They don’t call it housekeeping for nothing: it’s dull, it’s plodding and it’s repetitive, but it has to be done, and so it was Tuesday evening: Flagler County’s re-born economic development council met for the first time after a few years’ hiatus and under a slightly new name but the same acronym (the Economic Development Commission, disbanded in 2008, is now the Economic Development Council, with the word “opportunity” thrown somewhere along the way) and far greater expectations. The council has the impossible task of doing what Barack Obama, Rick Scott and almost every governor in the land has had trouble doing for the past three years: create jobs. It must do so in a county with an unemployment rate approaching that of Spain and with the budget of a struggling mom-and-pop store. And it must do so in the sunshine—in the open, like all government entities must under Florida law.
So the first order of business for the nine-member council—one of whose members, Mike Gill, who commutes between Palm Coast and a suburb of Kansas City, was a no-show and most of whom looked in various stages of glum—was to listen to a detailed lecture from County Attorney Al Hadeed on open government. As business people, the members of the panel are used to conducting business privately and without second thoughts as to who they can talk to. They were told that from here on, they were all off limits to each other except in public meetings. They were told that aside from their doodles, even their notes relating to the council can be subject to public record requests. They were told that if they were taken to court over sunshine or public record issues, they were on their own: the county attorney was not their attorney, though he gave them his direct phone line and described himself as a “safe harbor” should they have questions.
The seven businessmen and one woman—all white, all on the leeward side of middle age—listened with poker faces, asking hardly any questions. The county commission had made a big deal of the council’s openness and public accountability. Secrecy and perceptions of secrecy had done plenty to undermine the credibility of Enterprise Flagler, the public-private economic development organization Palm Coast and the county had mostly paid for until dooming the organization by cutting off funding in summer. The council’s meetings, the commission promised, would all be conducted in public and, like the commission’s own meetings and those of the Tourist Development Council, televised live. “Keep in mind,” Hadeed said, “that you’re a very high-profile committee.”
Stunningly, one of the first effective acts by Barbara Revels, who chairs the economic development council and had represented the county at Enterprise Flagler, was to suggest moving some or all of the meetings out of the main chambers of the Government Services Building, where the meetings can be televised, and into the conference room at the Emergency Operations Center, behind the administrative building—where meetings cannot be televised absent a staff of three. There, they’d only be broadcast on the web, by audio.
Revels said the seating arrangement at the EOC makes for easier face to face discussions between members. And Craig Coffey, the county administrator who had also assured commission and public—including in his written outlines and projections about the new panel—that all EDC meetings would be televised, at one point told the panel that there was no requirement that the meetings be either televised or have an audio feed.
Coffey is right: there is no such requirement in law. But it was a county promise and condition of the conduct of the new council, and both Revels and Coffey were now backtracking, literally minutes after Hadeed had stressed to council members, in a different contest, that “your success is partly going to rely on the integrity of this body.” Revels after the meeting appeared aware of the contradiction and said she’d talk to Coffey about possibly resolving it even if the meetings are held at the EOC. She reiterated that her only intention in moving the meetings there was to make deliberations easier.
Hadeed’s portion of the meeting over, the council heard from Joe Mayer, the county’s employment director, who briefed the members on the 63 applications the county received in response to its want-ad for an economic development “CEO.” County staff whittled the applications down to a shortlist of about a dozen. Those will be interviewed by phone on Dec. 14, from 1 to 5 p.m., by county staff, and whittled down to six. Those six will be invited for personal interviews with all nine members in a day-long round-robin, one-on-one format on Jan. 15 (the public may sit in on those interviews), similar to the speed-dating interviews commissioners conducted to choose council members. The council will then recommend three ranked choices and send those to the county commission for its own approval.
County staff’s short-listing is not binding, but intended only as a guide for council members. In other words, council members are free to draw up a list of their own if they so choose, and whittle down their choices at a coming meeting. But they appeared quite willing to defer to the staff for those early rounds.
The executive will be paid somewhere between $73,000 and $110,000, or a quarter of the $400,000 budget the council has to play with. Another quarter will go toward additional salaries of staff members the executive will hire, leaving the council with barely $200,000 a year to tackle that 14 percent unemployment rate, when the operation is ready to function. “You’re probably talking the beginning of March before that individual starts,” Mayer said. And likely another year before the individual learns the lay of Flagler’s economic development quick sands: five of the county’s top six choices are from out of state.
The only action the board took was vote on a vice-chairman. That role, after a long moment of silence when Revels asked for volunteers, went to Greg Federline.
For all its high profile, the first meeting of the council drew scant attendance: six county staffers, four reporters, and just three more people in the audience, two of whom had been applicants to the council, including Bill McGuire, the recently elected Palm Coast City Council member. After the meeting, McGuire was perplexed: there was not a single member of the county chamber of commerce present, he said, wondering why. The answer is probably somewhere between politics and pettiness: the chamber’s candidate for the council—Lea Stokes, who chairs the chamber board this year—was not picked. But the chamber will hold a social event for the candidates for the executive job who’ll be invited for interviews.
The next meeting of the council, originally scheduled for Nov. 29 at 6 p.m. at the main chamber of the Government Services Building, was moved to the EOC, at 4:30 p.m.