Note: This article originally published on Feb. 18, and is being reposted ahead of the March 8 election. See also: “In Unusual Break with Meeting Customs, a Flagler Beach Commissioner Blasts Another Over Campaign Claims.”
The Flagler Woman’s Club on Feb. 15 hosted a forum for the three candidates running for Flagler Beach City Commission–incumbents Jane Mealy and Rick Belhumeur, and newcomer James Sherman–giving voters their best chance, short of a one-on-one with the candidates, to seize up their choices.
Voters know Mealy and Belhumeur well, Sherman less or not at all. He’s only recently started attending commission meetings. He says Commissioners Deborah Phillips and Ken Bryan encouraged him to run. Bryan has been giving him a crash course in city issues, though he has a long way to go.
Sherman can command an audience with his humor and presence, if not his height. He’s the upstart, the challenger, the guy who, at 36, would be the young Turk on a commission where the average age is 65 (excluding the non-voting mayor, whose birth in the first months of the Reagan administration skews the average down to 61; Mealy was born the month Franklin Roosevelt was logging 25,000 miles in the Middle East during World War II, meeting with Churchill, Stalin and Chang Kai-shek. Sherman was born the year New Coke was released.)
But Sherman’s grasp of city issues is still not in evidence, as his hour before the Woman’s Club audience showed: the two incumbents had years of records to go on and glided on those years., while Sherman powered himself with self-assurance and the implicit generational contrast, which he mentioned in an interview a few days before the forum: “I’d like to represent the newer generation coming into Flagler Beach,” he’d said. But to what end was less clear.
Sherman did not make it clearer on Tuesday evening, though he projected the sort of intelligence that suggests he’d make a quick study of anything he’d face. Governance of a city not being rocket science, his background as something as close to a rocket scientist as the commission has known will likely serve him well should he make it on one of the two seats up for contention. The top two vote-getters will be elected.
Sherman was born outside of Atlantic City, N.J., moved to Volusia County when he was 6, grew up in South Daytona, served in the Marines from 2004 to 2008–an association he milked for everything it was worth at the forum, in a county that fetishizes the military–and earned his B.S. and a master’s in aeronautics from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. His in-laws have been in the area for 40 years. He is the assistant registrar at Embry-Riddle’s worldwide campus and has a 4-year-old daughter. He got involved in the city by serving on its personnel review board. He’s tried, but hasn’t been picked, to serve on the planning board, and has not been serving on civic boards for lack of time. “There’s only 24 hours in a day,” he said.
“No, there’s more than that,” Mealy schooled him in the only jab she permitted herself against him Tuesday evening (she had many more for Belhumeur, a colleague she nevertheless respects and works well with).
He summed up the theme of his campaign this way: “Responsible fiscal spending, community and environment.” He sees expensive infrastructure costs ahead, but has a curious way of looking at tax increases: “I don’t want to see our taxes go skyrocketing through the roof. I would like to see a steady progression.” He wants to bury the city’s power lines, a proposal not recently heard from candidates in any of the county’s cities, and would do so with that holy grail of new candidates for office: grant dollars. He punned on the word butts when talking about the initiative to get cigarette butts off the beach, and joked about Brazilian peppers, pledging to–if he wins–shear off anyone’s Brazilian peppers on request.
Mealy, 78, was raised in Queens, N.Y., and taught in Long island for 36 years before moving to Flagler Beach in 2001 where she said she “failed retirement.” She became almost immediately involved in community and civics groups, started attending commission meetings and was elected in 2006: she is, with Colleen Conklin on the school board and Catherine Robinson, the mayor of Bunnell, the third-longest serving elected official in the county.
“I make no decisions based on emotions, always on research and facts,” she said, citing the change in the land development code that will bar more high rises in the city unless voters opt to scrap the ban. She remains involved in refining the code. She portrayed herself–with a voluminous record to prove it–as a supporter of residents and businesses, of the city’s fire and police departments, and of the city’s autonomy from the county or other governments: Mealy has fiercely defended the city’s identity, whether through the preservation of its traditions (such as the July 4 fireworks), the autonomy of its services (such as building inspectors), and home rule, speaking up, at times directly to the county’s legislative delegation, against Tallahassee’s frequent encroachments on that score.
Her foresight protected the city from more recent attempts to undermine local authority, as she explained: “The fact that the then-seated commission of which I was chair and the voting part had the vision to create the short term rental ordinance in 2008 has protected our residential areas from being affected by having new groups of people renting next door on a daily or weekly basis,” Mealy said. “Over the last several sessions the state legislature has enacted new laws regarding this issue but thus far has grandfathered cities like ours.”
The Legislature in 2011 drastically loosened vacation-rental regulations, and in 2014 enacted a new law that restored some local authority–thanks to the lead Flagler government took in pushing for that law–both times grandfathering local government ordinances that predated 2011, like Flagler Beach. Every year since 2014, legislators have tried again to return to the 2011 standard, but every year their attempts have fallen short.
Belhumeur, 68, introduced himself by describing his “overwhelming love for this city” and told a family story he’s fond of: how he was part of the family vacation that passed through Flagler Beach in 1966, when his father fell in love with the town, building several rental homes there by the time he retired in 1985, and getting involved in city issues, pushing successfully to get the police department unionized and becoming a city commissioner for two terms in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Belhumeur himself “went to my first commission meeting in 2010 and was immediately addicted,” he said, as Mealy, a fellow-addict, chuckled. “I have missed very few meetings since then. And by attending I learned that I could get involved.” He started serving on city boards. He also served on the county’s affordable housing and parks and advisory boards, then the city’s planning board.
He was elected to the commission–without opposition–six years ago. He had a two-year learning curve, he said. It was a clever dig at Sherman, his implication being: why vote for the new guy when you have one all trained up. It was also an indication of Belhumeur’s nervousness about the new guy. “Now after serving as one of your commissioners for six years, I understand how things are done in city government,” he said.
He then described his fiscal conservatism: “I expect you’ve all seen my signs,” he said. “They have different messages. One is, stop the extravagant spending.” His frequent votes against budgets have kept him in the minority on three of the six budgets he’s voted on. For instance, I voted on six budgets. “I voted no on three of them,” he said. “We need to change the current spending habits in the city. We’re not a big city and we have to quit trying to compete with a small city with limited resources.”
Belhumeur wasn’t speaking in the abstract, as candidates often do: In 2016 was elected on the strength of his opposition to the fire department’s buy, at the time, of a new fire truck. He was again opposed to the department’s buy of another truck this year. That one drew far less opposition, but Belhumeur said it was the sort of spending that the city could do without, since the department had two fully capable fire trucks and could rely on the county and Palm Coast for mutual aid. He was not thrilled about the city’s police department acquiring license plate readers, either, given the sheriff’s network of them.
Since the questions came from the audience, he was later asked for examples of extravagant spending. He cited unnecessary fire trucks, a more expensive roof for the police department than necessary (Belhumeur managed to bring that price down), and a replacement schedule for city vehicles that went faster than necessary. “You don’t need a Cadillac when you could get away with a Chevrolet,” the commission’s bluest collar said, “and that’s how the city’s survived as long as it has, with so few few people paying the bills, is because we’ve always spent modestly, and I think we’re getting away from that.”
“I remember a code enforcement officer, two code enforcement officers having a car where her foot went through the floorboards because we never replaced it,” Mealy countered. “Now that’s not exactly safe.”
At the same time, it’s also true that Belhumeur voted against the budgets when he well knew that the budgets would be approved anyway, giving him the luxury of a no vote that did not risk jeopardizing the city’s financial stability–a stability the last two city managers have been keen on protecting, after several years of unsustainably low taxes. In other words, the city has been paying bills left unpaid in the early and the middle part of the last decade.
In any case Mealy, the commission’s shrewdest and often iron-flinted voice, didn’t let him get away with the statement unchallenged: “Yes, I’ve approved budgets,” she said, a bit later on, during the question period. “It’s very easy to say I will never raise taxes a-la-George Bush the first. It’s very easy to say that.” Mealy made clear she has no patience for the statement. “Issues come up and if you don’t have the money budgeted, you can’t do whatever it is the citizens want. So I think responsible budgeting is important. And it’s a challenge.”
Mealy twice returned to the charge later, in one case recalling how then-City Manager Bruce Campbell (she didn’t name him), a private-sector expat who’d never managed a government budget before, would start every budget season with orders that each department cut 10 percent, whether it was necessary or not. “It might sound good,” Mealy said, “but there [was] an awful lot of stuff that didn’t get done and we’re now catching up. Takes a lot to run this city. Yes, it’s a small town. Yes, we only have 5,000 residents. But we want the city to run well and so to me spending it wisely means, prove to me we need that, and I’ll support it.”
Sherman, ironically, spoke like Campbell when asked to answer the question about “extravagant spending,” speaking in private-sector terms that have no application in the public sector: “We have to look at it as a business, we have to run it as a business, as essentially: We need to look at the return on the investment on the spending that we’re doing. So sometimes you have to spend money to make money, and get that return on your investment.”
There is no “return,” of course, on the investment in a code enforcement vehicle, in a fire truck, in a garbage truck, other than the assurance to taxpayers that their garbage is being picked up, their homes are protected from fire, their neighbor’s grass is cut when they complain. None of those services make money, or are intended to make money, though some candidates for office almost invariably peddle the “run-it-as-a-business” line because it can occasionally resonate with taxpayers who don’t know better. Sherman was on stronger ground when he suggested that, as with the roof on the police station, a more expensive roof might last longer, or how a newer car might need fewer expensive repairs, only to revert to the money-making soundbyte: the city should “take a business approach to those and look at it from how are we going to make our money on that,” he said.
Belhumeur wasn’t done during his opening speech. “I will continue to scrutinize each and every budget to maximize tax increases,” he said (he misspoke: he meant minimize), then he turned to overt if unspecified criticism of the city administration: “Complacency among among many workers is a problem and I will urge our city manager to promote an atmosphere that heightens pride among all our city employees.” City Manager William Whitson was in the audience, a couple of chairs down from Police Chief Matt Doughney. “Demanding accountability is the city manager’s job, to hold his staff accountable when sometimes things go wrong. When that doesn’t happen, it’s the commission’s job to hold the city manager to account. Those are generally done by means of an annual evaluation.” Then he turned his criticism on the commission: “Commissioners need to take those evaluations more seriously, or we need to come up with a more equitable scoring system.” He got a round of applause.
Only then the questions began, the first asking the candidates about opportunities and challenges. Belhumeur took the iconoclastic approach, lending support to The Gardens, the development on John Anderson Highway in the county that the commission as a whole had somewhat been critical of, and wishing for the opening of a marina in the city. The biggest challenge for now, he said, was ending the dumping of effluents in the Intracoastal–a challenge the city will have to address regardless, by law, within a few years.
Mealy saw Whitson, the city manager, as the city’s biggest opportunity: “This man knows everybody in this state that we need to know that will help us with whatever,” she said. “Went to a conference in Orlando where he was speaking, so I said okay, I should go. Well, everybody just knew him.” She described similar situations at the city. “He’s only been here since May. He’s worn me out with all that he’s been doing. I told him he didn’t have to fix everything in the first week. But to take advantage of a man who has so much experience and knows so many people around the state and outside the state. I think it’s a great opportunity for us.”
As for challenges, Mealy reverted to the legislature’s assault on home rule. “The last year and this year have been extremely bad,” she said, taking away from the commission’s authority.
The incumbents, as expected, drew heavily on their experience for their answers. The unasked question with a challenger is always how he or she will handle the questions asked, as an outsider. Candidates, through no fault of their own, often bring a pie-in-the-sky approach to their inaugural campaigns, speaking in generalities and idealistic cliches for lack of more tangible experience in government. But even those answers can reveal a candidate’s disposition, making the difference between the serious and the crank. Sherman is no crank.
Sherman sees opportunity in the future pier, assuming it’s built. The current one is to be demolished and replaced with a concrete structure, with federal dollars. “I think it’s going to be a huge opportunity for us as a city to really capitalize on that and market and show off our new and improved pier,” Sherman said, speaking the once-trendy if shallow language of city governments as attention-hungry attractions rather than administrative operations: “ I really think we need to rebrand ourselves a bit, maybe we have some opportunities to really just kind of clean up our image a bit with our parks. I know we’re working in those directions with those things, but really, truly let’s take a deeper look and make that maybe one of our goals with when we hit our 100-year anniversary.”
He then spoke of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ dunes-reconstruction project slated for Flagler Beach as another challenge, although that project is largely out of the city’s hands. But it’s been in the news.
There were interestingly unexpected questions reflective of the evolving nature of energy and government costs: “Should the city look into replacing or using electric vehicles?” As questions go, it was a first in local government races–from forums or from media. Belhumeur took it as an opportunity to note that he drives a hybrid, though he said regarding city vehicles, “it’s a little bit early for that,” and too expensive for now. He gave it a five-to-10-year timeline, calling it “definitely something in the future we could maybe look into as prices come down on those and the technology improves.”
Mealy agreed, with a caveat: “Perhaps we could do one at a time.” But she said charging stations would have to come first. “I know the state legislature, that’s one good thing they’re working on this year. Maybe the only good thing they’re working on this year is putting in charging stations on the highways.” Sherman, borrowing a term from Belhumeur, said going electric is “extravagant spending” right now, and the problem of storing worn batteries has not yet been considered or solved.
There were the perennial–and nakedly tendentious–questions, such as: “Will you vow to keep the Flagler Beach Fire Department city controlled.” All candidates said yes, recognizing that any other answer would be suicidal to their chances. Mealy, the seasoned candidate, left the answer at yes. Sherman took advantage of it to lather a bit of flattery on the troops–always good for easy points. But Belhumeur knew he had some explaining to do, having thrown stop sticks in the way of every new fire department engine. “I’m not an enemy of the fire department, I hope they’re over here for quite some time,” he said. “However, we don’t need any more firetrucks anytime soon.”
There were the factually incorrect questions (not the moderator’s fault: she was merely reading them from the audience), such one wondering why the city was going to spend $1.2 million on a visitor center. It isn’t. The county’s tourism bureau is in conversations to buy a $1.5 million parcel south of the pier for a visitor center, a proposal that has triggered some controversy. Belhumeur dismissed the question: “That’s the county,” he said.
There were eye-rolling softballs among the questions, similar to those questions Chinese reporters asked athletes or Olympic officials in Beijing over the past two weeks. Mealy, on her home turf as a member of the Flagler Woman’s Club, was asked: “If elected, will you continue to offer the Citizens Academy?” Of course Mealy said yes, and even asked for the full two minutes to answer. It’s the city’s way of educating residents on city government. “You get to go to the sewer plant and the water plant,” she said. Most current commissioners have graduated. Covid has prevented more recent sessions, but it will resume in the spring.
Another softball, along the lines of “what makes you the champion figure skater you are,” must have been planted by one of the incumbents’ campaign fans: “What makes you an effective commissioner?” The question was unfair to Sherman of course, since it was directed only to the commissioners, who nevertheless answered accurately: both Mealy and Belhumeur, addicts that they are, do their homework, pour over background materials and–Mealy more than Belhumeur–speak to staffers when they need questions answered. Their deep background work shows at meetings.
With Mealy especially, no one who addresses the commission, or even staffers and the manager, can get much past her without her knowing the background. Belhumeur’s research adds field work: he likes to see problems with his own eyes, logging more miles on his truck than other commissioners as he crisscrosses the city almost daily. “I think a little bit outside the box and bring some fresh ideas that the other Commissioners don’t necessarily come up with,” he said, noting his involvement outside the city as well as he stays in touch with other elected officials. Belhumeur and Mealy are the most frequent presences at other governments’ events.
In their closing words, Belhumeur characteristically spoke unassumingly, quoting the note on his desk: “There are two primary choices in life: to accept conditions as they exist, or accept the responsibility for changing them. So that’s what I feel I’m doing, and I will continue to do so.” Mealy went over her recent resume with the city–the money secured for the pier, from the St. Johns River Water Management District for lining sewer pipes and from such sources as the federal Covid-aid packages (though no local government official had anything to do with that), her protectiveness of Flagler Beach’s environment–and her support for people who remove Brazilian peppers.
“I know this is my first time running but I’m going to give my all to you guys,” Sherman said, offering to meet with constituents over coffee–and, as if in counterpoint to Belhumeur’s desk quote, citing the Marines’ “semper fidelis,” or “always faithful,” motto. “And I promise you that if you elect me, I will forever be faithful to every last one of you all,” he said–a political promise as impossibility as 2+2=5, as any elected official learns in the first hours of service, but also as customary a promise of young candidates for office as the glimmering hopes of Election Day (in this case, March 8).
“And you know, and that’s all I have tonight,” he said, “and just remember my name: James Patrick Sherman on your ballots.” Or Jane Mealy. Or Rick Belhumeur.
Election Day: March 8
FLAGLER BEACH CITY COMMISSION CHAMBER ROOM
105 S. 2nd Street
Flagler Beach, FL
Polling hours: 7:00 a.m. – 7:00 p.m.
No early voting will be held for this election. Vote by mail or in person on Election Day.
VOTE BY MAIL INFORMATION:
Any registered voter in the City of Flagler Beach may choose to vote by mail. The deadline to request a vote-by-mail ballot is February 26, 2022, at 5:00 p.m. Vote-by-Mail ballots must be received in the Elections Office no later than 7:00 p.m. on Election Day, March 8, 2022. Voters may place a request for a mail ballot by phone, (386) 313-4170 or online: Request a mail ballot. See the Elections Supervisor’s website.