The Palm Coast City Council this morning appointed John Fanelli, a dynamic school district administrator a council member compared to former Superintendent Jacob Oliva, to fill for the next seven months the District 2 council seat abruptly vacated by Victor Barbosa less than a month ago.
Fanelli was one of eight candidates, each of whom was interviewed publicly by the council this morning in roughly 20-minute segments. The council was fortunate to have drawn a batch of solid candidates, but it came down to two finalists: Fanelli and builder Tony Amaral Jr. The tipping point was Mayor David Alfin giving Fanelli the third vote he needed as Alfin looked at the immediate short term and the benefits Fanelli and his ties to the school district would bring to the council.
The six other candidates were Bob Coffman, Larry Gross, Hung Hilton, Carl Jones Sr., Perry Mitrano and William Schreiber. (See brief sketches on their backgrounds here.)
“I don’t think we have a bad choice amongst them,” Council member Nick Klufas said. Alfin spoke of his pride to know that “we have neighbors of this caliber in our community.” He was dismayed, however, by the “imbalance” of a city attracting eight candidates of this caliber for an appointed seat, but just three for the coming election.
“They are so genuine. They were so direct. They were so precise,” Council member Eddie Branquinho said. “I would say some of them, most of them are standing ready to start here with us. And once I just like to say I’m glad that all my colleagues here stayed out of politics with this one, which was beautiful. I think that’s the whole idea.” Branquinho later said: “Unfortunately, we have to pick one.” Meaning: only one.
Fanelli was attractive to the council members because of the conduit he would represent with the school district. Amaral, who had interviewed flawlessly, with a strong command on the city’s history and its current issues. Fanelli took the oath immediately after the vote, which took place at 12:30 p.m., three hours into the special meeting. Fanelli immediately had his first conflict: he was due to make a presentation at a 1 p.m. school board workshop, on a major realignment of the district’s dress code (it is to be loosened). But the council still had what looked like many hours’ worth of workshopping ahead.
Fanelli introduced himself to the council as a “husband, father, leader, parishioner and 35-year resident of Palm Coast” educated in Flagler County schools, and 2016 Principal of the Year, when he was at Wadsworth Elementary. He is currently in charge of the district’s student services, including mental health and disciplinary issues. He’s administered large grants, including a $1.2 million grant that encompassed five local agencies. “I feel that with a common mission and vision and the love that our council has for our great city, that I can be the fifth member of a strong team that will work together in the best interest of our citizens,” Fanelli told the council. “I know that at times we will have disagreements, debates, and robust dialogue of what that looks like and the best way to achieve our goals. But that is how the best decisions are made.”
Fanelli, an educator for the past 21 years, is still in the prime of his school board career, but he does not rule out a deeper political involvement several years from now–and why he was more interested in a temporary, appointed position for now.
“I do bring a diverse background and a different set of eyes to the board,” Fanelliu said. “I have a young family myself, I have three children that go to school here in Flagler County nine, six and four. They are the love of my life. That’s part of the reason why I’m doing this.” As such, Fanelli would be the first council member to have children in the school district since Jason DeLorenzo, who served for five years until 2016, with a daughter just then entering the school system. The council in its 22 years has rarely had parents with children in the district serve.
As for Fanelli’s role in the district administration: “I would not have submitted an application if I felt that I would not be able to give the time that is required to fill this seat in a way that supports the council and the citizens of coast,” he said. “So I have done that. I’ve spoken with my director. I’ve spoken with the superintendent who said that she would work with me to make sure that I had the time necessary to to to hold both positions.” As if to make a point that he was not tunnel-visioned on school issues, he quickly pivoted to address a question on the council’s goals (its “strategic plan”), which he would champion.
But Alfin brought him back to school issues, indicating the mayor’s interest in benefiting from a direct link to the school district. “I think I can bridge those connections between our city and our school district because I do know the intricate workings and details of our school district,” he said, pointing to his role with Oliva in devel;oping flagship programs in all schools, forging students’ early steps toward careers.
Branquinho had narrowed down his list to Amaral and Fanelli. Danko said he was “on board” with Fanelli. Klufas had narrowed his list down to Amaral, Fanelli and Mitrano, “leaning toward” Amaral. Alfin was in line with the Klufas list, with a focus on Amaral and Fanelli.
Council members asked up to three questions each–mostly the same questions they asked each candidate, though because of the candidates’ backgrounds, some got questions more specific to that background or history: Amaral, a builder, was asked about development impact fees, Mitrano, who’d run Bunnell’s solid waste division–and driven its garbage trucks–was asked about a city-run garbage department, and so on. More often, the questions were repeated–such as different council members’ questions about maintenance of the saltwater canals, or Council member Ed Danko’s seemingly superfluous opening question asserting that the candidate will not run for the open seat in November (the city’s request for applications had asked that to be a condition; Danko, a hyper-political member of the council, may have been using the question to gauging the candidates’ intentions beyond 2022), or Klufas’s question about the sort of diversity the candidate would bring to the council.
Klufas meant “diversity” in the broadest sense, including experience and perspective, since the candidate pool didn’t lend itself to too much diversity otherwise: but for one Black candidate and one of Asian descendance, all eight are males, seeking to join an all-male, all-white, all-Republican council.
There was irony in the council’s choice of Fanelli today: while the County Commission on Monday night freely bashed the School Board, mis-characterizing the School Board’s actions on impact fees and directly attacking a school board member, the city council, for its part, embraced the School Board by proxy.