There wasn’t much on the Bunnell City Commission’s meeting agenda Monday evening: just one ordinance to discuss, no resolutions, not even any commendations, proclamations or presentations. What half dozen items were on the agenda dealt with relatively routine matters. But last on the list of new business was this: “Discuss election issue and qualifying process.” The item was Commissioner Jenny Crain-Brady’s.
Crain-Brady is the three-term commissioner who, as of January 17 at 4 p.m., officially became a lame-duck commissioner when she failed to qualify for the March election. She had filed all the required papers and petitions to run again. But she’d forgotten to pay a $94 fee due the state.
Crain-Brady has taken responsibility for the mistake. But she’s been concerned about the way the city handled the matter. Monday evening, reading from a timeline she’d put together, she took responsibility for her own mistake but also unleashed direct criticism at the administration of City Manager Larry Williams for not overseeing the process and acting, she said, unaccountably.
While conceding that she had failed to qualify, her greatest concern at this point, she said, “is the lack of qualified leadership and accountability within our administration on such a sensitive issue as our city elections,” Crain-Brady said. Williams and Bolser were in their seats, listening to Crain-Brady as she spoke. Crain-Brady was later joined by Mayor Catherine Robinson who even more explicitly accused Williams of lacking leadership and being reactive. Robinson broadened the attack to include various matters unrelated to the election fiasco.
Williams repeatedly defended himself and said his role was not to interfere in the election process, as that would have been unethical and projected an appearance of favoritism, while reminding the mayor that since his arrival in fall, the city has been trying to repair the disarray it had been in from turn-over.
Crain-Brady and Robinson had voted against hiring Williams in fall. While they questioned and criticized his leadership style, the three men on the commission who had voted to hire Williams sat on their side of the dais, stunningly silent, not once proffering a defense of the city manager except, briefly, at the end of the discussion, to say that future elections will be run better once standard operating procedures are in place. In the lobby after the meeting, Commissioner John Rogers apologized to Williams for not speaking in his defense.
The silence was striking because Robinson’s criticism touched on three issues that were either not of Williams’s doing or had not, in fact, been mishandled: she criticized him over the way he’d handled the turnover within the city administration—by not providing training to new top staffers. She criticized him over the city’s old courthouse acquisition from the county, though in that regard Williams was presented with a done deal and has tried since to caution the city about the liability it’s taking on (“the courthouse scares me,” he said, citing the work and costs ahead that the city may not be able to handle). And she criticized him over his handling of a gift offer from Waste Pro, the trash hauler, which offered to donate food for one of the city’s centennial events. The city is in litigation against Waste Pro. But Williams did not accept the offer. He brought it to the council’s attention, as is the norm, and when Robinson objected, he dropped the idea.
“As a city manager I have a certain code of ethics that we follow, and therefore I’m not going to go back over the history of Bunnell,” Williams said, speaking evenly and without rancor. “But each one of those areas, including my area that I walked into had some problems, and because of the, I guess the change-over, the people and the various department heads and the city manager and all that, none of us walked into exactly a clean house, and it has taken some time to get on top of things.”
At the very end of the discussion Bill Baxley, one of the three commissioners who’d voted to hire Williams spoke up, but not to defend Williams. “If this bickering doesn’t quit, and if this town doesn’t stop spending money,” Baxley said, “we’re going to be bankrupt, and this whole board is going to be in disarray.” He then looked at Crain-Brady and said that she was not the only commissioner singled out for attacks, saying that he himself had been at the receiving end of slights and unfounded allegations.
Crain-Brady’s allegations were not directly addressed or resolved. The city committed errors of its own in the election process—inaccurate dates and inaccurate times that were either disseminated to the candidates or that were incorrectly listed in the city ordinance outlining the election process. Those errors may have affected Crain-Brady’s window: she had been under the impression that the Jan. 17 deadline was noon, when it was actually 4 p.m., an error the city never rectified. “I want to know what happened for four hours and five minutes,” Crain-Brady said, repeatedly describing that time span as affording the city time to give her notice of the missing payment.
Bolser and Williams have acknowledged errors, but they’ve stressed that the errors were not material to the commissioner’s consequence, and that they themselves were focused on remaining neutral. Neither could show favoritism to any candidate. But Crain-Brady says that without showing favoritism, the mere act of inaction on their part in essence dis-favored her candidacy.
On Jan. 17, the city clerk did not call Crain-Brady to remind her that the fee was due, though Bolser had contact with the city attorney, the Supervisor of Elections, the city manager and a reporter on the matter before she contacted Crain-Brady—just after 4 p.m., to let her know she’d been disqualified. Earlier that very day, Bolser had told a reporter that Crain-Brady was among the five candidates who had qualified. That, too, had been a mistake, since at the time Bolser was aware that Crain-Brady was missing the payment.
“This was very suspicious,” Crain-Brady said. “Up until I started connecting all these dots and it took me nine days to do it, I absolutely did not believe that there was nothing to this, other than that the deadline was at 12 o’clock. But it wasn’t.”
“You had four-plus hours to call me,” she said she’d told the city clerk, which would have been in line with state law, which compels city clerks to “make a reasonable effort to notify the candidate of any missing items” for qualifying. Bolser told Crain-Brady that she was not aware of that provision of law. Who, Crain-Brady asked, is responsible for ensuring that the city clerk knows the law? She then turned her attention to Williams, the city manager, whom she met four days after the deadline had passed. She described a city manager uninvolved in the matter: Williams cited ethics as a reason. But the commissioner, referring to her timeline, said the city manager had been involved in the issue the afternoon of Jan. 17, well before 4 p.m.—an allegation Williams repeatedly denied.
One surprise Monday evening was the lone public speaker who addressed the matter, when Robinson opened the floor: Dan Davis, the former city clerk, who resigned last year in an explosive meeting when he revealed the police chief’s affair with the finance director (both of whom have since left), a situation he said then-City Manager Armando Martinez was not addressing, and that he could not abide as clerk.
Davis had overseen six elections as city clerk and deputy clerk in Palm Coast. He said there are various ways of doing the job. “You can get a lot of information out, be very friendly,” he said, and send out a lot of emails, but “if you do that you’ve got to be really, really careful,” because all it takes is one candidate who raises issues about not receiving an email for the charge of favoritism to be in the air. Davis himself was obsessively meticulous, sitting candidates down to go over the election booklet page by page before actually handing it to them, just so he was certain they understood their responsibilities.
Bolser, Davis said, chose to go another route—the more neutral route of simply handing out materials. Her error was “completely an oversight,” he said, no more. Davis reminded the commission of a former commissioner’s qualifying check, which bounced, just before qualifying. Davis called the division of elections to get advice. “I was instructed that the city manager could not influence my decision on whether or not to make that call on qualification.” Same with the city attorney. (In the bounced-check case, Davis made the call and let the candidate remain on the ballot. The candidate lost the election.)
“As the filing officer, what’s being said by the city manager is true, the city manager cannot get involved in that at all, the city attorney shouldn’t get involved in that either,” Davis said.
Crain-Brady summed up her presentation by reading a letter to the commission and the city in which she thanked residents for having her serve seven years and briefly touched on some of the achievements that took place on her watch. After the meeting, she and Bolser hugged. But there was no contact with Williams.