)
Two hours in and the public comments over, Mayor David Alfin, who controlled with nimble mastery a meeting that had started on a razor’s edge, asked for consensus to reassign the negotiations of the Green Lion lease to the next business meeting, discontinue the discussion on bidding out the lease, and accelerate bringing rent costs in line with market rate to a three-year rather than a five-year timetable. He also called for removing the clause from the lease that would allow the city to end the lease “for convenience,” substituting only a clause for severing “for cause.”
Council members agreed, including Danko. It was an impressive victory for the Green Lion’s ownership and its quick reaction to mobilize supporters.
Branquinho raised some objections, referring to the research he’d conducted about the lease and the city’s relationship with the business. But by then the wind was out of his argument’s sails, and Klufas pointed out some misinterpretations in Branquinho’s numbers. Klufas had surprisingly joined Branquinho, Barbosa and Danko last week in agreeing to bidding out the space, only to quickly reverse course on his Facebook page.
Barbosa issued a verbal apology to the Green Lion. “There was a lot of information that wasn’t put into this,” he said, though in fairness to the administration and the restaurant, the information was there all along, if only he and his colleagues had asked (as Barbosa eventually did, seeking out the Marlows). “You should be proud of what you built here, being the number one restaurant,” he said.
Alfin, in essence, had given the council members an elegant way out of the inelegant and politically perilous position they’d boxed themselves in last week.
The Green Lion, a sister company of the Golden Lion restaurant in Flagler Beach, in 2017 signed a five-year lease to run the restaurant at Palm Harbor. At the time the restaurant was a rather sordid affair that mirrored the deficit ridden golf course, exasperating the city and bleeding taxpayers of hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. Then-City Manager Jim Landon negotiated the $500-a-month lease, all utilities paid by the city, with $25-a-year increases built in, so that the restaurant now pays $600.
The restaurant has the option to renew for five years. It opted to do so last spring. Negotiations began. Development Director Jason DeLoranzo was the chief negotiator. The usual, occasional strains between landlord and tenant aside, there’d been no lease violations, so the restaurant was in good standing. DeLorenzo told Carolyn, Tony and Chris Marlow, the co-owners of the Green Lion, that renewal is fine, but that the rent and other costs had to be brought closer in line with market values. The deal they negotiated would have raised the rent more than 300 percent over the next five years, to about $2,500 a month, with the restaurant picking up the cost of some utilities and internet costs. That arrangement was before the council at a workshop last Tuesday. It was supposed to be a routine update. The Marlows didn’t even feel the need to show up. The chamber was empty.
Instead, Danko and Council members Victor Barbosa and Eddie Branquinho visibly turned on the lease with venom and the occasional slander unrestrained by the panel’s own rules of decorum. Danko all but called the lease arrangement corrupt while Branquinho repeatedly called “shameful,” going as far as criticizing the administration for negotiating even the proposed renewal. The reaction took the Marlows aback. It also took the community aback. No sooner was the council’s handling of the issue reported in the press than it faced what amounted to a rare, bitter backlash from residents.
The lease was not on the agenda of today’s meeting. But people began lining up for the 9 a.m. meeting well ahead of time, and by 9 were still lined up in a cue about 20 to 30 people long outside City Hall as they waited for the security check. Alfin prefaced the meeting with a long lecture about decorum, then opened the floor to what turned into a nearly two-hour session of public comments. Remarkably, not one of the scores of people who spoke dissented from the recurring theme, which combined indictments of the council with appeals to reopen lease negotiations with the Green Lion.
The crush of pointed, at times bitter but never indecorous unanimity was a counterpoint to what has become the chronic, inflammatory tendency of council members, particularly Danko, to use their dais, their social media accounts and their position as brutal bully pulpits. The approach is typically divorced from thoughtful deliberation or even an understanding of recent history or administrative groundwork. Danko is especially prone to the disconnect. On one hand he refuses to meet personally with the city manager or seek understanding of the administrative work. On the other, he searches out potentially disruptive issues that could win him attention he does not otherwise seem capable to garner. The city’s routine governance suffers as a result. The Green Lion lease is the latest example.
“The current Council seems to have no memory of five years ago, when we signed the original lease, or perhaps political amnesia,” Carolyn Marlow, a co-owner of the restaurant, told the council. “Only Nick Klufas remains as the only person from the city who was there.” She described the restaurant’s conditions in 2017, which could be summed up in one word: deplorable. Marlow used words like “disgusting,” “failing,” “horrible,” and summarized the way the city implored the Marlows to take over in exchange for low rent so they could make back what they’d invest. Despite the challenges, Marlow said, the family stuck it out. “And if you don’t tell me it’s a success today because of our hard work–anybody here you should all be saying: thank you Golden Lion.”
Tony Marlow, her husband and co-owner spoke next to indict Council members Ed Danko and Eddie Branquinho for the derisive language they used–Danko calling the lease a “sweetheart deal” arranged through “backdoor negotiations” that “reeked.” (It was ironically the sort of slanderous language Mayor David Alfin warned the audience just before the public comment period not to use when addressing the council.) He noted how the city, uninvited, took measurements in the kitchen on Monday, just as the staff was preparing for Valentine’s Day service, with nearly every table already reserved for the occasion.
Marlow, like his wife, was roundly applauded, provoking another warning from Alfin that he would clear the room if the applause was repeated. He had not admonished the room when he was applauded only moments earlier for telling a commenter, speaking on an unrelated topic, that he would be walking with him in an walk-run event by the Tunnel of Towers Foundation this spring. Local governments typically and routinely apply such content-discrimination standards when it comes to applause at public meetings, to the complicit acquiescence of their sitting attorneys.
Nevertheless, Chris Marlow, who co-owns and runs the restaurant, asked the audience to follow the rules to ensure that all those who wanted to speak get to do so. “Mr. Mayor,” he then said, “the Green Lion has been a part of the solution that has literally saved the city and taxpayers millions of dollars. We’re not taking all the credit. We’ve done it together. We should be celebrating our success and what we’ve achieved together and instead, I’m sorry, but last week’s meeting was intended to destroy it. We are being punished for our success.” He pointed out what he saw as the irony of a city that asked the Marlows to help five years ago, only for him to be standing before the city now, asking for its help. “We are the Green Lion, good will prevail,” he said, “and we will never give up.”
There was also dismay at the council’s arbitrariness. “After months of good faith negotiations, at the very last minute at a workshop that they were told they didn’t need to attend,” a resident said, “all of a sudden it goes from a negotiated agreement to let’s relook at fair market value to cancel their lease. Throw them out and put it out for request for proposal. I think that’s shameful.”
One resident read out many of the first names of the 30-some employees at the restaurant, like someone reading names at a memorial, but to underscore the consequence of the city’s plan to sever the lease and put them out of work.
Linda Provencher, the former long-time mayor of Flagler Beach who had worked for the Marlows for 20 years, described how she’d overseen, with the rest of the Flagler Beach City Commission, extensive, open-meeting negotiations over leases, only to see the Palm Coast City Council sever its lease with Green Lion in a workshop.
“I’m here wondering like many here today, how we got to the point that the city of Palm Coast will not be renewing the lease of the number one TripAdvisor rated Green Lion restaurant,” Tim Griffin told the council. “The green line was not there to answer questions that the city council had for city employees. 20 minutes at last Wednesday’s work Last Tuesday’s workshop is about to destroy a great relationship between the green line and our Palm Coast community. This that did not need to happen this should not be happening. I asked today that the city of Palm Coast prepare a fair lease extension for the green line. Because that’s what our community wants and that’s what our community deserves.”
Scott Nixon, a 20-year resident in Palm Coast, had never spoken to the council before. He did so this morning, calling for an apology from the council to the Green Lion family. He described himself “infuriated by the crass, rude words” and “irrelevant, impertinent and slanderous comments that were made against this business and this family” last week by council members.
Sonia McSweeney described “a few” of the issues the restaurant has faced, including closures for repairs, floods, hurricanes and Covid over the past five years, causing loss of income and pay paralleling safety issues, as when the kitchen floor in the doublewide caved in, or when the restaurant was closed for a month in August 2020, over covid, and when the bathrooms were replaced, but also when the city built a 10-foot cement wall, to house a water cooler, blocking part of the patio’s view. “We just want everyone to be aware of the many obstacles that we have encountered and overcome in our journey,” McSweeney said. “It’s been a journey but certainly not smooth sailing. We would like to find a path forward to continue to provide outstanding food and service to the community that we love.
Last to speak was the Green Lion’s kitchen manager, who’s worked for the Marlows for eight years. “I hope everyone here can find a resolution to this agreement,” he said, ” and not put 30 families on the street, including myself.” His words modestly summed up what by then had become a consensus council members would brook at their own political futures’ risk.
The meeting segment’s outcome could not be divorced from its deft handling by Alfin, who managed to keep an oversize crowd’s simmering frustrations not just in control, but channeled to an end ultimately satisfactory both to the crowd and the council. It was a remarkable performance by the mayor on a council that has continually been challenging to the point of exhaustion–for those who follow the council, for the city’s staff, and of course for its own members.
“Good governance starts here, right here, right now,” Alfin said, recognizing the “bottom-up” starting point that had achieved today’s result: the public. “I must say it’s rare in today’s political climate that we can have so many residents, so many neighbors, so much of our community attend an event, an organization agenda like this and perform with such decorum. I applaud you all and thank you very much and at this point, I’ll move on with the rest of the agenda. So thank you.”