It was a morning of unravelings before the Flagler County Commission today.
First, whatever plan may have existed to re-occupy the old Flagler County courthouse fell apart. That plan entailed giving most of the building to the sheriff and letting the Bunnell city administration, Bunnell police and the Bunnell library share the rest. There’s some urgency to making use of the building because it has sat empty for three years, due to commissioners’ paralysis, costing taxpayers at least $10,000 a month for little in return (not counting roof and air-conditioning repairs, which cost more).
Second, Commissioner Milissa Holland and County Manager Craig Coffey went at it. Openly. With an edge of bitterness on Holland’s part, and a hefty amount of resentment on Coffey’s part.
Milissa Holland After the Show[media id=44 width=250 height=100]
Holland was part of a three-person committee along with Bunnell City Commissioner Elbert Tucker and Mary Ann Clark, a member of the Flagler County Historical Society. The county commission appointed the committee last year to come up with a plan on how to turn the courthouse to good use. Holland thought the committee did so. But a memo from Coffey, drafted this morning, recommended disbanding the committee “and have staff make one more attempt to see if they could pull the users and report back to you.”
Holland felt “railroaded,” as she said after the meeting. With a roomfull of elected officials from various agencies (Bunnell, constitutional officers and every member of the county commission), Holland recounted at length her committee’s work and conclusions. The plan was to divide the courthouse between the sheriff, the Bunnell administration and the library, along with a historical museum. Then she charged Coffey with undermining her and her relationship with Flagler County Sheriff Don Fleming.
If there was an elephant in the room, it was Fleming. Except that he wasn’t there. He’d told Holland and others that he was out of the old courthouse deal. He’d sensed that he was wading into politically charged trenches. So he withdrew. With that withdrawal went the likely biggest pot of local money available for courthouse renovation, which is only one of the factors that triggered Holland’s anger. Her word to the sheriff, she said, was damaged, and she blamed Coffey.
Craig Coffey After the Show[media id=45 width=250 height=100]
Coffey had a different take. He said he was merely doing his job–applying professional analysis to a conceptual plan that, all told, didn’t hold up.
Still, somewhere along the line the deference to her committee Holland expected wasn’t there, as she saw it, and this morning’s memo by the administrator put in black and white the red she was seeing. “I felt derailed,” she said after the meeting. “I felt the committee was derailed by the process as a whole and our lengthy discussions and time and input that was put forth was diminished by the fact that there were other conversations and agreements being made outside of the committee.”
Asked if Coffey had to worry about his job, Holland answered: “No. I will say that Mr. Coffey and I will have a discussion in his office and the outcome of that discussion will determine how I proceed.”
The commission’s originally planned workshop on the courthouse (part of a larger workshop on the budget, which was far less eventful) turned into a sideshow. A few elected officials spoke, including Tucker, Bunnell Mayor Catherine Robinson (who had trouble hiding her contempt for the commission’s procrastination) and Clerk of Court Gail Wadsworth, who spoke of the courthouse’s historical value and its uses as a historical landmark. In the end, commissioners only agreed to set yet another meeting on the courthouse–on June 8 at 5:30 p.m. “We notify the sheriff that him or his representative need to be there with the authority to make decisions,” Commission Chairman George Hanns said.
The story isn’t as complete without a direct transcription of what took place during the public meeting between Coffey and Holland. That transcription follows, with a few clarifying additions. Its length is necessitated by the delicacy of the issue and the ramifications of the clash: the record should be as clear as possible.
Commissioners had taken a break at the end of the portion of the meeting devoted to other budget issues. They reconvened, and gave the floor to Coffey, asking him for an update on the courthouse:
Coffey: “This is kind of an update, and the update is, I don’t have really anything to update on. We’ve tried, the group that was put together tried to arrange different plans with different users, and at the end I don’t think we have a viable plan put together at this time.”
The Show: The Full, 57-Minute Discussion-Clash Over the Old Courthouse[media id=46 width=250 height=100]
Holland: “Well, can I speak to that since I was the one who was appointed to the committee by this board.” County Commission member Bob Abbot is heard laughing sardonically. “Yeah,” County Commission Chairman George Hanns throws in. “Very important.” Holland, with a laugh of her own, resumes: “You know, I think we did have a workable plan. Somewhere along the line it kind of went a little crazy. I don’t know how. Not my involvement. So, at one point the sheriff was more than willing, ready to go, talked to Congressman Mica, there was a certain amount of funding that could be applied for communications if the sheriff utilized the facility. Ms. Mary Ann Clark who also served on the committee”—Clark is a member of the Flagler County Historical Society—“did an extensive report in regards to the historic designation. I want to thank her for that. Commissioner Tucker”—Elbert Tucker, the Bunnell City Commissioner and its resident contrarian, who also sells insurance for a living—“also served on the board. We did spend a large amount of time discussing, which we were tasked with. This board tasked this committee with a space allocation and need and funding sources, so we did that. We first met to make sure that the building was structurally sound, and indeed it proved to be structurally sound. Secondly, we did a needs assessment to see which users could utilize the facility. Commissioner Tucker drew up a conceptual plan that we felt worked well with the usage for the sheriff. The sheriff at the time was all right with half of the first floor, the second and the third of the annex. Utilizing the first floor of the old courthouse, we thought it would be appropriate to have a museum, and then the library, the Bunnell library could be utilized on the top floor or the first floor in the old courthouse. We worked with having the sheriff’s department out there, with their experts seeing logistically how secure it could be if it would be kind of a shared facility, predominantly having the sheriff utilize the facility. And I’ve got to tell you, not with the sheriff, he liked the conceptual design by commissioner Tucker, and then, all of a sudden, some other plan arised, I don’t know where it came from, I’m assuming from Mr. Coffey since they drew it up, so the sheriff obviously was not very pleased, because the plan was modified. He called me, we talked, we then went out again, so try Number 2. Ok, can we please agree that this is the plan that we’re going to put forward to the Board of County Commissioners? They are the decision-makers in this process, and again, it kind of came up in a different plan. The sheriff has now stated that due to the fact that the plan has changed a few times, that he is no longer interested in utilizing the facility, which is unfortunate, because that way the funding goes away. And I can’t say I blame him. You know, when you have discussions with someone on good faith, you’re assuming that, when you walk away from that, that plan would be agreed upon and not modified again. So, with that being said obviously I’ve been pretty frustrated with this process, being appointed by this board to serve in a capacity to bring back a plan. So it’s not without trying, commissioners, it’s not without several attempts, and from this point on I don’t see the need of having a committee wasting staff time, if there’s not going to be a clear direction from this board, how they may want their appointee, to perhaps pursue this. And I’m going to be very frank. If it’s going to be where our administrator goes off on his own and decides to modify a plan without the committee’s discussion, that’s not something I want to be a part of.”
At this point, without skipping a beat or addressing Holland’s opus, Commissioner Alan Peterson quoted Abraham Lincoln saying how “this country can’t remain half slave, half free, it can’t remain divided.” Really, he did. He used the analogy to say that the old courthouse should either be exclusively a county building or that it should be sold to Bunnell for its uses. “I do not think that it can be shared by the county and the city of Bunnell,” he said. Peterson’s commission operates out of the county’s government complex, whose largest building is shared by the county, a slew of constitutional officers and the entire Flagler County School Board. Peterson didn’t explain why, in his words, “I cannot see how this building could be utilized partially by the county and partially by the city of Bunnell. It makes no long-term sense to me.”
Ignoring Peterson in turn, Holland re-charged, looked at Coffey, and launched: “I’m not really sure. Mr. Coffey, if you can clarify your recommendation at this time, we may want to sunset the ad-hoc committee and have staff make one more attempt to see if they could pull the users together. What do you mean by one more attempt? I’m not real clear on what you’re recommending here. Was there an attempt in the past?” Holland was referring to Coffey’s May 27 memo essentially calling for disbanding Holland’s committee and letting his administration pick up the task.
Coffey: “Well, I think what I said there was exactly what you just said, was, you didn’t see a need maybe for the ad-hoc committee to go forward. I think the ad-hoc committee is doing a lot of great things, and,
the question to the board is, do they want to sell the facility, do they want to keep working and trying to pull users together—what do they want to do, that’s the direction–”
Holland: “Well, would you like to be the appointee to the committee?” Holland asked wryly. “I’m just asking.”
Coffey: “I don’t know where you’re going with this. I disagree partially with some of the statements you’ve made.”
Holland: “Then let’s talk about it right now. You felt the need to go around this committee to enter into discussions to modify a plan agreed upon by this committee, and I want to know what you disagree with.”
Coffey: “I believe that when you plan a capital project, if you want staff’s professional opinion or professional input, whether that be architectural, engineering, planning or that’s done this type of projects, capitalized them, actually constructed them, I think staff’s input is important. And through this process, obviously that wasn’t a part of the process. I tried to take the users that you guys put on that paper”—meaning the Bunnell city administration, the sheriff and people representing the library—“and go back to them and say, are you guys ok with it. Well, the city of Bunnell on the plan that you have there, I would be willing to bet that the city of Bunnell as a body is not with that based on the conversations that I had when we gave the full city of Bunnell a tour of that facility. When I went back to Holly at the library, she said, ‘That really won’t work for me, and the first floor really won’t work for me.’ When I went back to the sheriff to verify data and work out details of that, ‘That won’t work for me.’ So the consensus that we had that was ironclad, it wasn’t there. The money from Mica”—Congressman John Mica, who’d talked about perhaps providing some public safety money to Bunnell or Flagler County—“that was two, $300,000, and you had to do something with the 911 system. It wasn’t $1 million, $2 million, $5 million grant. It was $200,000 or $300,000, which was not going to renovate that building. So I didn’t go around and meet with anyone to undercut anything that the committee did. The committee came up with a plan, I tried to functionally work on the plan from a professional standpoint, and the plan doesn’t work. If the board wants to approve the plan I’ll build the plan as is. But the plan from a functional, financial standpoint does not work. That’s all I can say.”