To say that Charlie Ericksen Jr. hasn’t run office before merely says he fits the mold of most of those who’ve run or held office on the Palm Coast City Council: older, well educated, with backgrounds richer in business or administration than government service. On Friday—the day he turned 68—Ericksen, a retired health insurance manager, announced his run against Mayor Jon Netts, who’s slightly older and says he’ll run again in the Sept. 13 election (and Nov. 8, should a runoff prove necessary).
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- Charlie Ericksen’s Website
Netts hasn’t lost an election since beating Jerome Full with 56 percent of the vote in 2001, when Netts became a city council member. Four years ago he crushed two opponents, taking 63 percent of the vote in the primary. The going may not be as easy this time around, with voter discontent with incumbents a running theme, and moderates—like Netts—seeming perhaps more vulnerable because they’re not comfortable making brash or ideological appeals to tea party types that may not have validity as prudent policy.
Opponents are lining up early. Ericksen was one of two candidates picking up their packets from the city clerk last week: Raymond Minami, a relative unknown, is the other.
But if it’s a less moderate candidate than Netts voters are looking for, they won’t find him in Ericksen, who’s a more Midwestern version of the Jersey Netts: unassuming, pragmatic, non-confrontational, but certainly more questioning—or willing to question—than Netts has been in Ericksen’s eyes.
Candidates always find it easier to question. The difference is whether their questions resonate with a real as opposed to imagined discontent.
The Council’s Sixth Member
Ericksen has been one of the more frequently visible audience members—and speakers—at city council and county commission meetings in the last few years. Announcing his candidacy last week, he sat for a wide-ranging interview and outlined what his mayorship would be like: a “new direction,” rather than mere change, toward a more business-friendly city, an ear more closely trained to local business’ needs (which explains why he has the county chamber of commerce’s ear), more austere and transparent government budgeting (no new city hall in Ericksen’s immediate plans), no annexation showdowns with the county that risk losing, say, the National Guard Reserve Center at the county airport, and less of what Ericksen calls “rubber-stamping” of managerial decisions by the council.
When Ericksen wants the city to be less of a “big bully” toward other governments and local business, he usually has in mind City Manager Jim Landon, who he says too easily controls the council.
“The city council and mayor need to be accountable for their decisions,” Ericksen says. “They’re rubber-stamping just about all expenditures. There’s hundreds of thousands of dollars that come up on the consent agenda every city council meeting, and they’re rubber-stamped. And of their discussions—and in most cases is due to someone in the audience coming forth and asking that it’d be pulled for discussion. Then we also have to remember that the only items that make it to the city council agenda are normally by direction of the city manager.” He adds: “I would want the city council to be more direct with a city manager, spelling out specific projects and the manner in which they would like results achieved. Measurable objectives.” It’s also true, however, that of the five members of the council, Netts is the least malleable, and the most likely to question or debate issues before falling in line with the manager’s recommendations.
On City Manager Jim Landon
Ericksen doesn’t dispute Landon’s effectiveness as a manager. But effectiveness on whose behalf? “I realize that by charter the city manager works for the city council, and you would expect that a person making close to a quarter million dollars in a salary package would be qualified and professional enough to run an organization a small as the city of Palm Coast. My question is, just how much are we paying not only for the management at the city manager level, but for the next tier down? Is that appropriate for the size of operations and the span of responsibility we have in the city—and I don’t know and I don’t have a position on it, but that would be my first place to look.”
He is, however, categorical about the manager’s base salary of $169,000 (about $5,000 less than Orlando’s city administrator) and his total compensation package of $218,00, which became an issue at budgeting last year: “No, too high. But that’s a contract that the prior council established with Mr. Landon, and the city needs to decide if that’s the price they have top pay to get the talent in for the job they think has to be done.” Netts has said exactly that: it is the price the city has to pay for that talent.
Smoke and Utility Mirrors
Budgeting is another main concern for Ericksen. While the county commission held upwards of nine public workshops on its budget last summer, going through it virtually line by line, department by department, and leading the questioning commissioner by commissioner, the process at the city was more cursory: one workshop devoted to the general fund, one to other funds, with both workshops led by the city manager and few questions posed by council members. Budget documents were handed out literally at each meeting, as the manager was broaching each category, thus preventing either council members or the public from studying the documents ahead of time and, for council members, be better prepared to address it from an informed perspective. Ericksen was severely critical of the process at the time—and of the budgeting methods used year after year, particularly the budget transfers from one fund to another, which he says mask clarity at the expense of accountability. “I challenge any resident to be able to read the budget as it’s presently presented to the residents,” Ericksen says, though there’s nothing improper about transfers. “In my estimation, there’s far too much of that going on.
More specifically, he singles out the utility fund, whose revenue is generated by the city’s water utility, which it acquired several years ago from Florida Water with assurances to residents that they would save money, because the profit motive would be removed from the books. That’s not so, Ericksen says. “The fact that they’ve made a profit is evidence by the amount of money they’ve taken out of the utility fund to pay for other expenses,” Ericksen says, “namely the realignment of Old Kings Road south for the future Walmart store, and the million-plus dollars that the city proposes to use to meet the financial cost of a new city hall. I wouldn’t call it a cash cow, but it’s as close to it as it can be.”
He’s also critical of the utility billing customers for water usage and sewage usage in equal amounts, even though, Ericksen says, 30 percent less effluent flows into the city’s sewer system than the volume of water that makes it to customers. That’s a 30 percent profit the city should not be charging, he says. “With the juggling of transferring of fund from one fund to the other, it’s hard to say how much profit is made and where it’s going to.”
No to a New City Hall
Ericksen is opposed to a new city hall for the moment, though he recognizes the city’s needs. Every organization must provide a proper working environment for its employees. But employees aren’t necessarily lacking that for now. Ericksen cites voters’ overwhelming rejection of a proposed city hall five years ago (the proposal would have levied a higher tax) as one reason the timing is not yet proper, even though the city this time proposes to pay for the building with ready cash. “If we’ve got $10 million to pay for a city hall that we can pay cash, I think we ought to retain it,” he says. The reason: Palm Coast’s reserves are lower than they’ve been than at most times in its 11-year history. Ericksen applies the same reasoning to Palm Coast’s continuing and costly plans to develop a desalination plant, which will eventually cost several hundred million dollars: this isn’t the time, and current, redrawn development trends don’t call for it.
Ericksen isn’t interested in talking taxes as much as he is cuts: “I’ve not seen a budget that could not be reduced,” he says, though the city has reduced staffing by some 15 positions last year, and held property taxes flat. Ericksen many vacant positions were eliminated rather than employees laid off. And workers in some divisions—such as building inspectors—have been shifted to other jobs, particularly in the expansion of code enforcement and public works. Building inspectors could have been reduced three years ago, he says. That wasn’t done. Converting them to code enforcement officers has only rendered the city more heavy handed with code enforcement, when it should operate with a lighter hand—toward businesses or the public. Ericksen is opposed to the city’s crackdown on occupational vehicles that have their business name on it parking in residential areas.
On economic development, Ericksen doesn’t have a particular agenda so much as a method he’d rather see applied from the outset: “For some reason it seems as if we avoid talking first about the areas that we agree on when we work with another municipality. We go directly to what we don’t agree on and beat that to death,” he says. That can have dire consequences. Example: the breakdown between Palm Coast and the county over the city’s attempt to annex the parcel where a National Guard Reserve Center is proposed for county land adjacent to the county airport. Palm Coast’s approach risks alienating the National Guard, Ericksen says, and losing the area steady, long-term jobs.
Ericksen isn’t wedded to a single plan. He finds advantages in virtually every plan presented, and is less prone to take an oppositional view to any of them than seek out what details might find common support and “maybe get going even with the smallest effort,” though as mayor he’d makes a direct pitch to a particular constituency: “I want to be a leader up front for the business community because they haven’t been getting a fair shake in what goes on in the city as it affects them. There’s too much of a maze for existing and future businesses to go through to get up and running.”
Ericksen, who’s married and has, as he says, “five children who call me ‘Dad’” (three of his own, two from his second wife), begins every day before dawn biking about 20 miles, an old habit. He’s lived in Palm Coast five years. He volunteers at the Sheltering Tree, Bunnell’s cold-wearther shelter, he’s a member of the Republican Club and sat through enough meetings to earn himself a certificate of appreciation from Palm Coast for civic responsibility—a certificate he received from Bill Lewis, one of the council members.
He has nothing against the mayor, with whom he maintains cordial relations. But Netts has had his time, Ericksen says. “Jon has had his chance to influence the city of Palm Coast, and has, but now it’s time for the city to go in a new direction.”