The Flagler County Library’s main branch on Belle Terre and Palm Coast Parkway doesn’t charge the Supervisor of Elections to have the site used as a voting location, either on election day or during the one or two weeks of early voting. Schools don’t charge the supervisor to have their buildings used as voting locations, either.
But when Supervisor of Elections Kimberle Weeks approached the city administration to use the Palm Coast Community Center as an early voting location last week, she was told two things: she’d have to pay for use of the building on Saturday and Sunday at a rate of $15 an hour, the same rate charged anybody else. And she could not reserve the building for 2016 elections yet, though she could do so for 2014. The building is usually closed on weekends.
Luciana Santangelo, the city’s parks and recreation director, emailed Weeks that based on the number of hours the supervisor was requesting, which include two Saturdays and a Sunday of early voting, she’d have to pay a $427.50 fee, plus tax, plus a $50 deposit.
Ironically, two Palm Coast City Council seats—currently occupied by members Bill Lewis and David Ferguson—are up in 2014. In 2011, the city changed its election cycles to coincide with the even-year state and national election cycles, to avoid having to hold its own elections on odd years and to save money. So city council candidates will be on the ballots of at least one of the two election rounds, but Palm Coast will be charging the supervisor of elections to let Palm Coast voters cast a ballot with their preferred city council member’s name on it.
“The deposit is required at the time the request is made,” Santangelo wrote. “The balance is due upon approval of your request. If your request is denied, fees paid would be refunded. Room location is at the discretion of the City and will vary depending on availability. Regarding early voting, you may be required to relocate between rooms and not all dates may be available.” (Santangelo did not respond to a call placed at her office Monday afternoon.)
“I am hopeful the City will work with me to better serve the voters of Palm Coast without charging for the use of this location for voting purposes,” Weeks said in an email. “Schools do not charge for the use of their facilities. I am sure the voters would appreciate having the option of early voting at two locations in Palm Coast, and this would provide some relief to the Palm Coast Library.”
It is normal for city administrations to stick by their policies, unless guided otherwise by their policy-making body—in this case, the city council, which can easily waive fees. (Similar situations occur in Bunnell with use of the old city hall.) It would be unusual if the administration had unilaterally exempted the supervisor from paying the fee, without council input, as that would have raised eyebrows from other organizations that might make their case and request (or demand) that fees be waived just as unilaterally.
But Weeks wrote the city in mid-July. The matter was never brought to the council’s attention, though there’s been two council meetings since (not counting the July 16 meeting, when Weeks made her request). The council is meeting Tuesday, Aug. 13, for a workshop.
Palm Coast City Council members are divided on the matter.
“My initial reaction is that this is a benefit to the citizens of Palm Coast to have an additional early voting location and there shouldn’t be a charge for it,” council member Jason DeLorenzo said. “The more access that we can give the citizens of Palm Coast to be able to vote, the more we should make it as easy as possible.”
Council member Bill McGuire said charging is the way the city does business. “Normally that building is closed on Sunday and Kimberle wants it open so we would bill her for that,” McGuire said. “Any time the Supervisor of Elections wants to use a city office, we expect to be compensated for it, that’s part of the way it’s done.”
McGuire was aware that the city was in a position to bill the supervisor for use of the building to facilitate what will in part be a city election. That’s the issue that has McGuire thinking the matter over. “I’m not sure whether that’s morally or legally correct but I haven’t made up my mind on it yet I want to learn more about it,” he said.
Bill Lewis, one of the incumbents who will be on the ballot—he said in his interview today that he will, in fact, run, though he hasn’t announced it formally—defended Santangelo’s billing as normal practice, but said the council should discuss it as a whole. He would not take a position either way until then. At times there are trade-off,” Lewis said. “Counties and cities do work together so if that’s something we can make a decision on then it’ll be something to make a decision on.”
David Ferguson, commenting below, said he was in favor of “making it convenient to vote.” Palm Coast Mayor Jon Netts did not return a call.
Turnout for Palm Coast elections has fallen drastically in recent years, with the last two elections, for mayor and for council members, drawing out 13 percent of the registered voters or less. Palm Coast’s own decisions had something to do with that: the city reduced polling locations from 21 to six to save money.
Pairing elections with national cycles would inevitably increase turnout.
Early voting is close to becoming the preferred way for Floridians to vote. In Flagler County, almost 20,000 voters cast a ballot during the eight early voting days of the general election leading up to Nov. 6, or 40 percent of the total voting. There were just two locations: the public library and the Supervisor of Elections’ office in Bunnell. Lines were at times an hour or 75 minutes long, especially at the library. The supervisor had eliminated the Flagler Beach location at city hall (where she had not been charged when she’d used it for early voting), saying the turnout there did not warrant it. But she wants to add the Community Center location in Palm Coast as a third option to alleviate early voting lines.
Weeks had written Palm Coast City Clerk Virginia Smith in July, outlining the early voting days and hours for the 2014 election cycles. Early voting will be taking place from Aug. 11 to 23 during the primary (an extension of early voting days compared to 2012), and from Oct. 20 to Nov. 1 for the general election.