David Ferguson, a 60-year-old business consultant and self-described “political rookie,” is the newest member of the Palm Coast City Council. The council appointed Ferguson Tuesday morning to fill out the two years remaining in Frank Meeker’s term, ensuring that the panel will remain an all-male fraternity until at least 2014. Meeker resigned to run for the Flagler County Commission, a race he won last week.
Ferguson, a long-time resident of Jacksonville with part-time attachment to Palm coast for a decade, and full-time residency in the city since 2010, said he would focus on economic development and education–including his own–as he learned the scope of his new job (which pays just under $10,000 a year). “I would like to serve the community to keep it beautiful and,” he wrote in his application letter, “at the same time provide for sound economic growth, broaden the commercial tax base, and establish a mechanism to attract investment in high-tech industries through research and education initiatives.”
Ferguson was one of four finalists, who included Norman Mugford, the chairman of the Palm Coast Code Enforcement Board, Lynette Callender, an attorney, and Robert Uhl, a retired engineer. They were the final four from a list of 16 applicants. The appointment process was quick, relative to the council’s previous, drawn-out experiences involving appointments: In 2008, ballot after ballot preserved a tie between the final two contenders vying to replace Alan Peterson. The deadlock was broken with a coin toss. That wasn’t necessary today, with the entire appointment process taking a matter of minutes, and council members never once discussing their interviews with the candidates, or why they had chosen Ferguson.
The decision was quick, but nevertheless clouded in controversy.
The council, according to Jon Kaney, general counsel for the nonprofit First Amendment Foundation in Tallahassee, violated the state’s Sunshine law when it ranked the 16 candidates out of public view earlier this month, and outside of a meeting. “When they create a ranking of the candidates without having a meeting to do that, I believe that ranking them is an official action that must be taken in a sunshine meeting,” Kaney told the News-Journal’s Frank Fernandez on Monday.
Starting the council meeting on Tuesday, Bill Rieschmann, the city’s attorney, defended the council’s decision to conduct the rankings outside of a meeting, saying no violation occurred because it amounted to little more than council members doing their homework and turning in their results to the city clerk, who then tabulated the results into final rankings. “What the fuss is about is that there wasn’t some formal process in the public to winnow down the 16 applicants to the four.”
The “fuss,” however, may also reflect recurring impressions that transparency isn’t always the council’s priority: nothing would have prevented the council from doing what other local governments do routinely—and that the council itself does in such circumstances–when they rank appointments to various boards and committees. They do so in meetings, in the open. The process rarely takes much time and on occasion provokes discussions that shed light on the elected officials’ decisions, all of which the council avoided when it chose to do its rankings behind closed doors.
Tuesday morning, council members also individually interviewed each of the four candidates, for half an hour each—again, behind closed doors, again in contrast with–for example–the Flagler County Commission, which holds similar job interviews in the open, even when they involve one commissioner and one candidate. Kaney said in the News-Journal article that the one-on-one interviews were not a violation of the sunshine law, but T. Wayne Bailey, a political science professor at Stetson University, differed, telling Fernandez that the burden of proof “is on the side of the government to demonstrate that there is a reasonable presumption for not having a transparent interview.”
To “cure” any perception of a mis-step, the council went through the motions of accepting and voting on the rankings in today’s meeting.
The four candidates sat in the audience, doing their best to project a calm demeanor as the council fidgeted with the minutiae of its winnowing process. A first round of rankings eliminated Uhl and sent Ferguson to the final, with Mugford and Callender tied. Mugford won that tie. The council then gave Ferguson three votes, ending the process. He was briefly applauded.