For the second time in 13 months, the Bunnell City Commission is grappling with a resignation and how–or whether–to fill the vacated seat before the next election, scheduled for March.
It was barely a year ago that Robert Barnes, along with Tina-Marie Schultz, were appointed to the Bunnell City Commission to fill the terms of commissioners who’d resigned for health and other reasons. It was barely five months ago that Barnes won election to the seat as the top vote-getter by a wide margin. He was eager to put in a full term and continue shepherding the city to what he saw–what he still sees–as a bracing future.
On July 18, he wrote City Manager Alvin Jackson and Mayor Catherine Robinson a regretful resignation email due to “personal health concerns.” Life was throwing him a couple of sharp curveballs, and e didn’t feel he had a choice but to leave a job he loved. “It has been a wonderful experience and I believe we have begun to build the foundation on which the future of our city will be built.”
He spoke at greater length this morning of the difficulty of stepping down. “I really, deeply regret that I’ve had to to do,” Barnes said. “I really appreciated having been elected and to have the opportunity to do this. I’m pretty devastated that I can’t continue doing it.”
Tonight, the City Commission, reduced to four members, a recipe for deadlocks–any 2-2 vote is a failed vote–will discuss what to do next.
The city’s charter is clear in parts, not so clear in others: “A vacancy of the Commission shall be filled by the Commission. The Commission shall appoint the successor(s) to fill the vacancies until a special election can be held simultaneous to the next regular election.”
That appears to require the commission to make an appointment. But unlike a similar provision in the Palm Coast charter, it does not set out a time requirement. Palm Coast requires the appointment to be made within 30 days. Bunnell’s charter leaves that silent, which worries Barnes.
“There’s some talk that they may not replace me until the next election,” he said. “That astounds me.” Citing the charter, Barnes said, “shall means exactly what it says.”
And in fact, the city administration’s memo to commissioners for tonight’s meeting provides leaving the seat vacant until March as an option. The other option is to make an appointment. But there could be yet other options, as the city attorney’s review states: “The Charter gives the City Commission authority to fill this vacancy. The method of doing so is not provided by the Charter or the Code so it is up to the majority of the Commission to establish the procedures for doing so should the Commission decide to fill the vacancy pending the March 2023 Special Election.” That may open other possibilities.
Vice Mayor John Rogers was of two minds. “Our charter talks about ‘shall appoint,'” he said this morning, “but there’s no time frame, there’s no 30, 60, 90-day time frame, and being in a small community where everybody knows everybody, and we’re all friends and neighbors at the end of the day, as our mayor says, whoever you appoint if you have a process like that, you’re going to offend somebody else.”
The city’s Charter Review Committee, appointed every five years, is in the midst of its deliberations. One of its likely recommendations is going to be relating to vacancies, a recommendation Rogers said he would recommend in the future: “Looking at that last election, seeing who was next in line, as in line for the votes. That takes it out of our hands, and it puts it back in the people’s hands.”
The last election was held in March. There were three candidates: Barnes, Schultz and Pete Young, the recently retired Florida Highway Patrol investigator and former Bunnell city commissioner (he served one term) and Bunnell police chief. Barnes and Schultz were elected. Young polled last, 33 votes behind Schultz.
Young today recalled that when he was on the commission, Daisy Henry was appointed to the seat left vacant by the death of Commissioner Paul Fell. Fell had won re-election unopposed in 2005. He died in June 2006. At that year’s election, Young and Robinson were elected, beating out Henry, who had been an incumbent. After Fell died, Henry was one of five applicants for the vacancy. Three commissioners voted for her. But her appointment triggered sharp opposition from Young. “The people voted me in, and now the commission is voting her back in,” he said at the time, in comments reported by the News-Journal.
Today, however, Young was pointing to that precedent as an example of why he should be appointed to the commission. “Me, I think it should be whoever ran,” he said of the last election, citing the Henry example, especially since the choice would be of someone with commission experience.
“I’m probably going to end up running next term,” either in Bunnell or for the county commission, Young said. “Whatever they do, they’re going to do, but they definitely have to pick somebody, because the charter says they shall pick somebody, and not wait for the next election. I’m sure Barnes has got friends that he wants in there, I’m sure everybody that’s on the board has got somebody that they’d rather have in there. What if everybody picks up a person and they don’t have enough votes, what happens then?”
When the Bunnell commission had the two openings last year, seven people applied, including Gary Masten, who is again interested in the position. Barnes said Andre Poulin is also interested. Poulin is a former fire chief in Monmouth, Maine, a town of 4,000 at the time.
Bunnell Commissioners would have to seek applicants in the next few weeks and make an appointment likely in September. That person would serve until March, when a special election would be added to the city’s regular elections. The winner of the special election would serve out the two years of Barnes’s term.
The commission could have yet one more option, with a broad interpretation of the charter’s clause about election timing. The charter states that the appointment is in place “until a special election can be held simultaneous to the next regular election.” The charter doesn’t specify whether that’s a reference to Bunnell’s regular election or any regular election.
The Nov. 8 election is ahead, and Bunnell’s special election could be made part of that ballot, likely at no cost to the city, Flagler County Elections Supervisor Kaiti Lenhart said today. While she interprets the charter’s wording to mean that its next election is the March election, she said she would work with the city and its attorney, whatever their choices–even though the deadline for ballot measures making it on the November ballot passed August 5.
“Our deadline was August 5 for any valid items,” Lenhart said, but that doesn’t make it a moot point. She added: “In some circumstances, if something like an emergency we had come up and there is time for us to put something on a ballot, of course, I would work with any of our municipalities or any of our governing authorities within the county. In this situation, though, I would need their legal guidance from either the Department of State attorneys or and-or the city attorney to authorize such a special election for November.”
As for the cost, there wouldn’t be any, because Lenhart expects that Bunnell’s special election would fit on the November ballot, without requiring an additional page. Ballots for only three precincts would be affected. “I don’t expect that those precincts would have any issue with space that should fit, if there were an additional race on those ballots,” Lenhart said. And even if there were an additional cost, “it wouldn’t be a large amount. Nothing like the Palm Coast city election.”
The Bunnell City Commission meets at 7 this evening to discuss the issue.