In Bunnell, the certainty behind the word shall may be a bit shallower than commonly understood.
The Bunnell City Commission on Monday voted 3-1 to leave vacant a seat on its panel for what will amount to eight months by the time a special election to fill it is held on March 7, even though the city charter is explicit: “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.”
City Attorney John Cary told the commissioners that the charter is “very general, it doesn’t provide any criteria at all,” on how an appointment is made, “so therefore you all can decide the criteria of how you want to do that.” Three commissioners–John Rogers, Tonya Gordon and Catherine Robinson, the mayor–see room enough in there to delay filling the seat, since the charter doesn’t spell out a timeline, the way the Palm Coast charter does. In Palm Coast, the “shall” is accompanied by a 30-day deadline.
Commissioner Tina-Marie Schultz voted against leaving the position vacant and pleaded, as she had previously, for an appointment. “I still think that’s a disservice to our community to not fill the position in a timely manner in accordance with the charter,” Schultz said.
Robert Barnes had won election to the commission, after himself being appointed to the seat (as Schultz was, in July 2021), just five months ago. But he resigned on July 18, citing health reasons. The commission considered holding a special election to fill the seat, concurrent with the Aug. 23 election. Rogers had gone as far as making a motion to that effect, and Gordon had seconded it, at the Aug. 9 meeting. But then pete Young, the recently retired Florida Highway Patrol corporal and former Bunnell city commissioner, spoke to the commission and suggested that since he’d run for a seat against Barnes and Schultz last year, and been the runner-up, he could be appointed and bring his past experience to the panel.
Rogers withdrew his motion, Robinson argued for Young’s approach, and he was appointed in a 3-1 vote, with Schultz again saying that the appointment circumvented fairness. Two weeks later, Young, who’d not been sworn-in, told the commission that he could not serve after all. He was in the Florida Retirement System, so is Bunnell. FRS requires its just-retired employees to stay out of any FRS government for at least six months or a year. So Young resigned before being seated. The deadline to make the election ballot had passed, leaving the commission with a new dilemma.
Bonita Robinson, a former commissioner, seconded Rogers’s approach–and said she herself is ineligible to run again as long as she works at the Carver Community Center, a joint operation of local governments, including Bunnell.
“My concern about appointing someone on this for this short period of time is,” Robinson said, now down to six months before the next election, “it takes more than three, four months to get up to speed to what’s going on, and then there’s an election. In the past, when we only had one position open, we let it ride when it was this close to an election. That’s just my thinking. It’s difficult to come up here cold, and not be on a board and have that length of time to get acclimated to what’s going on and understand the process, if someone hasn’t already served.”
Robinson was referring to the resignation of John Sowell in 2018, less than two years into his term. But Sowell resigned at the end of November that year, significantly closer to the next election date. The commission approved a plan to fill the seat by special election the following March. Robinson was also concerned about having an appointed commissioner involved in evaluating the performance of City Manager Alvin Jackson. But commissioners are almost done with that process, and the appointee, who would presumably not have been seated for another two to four weeks, would not have been part of the process.
“Also you’re going to cause some hard feelings in a small community by handing someone a seat,” Rogers said. “The only reason we did that last time was because we had a couple of seats.” But commissioners recognize that the charter needs some clarifications. The city’s Charter Review Committee has been meeting, and charter amendments will be proposed on the March 7 ballot. “We need to lock it down in the charter with stronger language,” Rogers said. He favors clarifying that when a seat becomes vacant, the runner-up in the previous election should have the right to be the first appointee. Rogers did not say what the charter shiuld spell out in case there was no runner-up, or if the runner-up declined to be an appointee.
Schultz sought an appointment now through open applications. “If you open it up to the citizens to apply, we have no direction per our charter on how to accomplish this, but it does say you shall appoint somebody, not wait for an election. Your charter is clear on a direction,” Schultz said.
Opening up the process that way, Schultz said, “there may be people out there that have experience, that have served on other city councils or commissions or city government seats, but we’re not going to know that if we don’t open it up for people to apply. And I think you’d have a shorter learning curve if we had a qualified candidate that came to us with experience under their belt already. I disagree a little bit with putting someone in an unfair position. I think there are qualified candidates out there that may be interested in applying and hopefully run for the seat during the special election.”
There may be political currents at work in the commission’s decision, currents that reflect Bunnell’s new geopolitical dynamics, with Grand Reserve, the relatively new, booming subdivision bringing new residents, and also new political clout that some commissioners may want to blunt or balance (Rogers and Robinson are neighbors in the city’s old, Saw Mill Estates subdivision).
Rogers made the motion to leave the seat vacant, and Gordon seconded it.
So there will be three elections on the March 7 ballot: a regular election for the seats held by Rogers and Gordon, and a special election to fill the two years left on the Barnes term. Usually in Bunnell, a ballot lists all the candidates in a single box, with the top vote-getters getting elected. In this case, the candidates running for the incumbents’ seats will be listed in one box, and the candidates running for the special election will be listed in a separate box, which in effect dilutes the challenges to the two incumbents, should they decide to run.
Gordon said on Monday she didn’t think she would run. Rogers said “I would suppose so.”
The qualifying window will be the same for all candidates. The candidates looking to qualify by petition can avoid a $259 qualifying fee by turning in 22 certifiable petitions by Dec. 9. If they don;t qualify by petition, they can pay for qualifying fee between Jan. 9 and noon Jan. 14.
Daisy henry, a former city commissioner, was among the three members of the public who addressed the commission’s vacancy item on Monday. She, too, disagreed with the current approach. “You have a charter that you supposedly go by, and why not? The word is shall fill a position, not leave it open,” Henry said.