In Bunnell, all politics is personal. For almost a year, the five city commissioners have been making sure of that, ensuring that their commission is the most dysfunctional local government by board by far. Late November turned out to be Jenny Crain-Brady’s turn to come under attack. It was probably a matter of time: she’s up for re-election in March, and she intends to run.
But an attempt to undermine her viability as a candidate by questioning her Bunnell residency backfired. The question was ostensibly raised by a resident. It was kept alive, and elevated into a commission item, by Commissioner Bill Baxley. But the questions were eventually answered by Crain-Brady herself and the city attorney, put to rest by two other commissioners—including one of Crain-Brady’s frequent opponents on the commission, Elbert Tucker—and condemned by some residents as a naked political maneuver.
The matter was brought to the commission’s attention in mid-November when resident Flynn Edmonson, a resident of North Anderson Street in Bunnell, told commissioners that “it has come to my attention” that Crain-Brady was “no longer a resident of the City of Bunnell,” and that according to state law and the city charter, she had “forfeited the office of commissioner.” He demanded that Crain-Brady “should resign immediately, or be disqualified by this commission.” (Edmonson is no foreigner to Bunnell politics: he had served on the commission as a commissioner and eight years as mayor in the 1980s, became the police chief in 1997, was fired in 1999 for making racist remarks about blacks–he had directed officers about to serve warrants in South Bunnell “to go out and arrest some brown asses,” according to a hearing on the matter–and was subsequently elected city commissioner again, but lost at the next election when Jimmy Flynt unseated him.)
It was never made clear who had brought the matter to Edmonson’s attention, though it’s no secret that Commissioner John Rogers lives across the street from the house at 1009 Wadsworth Way, in Sawmill Estates, where the Bradys had lived since 2004: he would have seen the moving vans. Or that Rogers is also running for re-election, with any discredit of Crain-Brady likely benefiting him. Rogers was the only commissioner never to speak on the matter when it was addressed for almost half an hour at the commission’s meeting last week.
“I got numerous phone calls and emails about this,” Baxley said. “I’d just like to discuss it and find out, because for this to take place it is a violation of the charter and Florida statutes. I hope it’s not anything that’s serious but I’d like to know if we could get some answers.”
Whatever may have been the origin of the charge against Crain-Brady, it was bogus. She and her husband had indeed sold the house, after many attempts, in early October (it sold for $215,000 on Oct. 11. They’d bought it for $280,000, and its market value had fallen to $176,000, according to property appraiser records.) And Crain-Brady became a guest at her friend Jerri Fields’s house on Kalamazoo Trail in Palm Coast, while she was rebuilding a house on County Road 304. But she never ceased being a resident of Bunnell.
Crain-Brady repeatedly expressed her displeasure and sense of offense at the matter, but ran through the sequence of her residency matters for the record: The closing on the house was due to take place on Oct. 23. It was moved up three weeks, precipitating a move out of the house.
“It created a transition period. I could have gone to my daughter’s mobile home,” Crain-Brady said, referring to the mobile home she owns in Palm terrace, the mobile home community in Bunnell. “It is in my name. The utilities are in my name. One of my lifelong friends bought a house south of Bunnell in the K Section. She is here parts of the year and gone parts of the year. She graciously opened her home for us to stay there. We are house guests in the K Section of Palm Coast. I have violated no ordinances, I have violated no statutes. My stuff is in storage. We are merely camping at my girlfriend’s house while we are renovating and building our building.”
That building is at 2570 County Road 304. But it’s far from ready. Nevertheless, Crain-Brady changed her driver’s license and voter card to reflect her permanent residency there, along with other formalities. She has her mail forwarded to a post office box in Bunnell for now only because the house is not yet livable. But she has no intentions of living anywhere else. “I’m highly offended at the accusation that’s been presented against me,” she said. “I am ticked, to say the least, that this made it to an agenda at this meeting without one person asking me, not one of you asked me what I was doing. Flynn Edmunson did not ask me what I was doing. Quite frankly, it’s not his business, but he did not even ask me.”
The commissioner ran through a list of Bunnell businesses she has been using during her transition period, including Atlantis Storage on U.S. 1 and Roger’s—not John’s—Towing (John’s is owned by rival commissioner John Rogers), among others. And she cited the building permits she’s pulled that prove her intentions at the County Road 304 property, the earliest one dated Sept. 3. (See the permits here.)
The city commission could still choose to launch a formal inquiry into the matter, Wade Vose, the city attorney, said. But the proceeding would have to be advertised ahead of time and the inquiry conducted in a quasi-judicial fashion, with evidence presented to the commissioners, and their decision based exclusively on that public evidence, and on the law.
“The law of residency within the state of Florida with regard to folks either exercising their right to vote or exercising their right to serve in public office is primarily, ultimately, as a matter of law, a relatively subjective one,” Vose said.
There may be extreme cases where an elected representative has clearly abandoned all pretenses of residency in the jurisdiction he or she represents. But that clearly is not the case in Crain-Brady’s case. And precedents make generous allowances for pragmatism and “acts of God.”
“The law in Florida is clear and courts are very lenient in leaning towards an office-holder or of voters’ stated intent with regard to where they deem their residency, so long as it’s tied in any way, in any colorable fact, to something that would tie them to that jurisdiction,” Vose said. “The law of permanent residency is not governed solely by where you sleep.”
Assuming that Crain-Brady had a job that required her to travel often, she could, theoretically, have spent more nights away from Bunnell than in Bunnell, while still making every one of her meetings: there would be no ground to find her in violation of her official residency. Or, as Mayor Catherine Robinson described it, if she’d been flooded out of her home, she might have lived at the Hilton for a while, in Palm Coast. That doesn’t mean she’d have stopped being a resident. Or the mayor. “That’s how I saw this,” Robinson said.
When the mayor asked whether the commission should take any action, Tucker intervened—not as an ally of Crain-Brady exactly, but as an opponent of wasting money in a losing case. He’d spoken to two attorneys, one of whom had queried supervisors of elections about the matter. “What Miss Brady has done is nothing wrong,” Tucker said. “It was said that none of these supervisors would consider [her] an elector of any other jurisdiction other than Bunnell.”
He urged commissioners not to take action “because in the long run, the city of Bunnell and the citizens would be the losers. Perhaps for not what you’re thinking, but if it came to a court case, we’d probably lose, and then we’d have to pay the $5,000 deductible, and our insurance would go up again.”
Several members of the public spoke, one of them questioning whether the issue should have been handled by the commission at all rather than the Supervisor of Elections.
Mark Langello, the Bunnell property and business owner, summed it up: “Perception becomes reality, and this board has seen plenty of dysfunction, and plenty of political issues that have been happening. So this looks political. This looks like, ‘We don’t like that person, let’s use a tactic to get rid of them.’ So this was ill-advised, and I’m glad it sees that it’s not going anywhere, but this is not the type of thing I think we should have taken to this degree.”