Bunnell’s city government often does strange things. Monday’s performance was for the books.
The commission began its biweekly meeting with the Pledge of Allegiance–its third of the evening, having had two other meetings immediately before its “regular” one. Pledges are usually followed by a “moment of silence” for troops serving abroad and soldiers who’ve died in wars. Not tonight. For the first time in memory, Mayor Catherine Robinson turned over the floor to Commissioner Daisy Henry–for a prayer. Not a non-denominational or ecumenical prayer, but an old fashioned, hard core, Jesus-invoking Christian prayer, right under the government seal of the city of Bunnell, by a city commissioner.
There were at least seven lawyers in the room, all of them claiming to be knowledgeable in local government law, and several of them praying along: six of the seven were about to appear before the commission as candidates for city attorney. Robinson had chosen this evening–the evening when the commission was to decide on its next city attorney’s contract–to invoke what looks like Bunnell’s latest snub of what other cities and counties usually consider settled law. Namely, the First Amendment.
When most of the lawyers were huddled outside the room, waiting for their turn to be called in to make their pitch, they opted for a moment of silence when a reporter raised the issue of the prayer. (A chaplain–not ever a senator or a House member–routinely opens congressional proceedings with a prayer. The constitutionality of that practice has been in question, too, because the Senate’s and the House’s chaplain are on taxpayers’ payroll, though the U.S. Supreme Court has termed the practice acceptable for being a tradition set during the days of the Continental Congress. Prayers are often broadly ecumenical and feature different religions.) It’s not the first time the city commission has flouted church-state separation this year.
After a few routine commission matters, including the proclamation of Oct. 16 as National Feral Cat Day, Bunnell commissioners turned to the hiring of their lawyer.
It was never clear why the matter was on the agenda–not even, as it turns out, to one of the lawyers applying for the job. The commission alone hires and fires two people: its manager and its lawyer. Sid Nowell has been the commission’s lawyer for about a decade. There hasn’t been discussion on the commission about changing course. Nor has there been a vote to re-let the contract.
Judi Stetson, the city’s special projects director, said the commission did ask the administration to take a look at all its contracts in order to find out where money could be saved. But administrative contracts are under the purview of the city manager. The attorney’s contract is under the exclusive purview of the city commission.
- Bunnell Manager’s “God’s City Day” Proposal Yields to Tamer Prayer Proclamation
- Bunnell Puts Its Stamp on Day of Prayer While Another Group Marks “Day of Inclusivity”
The request for proposal went out, four groups of attorneys responded (including Sid Nowell and his new associates), one of them apparently didn’t complete the paperwork, reducing applicants to three (or three groups). Then city staff–actually, Stetson and Dan Davis, the city clerk–ranked the respondents, which is also odd: that’s usually the commission’s job. They did so before tonight’s meeting, at the direction of the city manager.
The three groups of respondents were as follows:
- Nowell, Bayer & McGuire. That’s Sid Nowell’s new firm. He’s just merged his Nowell and Associates, formerly located in Bunnell, with Dennis Bayer’s firm in Flagler Beach. Jim Manfre, the former sheriff and attorney, an associate of Nowell who’s often served as substitute attorney for Bunnell, was with the group today.
- Stenstrom, McIntosh, Colbert, Whigam & Partlow. That’s Lonnie Groot, who used to be Palm Coast’s attorney, who was present with Jennifer Nix.
- Gray Robinson. Thomas Cloud would have been the lead attorney, but he was in court in Polk County, so Sid Ansbacher was to speak before the commission.
Each group or individual was given a maximum of 10 minutes to make a pitch to the commission this evening, while the rest of the attorneys–at Nowell’s suggestion, himself included, waited outside the chamber.
Groot made his pitch. Then Nowell appeared, flanked by the three other attorneys, essentially to defend his job and defend against accusations–or criticism, from commissioners Elbert Tucker and John Rogers–that he’s been less than responsive. Tucker is unhappy with the quality of Nowell’s work. Rogers reeled after Nowell did not back him up at a special meeting Rogers had called in August to discuss Martinez’s contract.
“One of the reasons that I created this team, or helped to create this team, is to spread the wealth around,” Nowell told the commission, suggesting that he now has more help, but that his fee would still be reasonable (it has been $150 an hour).
“The good news,” Nowell said, “is we finally got Dennis on our side.” Dennis Bayer has been appearing in an adversarial role against Bunnell, representing, most recently, Waste Pro, the garbage hauler with whom the city recently severed its relationship.
“That is the good news. I’m not going to go there,” Robinson said.
Then came the latest surprise of the evening. Ansbacher told commissioners that his firm had applied because he thought Nowell was resigning. Nowell isn’t resigning. He was merely required to re-apply for his job in a transparent maneuver by two commissioners to get rid of him. Ansbacher said he has a good relationship with Nowell and doesn’t want to step on his toes. He withdrew his firm’s name from contention then and there, leaving just two firms in the running.
The brief presentations over (they all lasted barely 15 minutes), Robinson asked her fellow-commissioners if they wanted to discuss the matter. None did. It was time for the ranking. Each commissioner would rank the firms in order of preference. They should have ranked only two firms. They ended up ranking all three anyway. Here’s how the tally looked, with 1 being their favorite, 3 being their least favorite:
|Catherine Robinson||Jenny C-Brady||Daisy Henry||Elbert Tucker||John Rogers|
|Nowell, Bayer & McGuire (Sid Nowell)|
|Stenstrom, McIntosh, Colbert, Whigam & Partlow (Lonnie Groot)|
|Gray Robinson (Thomas Cloud and Sid Ansbacher)||2|
Nowell had held on to his job, but barely. He does not have Tucker’s and Roger’s confidence. And the vote is again evidence of a deep and growing rift on the commission–the same rift that had Martinez nervous for his job, for now still secure with that 3-vote majority.
Nowell, who had been sitting with his colleagues in the back row of the room during the tallying, got up, shook hands with some of them, hugged Ansbacher, then returned to his seat on the dais, to the left of City Manager Armando Martinez and the right of Crain-Brady.