I can only imagine what the response would have been like had Milissa Holland proposed quadrupling her salary when she was mayor. The public and no doubt some of her colleagues would have torn her to shreds. She would have been called a weak, grasping, arrogant, self-serving, big-spending liberal.
Somehow none of those personal attacks were leveled at David Alfin, the sitting mayor, certainly not by his all-Republican, all-male council. Instead, we got an arch-conservative like Ed Danko who, instead of being first in line to reject this money grab, sounded like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, speaking hosannas to government dole. We got a data nerd like Nick Klufas throwing out all evidentiary standards, including his own living proof that young, smart professionals can get elected, parroting the absurd claim that fatter salaries are needed to attract young, smart professionals.
John Fanelli’s vote was unfortunately a foregone conclusion: this school administrator making $102,000 a year–and who won’t be eligible for the new salary by the time his brief tenure runs out–wasn’t going to cast his very first council vote against the mayor who got him appointed. But with that one vote, he disappointingly telegraphed more allegiance to Alfin than to the public. Let’s hope it wasn’t also an X-ray of his backbone.
This whole thing was shoveled through hurriedly and sloppily on baseless assumptions posing as evidence: right in line with our post-factual politics. Let’s look at the fabrications one by one.
The claim that better salaries will attract better candidates is proven wrong by our own governments. Flagler County Commissioners are paid $60,000 a year. With one exception, they are the laziest elected officials in the county, their hips the county’s busiest shooting range. The richest among them is a bigoted boor who insults colleagues and the public at will when he’s not missing his duties to take selfies out of town. School board members are paid $36,000 a year. They’re anything but lazy. But a couple of them confuse Fox news scripts with board meetings, at least when they’re not trying to file charges against the superintendent, fire the board attorney, or trespass on student protests or college testing sessions.
If you want to see good, no-drama, hard-working governance, look no further than Flagler Beach and Bunnell. Most of these commissioners work hard, do their homework, put in loads of hours on their city duties, and don’t conjure cause-and-effect fantasies between their salaries and their ability to serve. The two governments are more diverse than the council or the county commission. Most of the commissioners hold full-time jobs or more, since several own their own business. They’re also more humble, and almost grandstanding-free. They’re paid as much–or as little–as in Palm Coast: $9,600 a year. Money has zero to do with it.
Alfin’s claim that better salaries will enable candidates to finance their campaigns is shocking. First, it implies that taxpayers should fund campaigns, however indirectly. Second, with the $44,670 a year salary council members are about to vote themselves, it gives incumbents, and only incumbents, what could potentially amount to a nearly $180,000 war chest, and challengers zilch. Third, a candidate’s inability to fundraise is not taxpayers’ concerns. It’s a reflection on that candidate’s viability and connection with the community. I’m all for publicly financed campaigns. But we have none of that in state and local races, and that’s not what Alfin is talking about. His would be a one-sided gift to incumbents. Within current rules, tax dollars should in no way become campaign subsidies.
One of Alfin’s big pieces of evidence in support of better pay was the display of his calendar as mayor. It was meant to be startling. It was rather whiny instead, and missed the mark. True, there was hardly a day when he wasn’t committed to something. But lunches at the incomparable Thai by Thai with Toby Tobin, his business partner, are not city business. The listing of numerous scheduled city events like the senior games, movies in the park and Food Truck Tuesday weren’t actual commitments. Many of the entries were quick-hit appearances, phone calls or photo ops. Sure, they take time. But in the aggregate, the calendar was padded. No close analysis revealed even so much as the French 35-hour week.
The calendar revealed a graver concern. If Alfin is choosing to take on as much as he does even to the extent that he does, he’s not giving his city manager the full confidence she is owed. Denise Bevan is the city manager, not David Alfin. We do not have a strong-mayor form of government. If Alfin’s calendar points to too many commitments, he’s overstepping his role–he has no business in the administrative functions of the city–or taking on all these commitments because he likes to, not because he has to. Or because he doesn’t trust Bevan.
Alfin’s claim that the $175,000 annual hit to the budget that the salary increases represent won’t affect either the budget or taxes raises questions about his math, and his fairness. Of course it’ll affect taxes. Maybe not next year or the year after that. Reserves are a wonderful veil to the eventual reckoning. But that $175,000 a year is $1.75 million over the next 10 years. That cumulative effect will exact a toll. As for fairness: that same annual amount, if it’s so readily available (as Alfin claims), could be split across the board to city employees, netting a $400 raise per employee–those same employees on whom the council lavishes praise meeting after meeting, in words, we now know, as cheap and as hollow as their math. Are council members really worth that much more than city staffers? Councilmen’s 4-1 answer Tuesday was the insulting answer.
Finally, the mayor at the beginning of Tuesday’s meeting explained how items brought before the council are workshopped first, then voted on at business meetings. The salary ordinance was never workshopped. He sprang it on the council at the end of a meeting in late evening on March 1, had the attorney draft the ordinance, and sprang it again Tuesday with cursory, entirely specious and as we just noted baseless comments from his colleagues. Maybe that’s how the private sector works. (Not maybe: it is.) It’s not how representative government works.
In an extensive text exchange he and I had on salaries this week Alfin made the fair point that for all the respect owed past council members, they built “a community skewed by retirement and age which is not financially sustainable for the future,” so we “really need to think differently to govern success[fully] for the future.” No dispute here. But I fail to see the connection with stratospheric salaries. Curious how Holland, who who toggled commitments at the bedside of a critically ill child, a full-time job and her mayoral duties never once mentioned council salaries, and in fact beat back an attempt to raise them in 2018, as did Bob Cuff, a lawyer whose practice was suffering because of his council commitments. As did Klufas, for that matter. None of them were catering to a retirement community in their tenures on the council, but to a redirection of Palm Coast from a soulless, centerless road to extinction (as Russell Baker once referred to all of Florida) to something more like an actual city.
A raise for council members was due. A raise this size, by far larger than the salary of any elected municipal official in a city of this size anywhere in Florida, was not. It’s not as if Alfin didn’t have a range of options. A few years ago, after then-Council member Steven Nobile was laughed out of the room for suggesting exactly the kind of raise Alfin is, fellow-Council member Heidi Shipley made the most sensible proposal to date: give council members health benefits and peg council salaries to half the value of household incomes in the city. At the time that would have been around $23,000 a year.
Alan Peterson, the former council member who actually made the motion to approve the current council salaries back in 2007, gave Alfin another way out: go for a more modest salary increase pegged to inflation. He also suggested amending the charter to require any council salary increase of more than a certain size to require voter approval. Someone may have also suggested that any increase should not kick in until two elections from now, ensuring that no sitting council member would benefit from the self-serving ploy before facing voters. As it is, Alfin and Danko are literally voting themselves a 365 and 307 percent raise, respectively, since the raises kick in after the next election, regardless who is on the ballot.
There’s still time for a more reasonable proposal before the ordinance’s second reading later this month. Oddly enough, I think it would require someone like Danko to make that proposal, Alfin seeming so dogmatic on the issue. It would be more in line with Danko’s fiscal hard line, his past votes (remember the tennis center?), his more recent mellowing (fingers crossed), and, presumably, his next campaign. Failing that, I hope this is not an indication of a more arbitrary, uncompromising and hubristic David Alfin ahead, rather than what had begun as one of the better mayorships in the city’s history.