On Monday, Flagler Beach Mayor Suzie Johnston filed a 16-page application to the county’s Tourist Development Council for a $739,000 grant to rebuild the city’s boardwalk. The application was more than two weeks late. It was incomplete. The TDC administration rejected it, and will not include it in council members’ packages when the council itself recommend who will get grant funding this year, when the TDC meets on July 20.
That’s not really the issue. Johnston’s move was unusual, skirting the bounds of the appropriate: elected officials are barred from meddling in their government’s day-to-day administrative business, including writing grants. They can order them written, with a consensus or vote of their elected board. They are not supposed to write and file them unilaterally, without board action.
But Johnston’s move, which she says she cleared with City Attorney Drew Smith, reflects a mounting level of frustration and dissatisfaction with the city administration of William Whitson, and is only a symptom of a recurring breakdown of relations between the mayor and the administration on one hand, and between different members of the commission on the other. Commission Chairman Ken Bryan and Commissioner Jane Mealy have been supportive of Whitson. Commissioners Deborah Phillips and James Sherman have been toeing a middle line. And Johnston and Commissioner Eric Cooley–who happen to be a couple–have been openly critical of Whitson.
Three successive issues have soured relations in the last few months–what Johnston refers to as “dropping the ball.” There was the fiasco over the July 4 fireworks, which Whitson blamed on Covid changes and on his staff not calling the fireworks producer in time (a blame the fire chief and the police chief sharply refuted in a timeline of events prepared for Whitson, at Sherman’s request). There was the retirement of long-time finance director Kathleen Doyle, just ahead of budget season, without Whitson lining up a replacement: the position is still vacant. And there was the failure to apply for the TDC grant.
(Doyle announced her retirement in March and, according to the city’s Human Resources director, “her final day was June 3, 2022.” That contradicts what Doyle herself wrote her colleagues in a 4:38 p.m. email on May 20, fully two weeks earlier: “Today is my official day as Finance Director for the City of Flagler Beach.” Two days later, she signed a $70-an-hour consulting contract with the city. The city advertised for a replacement, got 14 applications, interviewed four applicants, but none worked out, including two who declined the city’s offer, according to the city’s human resources director. Doyle in her contract said she’d work 90 hours a month at the $70 rate, then for $90 an hour after that.)
The grant has been available for a year and a half. TDC Director Amy Lukasik met with Whitson and his assistant to discuss it and offer her help months ago. Whitson earlier this month told the commission there was no application because there was no time to file it. Bryan, who represents the city on the TDC board, said there was no “shelf-ready” project to tie to the grant, which is accurate: the city has numerous capital project needs, but it has not lined one up with reliable cost estimates, designs and other details that would make it eligible for a TDC grant. Johnston’s point is that the city had a year and a half to do so, and still did not.
So she took it upon herself to file.
“I had two choices that I could make for the residents of Flagler Beach,” Johnston said. “I could do nothing, or I could do something in a last ditch effort. I chose to do something. I called Amy Lukasik at the tourism office, I reached out, I asked if I could submit an application. She still needed to go through her protocols. But she said if I submitted an application, it would need to be right now. So therefore, I turned to my keyboard and I started working on the application for the residents of Flagler Beach for the grant. It was not discussed beforehand with the rest of the commission, but I was with the understanding that we had a consensus from the last meeting that everyone wanted us to apply for this grant. So I got to my keyboard and I applied for the full amount of the grant to redo the boardwalk for the city of Flagler Beach. It’s the gateway to the county’s iconic landmark of our pier. It would fall hand in hand with the restoration of the pier project. It was a perfect opportunity.”
Johnston could not speak with fellow commissioners outside of sunshine, but she could issue a one-way memo. So she did, on Tuesday morning, sending it to Whitson and the city clerk and asking that it be disseminated to the rest of the commission. The boardwalk was picked because it was “discussed long ago by the previous CM as the next project after the A-frame repairs since all locations [with] the pier are intertwined.” The boardwalk reconstruction is in fact part of the city’s long-term capital plans.
“Due to the extreme time constraints of this issue, communication is after the fact. If there is any objections to this particular grant initiative, elected can chose to vote against acceptance of the grant funds if awarded,” Johnston wrote.
The grant is not about to be accepted.
“The mayor provided the application on Monday but unfortunately it was way, way past the deadline, and the supporting documentation was not complete,” Lukasik said. “It was not ready for prime time.” Johnston for her application sought an estimate from Moore Construction for the boardwalk project. But it’s a hurried page-long estimate prepared on June 27, outside of city channels. It states that the customer is the City of Flagler Beach. Johnston said the estimate was done at no charge, with a second contractor also prepared to provide an estimate.
“There’s really not any detail at all,” Lukasik said of the application, which lacked supporting documentation and a formal vetting process at the city, though that’s an internal matter. “I appreciate and respect her eagerness and wanting to try to do anything that she can.” Lukasik herself told the mayor that she had to call Whitson to make him aware of the application. But for obvious reasons, she did not want to get caught up in internecine issues at the city. (Whitson declined to comment.)
Lukasik was at any rate uncomfortable with an application coming in so far beyond the deadline, as it would be unfair to those who have already applied. Only one entity has: Palm Coast government, filing an extensive, 147-page pitch for the full amount to spend on the city’s expansion of the tennis center off of Belle Terre Parkway. It was filed on time, and with sufficient time for Lukasik to work with the city to tie up loose ends. The TDC itself meets July 20 to recommend whether the full amount goes to Palm Coast, or whether a partial amount does, with some left on the table for another round. The recommendation goes to the County Commission, which makes the final decision on Aug. 15. The commission could itself decide to upend the process. The grants are available only every two years.
“You have a deadline for a reason, you can’t start compromising the process,” Lukasik said. “I understand their frustration and disappointment, but I really have to stick to our guns on the deadline.”
Johnston acknowledges the unfairness to Palm Coast of a post-deadline filing. “I would 100 percent say it’s not fair,” Johnston said. “I even said I understand how this can be, and you want to be fair. So accepted it as a second application. Maybe they can award Palm Coast first, then come and look at our application second. But you hate to see the residents be penalized. The next application is not next year. The application opens up in October and it’s a year and a half for it to be awarded. It’s essentially every two years.”
Bryan, the commission chairman, declined to parse Johnston’s motives. “There’s no point in it, the deadline is gone. It’s a moot issue,” Bryan said in a brief interview today. “The best thing to do is to focus on the grants that’ll be available next year.” He added: “Things happen, sometimes things fall through the cracks, you learn from you mistakes and move on.” Bryan himself learned of other grant opportunities–and put some to use to refurbish park benches, a $6,000 project the city did not have to pay for, or himself negotiated with a supply store to get help with a related initiative. So commissioners getting on the grant bandwagon may not necessarily be a unique thing.
And all may not be over at the county, since county commissioners may yet have a say.
The mayor isn’t pretending that she hasn’t gone over the city manager’s head: she clearly has, and she anticipates some blowback from the commission. Mealy particularly had a notable confrontation with a fellow commissioner over meddling in administrative realms, albeit 12 years ago. But the principle endures.
Johnston is aware of lanes. She filed anyway, “because nothing was done. When I found out that that application was not submitted, I was upset,” Johnston said. “I’m not one to accept excuses. I want to do something. Not having that grant is a loss for our city residents, our tourists and the entire rest of the county.”