Last Updated: 6 p.m.
Flagler County Supervisor of Elections Kaiti Lenhart and Palm Coast City Clerk Virginia Smith presented a “Statement of Ethical Campaign Practices for City Candidates” to the Palm Coast City Council today. The resolution would call on candidates not to lie, appeal to prejudice, circulate anonymous campaign literature, speak untruths or innuendoes about an opponent’s personal life, distort or falsify facts or make undocumented claims, among other exhortations to “positive campaigning.” (See the full statement below.)
The statement would be voluntary. It would not be enforceable. “This is just a fun way, if you will to see if we can get more participation in our local elections on a great civility level,” Smith told the council.
“I would suggest you crumble it up and toss it in the garbage can,” Council member Ed Danko said, with Lenhart, author of the statement, standing a few feet from him at the podium, when Mayor David Alfin asked his colleagues what they wished to do with the resolution and if it should come back to them for a vote next week.
The resolution will be scrapped and return to the council as what Alfin described as “a proclamation type statement that would encapsulate the theme of ethical campaigning.” The statement would be included in candidates’ paperwork. But it would not be a document they would either choose to sign or not sign. It would simply be an included statement they could do with as they please, even though four of the five council members, with Danko’s exception, had spoken highly of the document and its intent as something candidates could sign–or not sign.
“This is a very substantive and thorough statement of ethics,” Alfin said. “I guess it would only be my hope–and I truly believe that government starts at the local level at the municipality–and I would hope that this would find its way to float up through state and the federal government and wherever else it could go.”
But for Alfin, having a supermajority of four council members favoring the approach wasn’t enough. He wanted unanimity on whatever document the council would approve. Danko approved of the proclamation type approach without a signature line. That’s what the council will vote on next week, abjuring a key purpose behind Lenhart’s approach.
The council’s decision was the latest example of a fractured and chronically uncivil local political landscape where even getting elected officials to agree on voluntary civility standards is out of reach.
Lenhart wrote the statement and included it among the handbooks of county candidates in the 2020 election, when Danko ran and when, then and since (when he ran Alan Lowe’s campaign in the special election for mayor last year) several of the statements could have applied to those campaigns–personal attacks, innuendoes, distortions, lies, including falsely implicating the governor’s office in claims against the former mayor (ironically over ethics issues) or peddling fabrications about her daughter. Danko’s 2020 campaign carried over into his first council meeting, which devolved into name-calling between him and Council member Eddie Branquinho–a feud since replaced by amiability and Danko calling Branquinho “my friend,” as he did today even as Branquinho called him out, gently, for calling Lenhart’s proposal “garbage.”
“When we’re talking about ‘ethical,’ and we even mention the word ‘garbage’ with it, with all due respect, I don’t think they should go together,” Branquinho said, twice gesturing toward Danko as he spoke, then at Lenhart. “Either we agree with it or not, but the word garbage, with the work you did over here, it shouldn’t go together.”
According to the Supervisor of elections’ tabulation, 26 candidates signed the ethical statement in 2020, as opposed to 13 who did not. So far in the 2022 cycle, 21 candidates have signed, seven have not, though not all of them have had their one-on-one candidate orientation yet, when most do sign.
“I developed the Statement of Ethical Campaign Practices after the 2018 election cycle, during which many voters complained of negative advertising with other specific examples of behavior which they found to be distasteful, especially by someone who is seeking elected office,” Lenhart said in response to questions after the meeting. “I believe that positive campaigning helps promote civility and encourages citizen participation in the electoral process. A new section was added to our Candidate Handbook which covers information regarding the No Solicitation Zone, Voter Intimidation, and this Statement of Ethical Campaign Practices. The following excerpt is found in our handbook: ‘As a candidate, you have a responsibility to conduct a positive campaign. A well-informed and active electorate builds a healthy community. Your interaction with the community should be a positive one to build voter confidence in the electoral process. Elections are emotional, now more than ever. Please share this information with your campaign volunteers. It cannot be stressed enough how important it is for everyone to be respectful of the law and each other during an election cycle.'”
Danko said he did not oppose any of the substance or intentions of the statement. “To me, this is the first step of overreaching from government into political campaigns,” Danko said. “What comes next? Do we then make it enforceable? And who decides what’s an untruth? We get Joe Biden’s Ministry of Untruths to come in and make a decision for us? It’s almost a sense that it can become a tool, whereas one candidate signs it, the other candidate for various reasons decides not to sign, so one candidate holds it up in another candidate’s face, although the other candidate may have a great reason for not signing it.”
Alfin and Council member John Fanelli had concerns of their own, but in the details and presentation of the proposal, not in its substance as a whole.
Alfin, for example, was concerned about phrasing: “‘will not permit’ seems to put an awfully heavy burden on a candidate who may have followers and people” who may operate more autonomously. “Does a candidate even have such a power to ‘will not permit.'”
The city attorney said “I will not permit” is strong language, but it remains unenforceable, and the language could be revised. But Alfin quickly said it wasn’t necessary to revise it because of its voluntary nature. Fanelli would have made two changes: replacing “ethical campaign practices” to “ethical campaign expectations,” and replacing “I will not permit” to “I will make every effort to.” But he still favored the statement, and a council vote on it. Klufas would have approved the statement by consensus rather than by vote, but would not have removed its signature line.
“I do see the value in having something like this to sign,” Klufas said. “I support having the opportunity to have something like this in place so that we can, say, Hey, I’m agreeing to do these things, and hopefully my opposition is as well.” He said it would give new candidates a baseline giving them an idea about how not to run a campaign. “The community loses when you run campaigns that are analogous to a lot of the points that you’ve made here. So for those reasons, I think that this is adds value.”
Branquinho said he didn’t need this type of agreement when he ran against John Tipton in 2018, who he described as a gentleman. “But I see where you’re going with this, because looking at the last two campaigns: Oh, my God. Oh, my God,” Branquinho said. “And then on the other hand, this is wishful thinking.” Some of the candidates will not abide by the statement regardless. He said the word “decency” should have been added to the statement. “The idea behind this, it’s beautiful.”
To Danko, it’s up to the public “to decide about a candidate and how they run their campaign, and they decide that when they cast their ballots, and I know you guys do a great job handling that here in Flagler County and I’m grateful for it,” he said of the supervisor and the clerk. “But I think that this is something that’s an extra piece of paperwork. It’s not enforceable. But I could see we get to a point where Oh, yeah, you’re going to have to sign this. And I just think this is totally wrong in that direction.”
“Just the untruth aspect of this concerns me: who decides what’s true?” he continued, later noting that the statement “doesn’t even bring into account all of the political [political action committees] that basically run separate campaigns and the tactics that they use.”
Before the discussion turned to disarming the statement as a document for candidates to sign, Alfin was hoping the statement would be disseminated as broadly as possible. “Will the public at large become aware of this? Because it seems to me it’s important enough that the general public should be aware of it,” he said.
Lenhart said the statement, will in effect for county candidates as a document they could choose to sign, will be disseminated through the supervisor’s social media channels and the supervisor’s website.
“The majority of them do agree with this,” Lenhart said, recalling the 2020 election cycle. “That way the public knows that there is an a set of agreements that the candidates have decided to commit themselves to. As it’s been mentioned, it’s not enforceable. It’s not part of law. But there is a responsibility for candidates here locally, and I believe they should hold themselves to a higher standard. And as you said, maybe it will find its way up.”
Flagler Beach and Bunnell have not adopted a statement. Lenhart isn;t sure whether the two cities’ officials know there is one (so candidates running in the municipal elections last march did not sign the document.)
“I do not see this as a slippery slope of ‘government intrusion.'” Lenhart said, “but instead, a level of integrity and respect that could be achieved by all candidates. If all politics are local, someone who is willing to serve as an elected official should have the best public interest in mind while they are on the campaign trail and beyond.”
Statement of Ethical Campaign Practices:
As a candidate for public office in the City of Palm Coast, I understand positive campaigning helps promote civility and encourages citizen participation in the electoral process. Therefore, I commit myself to the following practices:
• I will run a campaign emphasizing my qualifications for office and my positions on issues of public concerns and I will limit my criticism of an opponent to legitimate challenges to that person’s record and qualifications.
• I will condemn any appeal to prejudice based on race, religion, gender, age, national origin, political party preferences, marital status or physical disability.
• I will not publish, display or circulate any anonymous campaign literature, political advertisements, emails, websites, blogs, social media posts, texts, etc., nor will I permit members or volunteers of my campaign organization to engage in such activities.
• I will provide campaign finance reports which accurately reflect the contributions received and expenditures made.
• I will not permit members or volunteers of my campaign organization to engage in activities designed to destroy or remove campaign signs lawfully displayed on public or private property.
• I will not permit the use of untruths or innuendos about an opponent’s personal life.
• I will at all times tell the truth, with complete documentation from legitimate, verifiable sources for any charges against my opponent(s), and substantiate claims about my own record by using the same standard.
• I will not use or permit use of campaign material that falsifies, distorts, or misrepresents facts.
• I recognize that duty to my country, my state, my county, my City and the responsibility for my own ethics outweigh any personal ambition for public office.
• I will not permit any member of my campaign to engage in these activities and will immediately and publicly repudiate the support of any other individual or group which resorts to the methods and tactics that I hereby condemn.
• I will make every effort to ensure members and volunteers of my campaign organization are trained to campaign outside 150’ from the polling place entrance in compliance with state law.
• I will make every effort to ensure members and volunteers of my campaign organization are trained to practice civility at all times and especially while they are working at polling places in the City of Palm Coast and Flagler County.