Nate McLaughlin, Flagler County Commission Candidate: The Live Interview
FlaglerLive | August 24, 2014
Nate McLaughlin, a first-term incumbent, is a candidate for the Flagler County Commission, running against Independent Denise Calderwood in the District 4 race. McLaughlin defeated Mark Richter in the Republican primary.
In District 2, two-year incumbent Frank Meeker is facing Independent Howard Holley in the November 4 general election. (Both Holley and Calderwood were previously registered Republican but chose to run as Independents.) No Democrat chose to run in either race. But all registered voters in the county in all cities get to cast ballots in either race.
John Fischer (Dist. 2)
Janet McDonald (Dist. 2)
Denise Calderwood (Dist.4)
Howard Holley (Dist. 2)
Nate McLaughlin (Dist. 4)
Frank Meeker (Dist. 2)
Palm Coast City Council Candidates:
Bill Lewis (Dist. 4)
Steven Nobile (Dist. 4)
Anne-Marie Shaffer (Dist. 2)
Heidi Shipley (Dist. 2)
Commissioners represent specific districts, but they are elected by voters across the county, including every city’s voters. A county commissioner is paid $50,222 a year. The salary is set by state law, based on county population, but paid out of local dollars.
FlaglerLive submitted identical questions to all four commission candidates, who replied in writing, with the understanding that some follow-up questions may be asked, and that all exchanges would be on the record. Each candidate was also given the opportunity to ask his or her opponent questions. Follow-up questions, when necessary, appear in italics, and may be awaiting answers.
The Questions in Summary: Quick Links
- What qualifies you to run?
- Critical issues
- Good and bad of county government
- Old hospital purchase, new jail construction
- Between quality services and cheapest services
- Economic development
- Old courthouse
- Environmentally sensitive lands
- Same-sex rights
- Evaluating Craig Coffey
- Evaluating the commission
- Who’s your model commissioner?
- Background check
- Opponent’s questions
Place and Date of Birth: Augusta, Maine, Feb. 24, 1961.
Current job: Flagler County Commissioner, licensed real estate broker.
Party Affiliation: Republican
Net Worth: $12,855; See financial disclosure form.
Website: Campaign website; Facebook
I have served the community of Flagler County for many years on volunteer boards ie: Rotary, Civic Association etc. I believe the best preparation in learning how Florida governments function was my time spent on the Palm Coast Planning and Land Regulation Board and the close interaction with statutes and staff. Since becoming a Commissioner I have taken the Certified County Commission Course and the Advanced Commissioner Course in addition I have been asked by the Florida Association of Counties to join the committee that advises on the curriculum for these courses.
2. Tell us who you are as a person—what human qualities and shortcomings you’ll bring to the board, what your temperament is like: what would your enemies say is your best quality, and what would your friends say is your worst fault? Give is real-life examples to illustrate your answer.
I am a person who generally sees the bright side of things and the possibilities for good. I believe that I am, for the most part viewed as a happy, friendly individual. Best Quality: Courage of Convictions. Worst Quality: Courage of Convictions. My position on the “old” Court House.
Surely you know that no one would fault you for the courage of your convictions, though several candidates have tried to make one of their qualities pass for a fault. Still, tell us candidly, especially after all these years on planning and county boards, what you see as a fault or two in your dealings with fellow-commissioners and how that’s reflected on the commission, or in the community.
The “Courage of My Convictions” on both counts came from a quick poll to individuals who were available to me.
A. Public Safety is always issue number one and I will continue to support the efforts to bring to the citizens of Flagler County the level of service in Fire and police necessary to keep our community as safe as possible.
B. Economic Development is on everyone’s mind. I will continue to support the efforts of our Economic Opportunity Advisory Council and recognize the role that any regulatory body plays in facilitating and maintaining the free enterprise system that we enjoy.
C. Quality of Life issues. It’s important to maintain the beauty and tranquility of Flagler County, the reason so many want to call this home. As with all issues facing us we must be vigilant in keeping it all affordable.
I think that the budgeting awards received over the last five years tells clearly what the Count is doing right. The careful scrutiny of expenditures through the recent economic downturn and balancing needs and wants in the services provided has kept us in a fiscally sound position to move Flagler forward. I believe that we can absolutely improve on our messaging, communicating better with the public. Though all meetings are public, few attend, we need to increase our outreach through more media and multi-media venues.
5. Give your critique, loving or not so loving, of the county’s major big works: the acquisition and re-development of the old Memorial Hospital into a Sheriff’s Operations Center, and the expansion of the jail, miscalculations about the cost included.
Obviously the two major projects at this time are the expansion of the jail and the re-use and re-purpose of the “old” hospital for the new Consolidated Sheriffs Operations Center. These projects are necessary to ensure the level of public safety and service that we expect in a community of our size. The jail renovation and expansion is being worked at this time by the architects and builders to give Flagler County the most value within the budget that we have. The consolidated Sheriffs operation center is coming along well within budget. Staff had two professional appraisals performed on the building and then an outside auditor reviewed both for accuracy. The two appraisals came in at about $1.4 and $1.5 million. The purchase price was about $1.23 million. The board felt that we could make the purchase and the renovations and work within the funding that we had for the project.
Do you consider yours and the county commission’s handling of the hospital purchase to have been conducted in the most transparent way possible? And how do you explain the discrepancy of several million dollars between the initial projection for the jail cost and the cost submitted by the builder? Will you be satisfied to scale back the size of the jail by, say, 100 beds or more from initial projections, to stay within budget?
Yes, The Consolidation of the Sheriffs’ operations had been a discussion of previous boards and was discussed at length in many public meetings and workshops. Several options over time were considered and this is the one that, as a board, we found to be the best possible solution. The discrepancy in what the builder would like to get and what we are willing to pay for the expansion and renovation of the jail is being re-worked at this time. Engineering staff and the architect are making the adjustments in the project, as is normal prior to contract, to keep the project within the funding allotted.
6. If you have a choice between providing quality services or providing the cheapest services possible, which would you choose? Please cite examples. What services would you eliminate, what services would you expand?
We should always provide as high quality service as is financially feasible. For example we have, in cooperation with private individuals, provided a source of drinking water to the west side. The financial ability to build the full infrastructure at this time does not exist. However, though we were told that a two and a half inch well would be sufficient for the current well site service, we had a five inch well drilled (at not extra cost), the requirement for community wide service in anticipation of one day being able to provide that. There are currently no services provided by the county that I would eliminate. We are going to have to expand our fire and police service as the population continues to grow.
If you were to face a budget crisis again in the next four years, as you did in the past four, and, as you yourself have noted on occasion at budgeting time, there’s no fat left to cut, what programs or initiatives or capital plans would you cut first?
The County is running quite lean at this time. A new crisis would first mean looking at what level of service each department could operate in and still meet the existing needs of the citizens. I would not be as quick to cut public safety services as I would perhaps lawn maintenance or park improvements. Most of the capital projects are not funded through property tax revenue but generally through grants, sales tax and other funding sources.
7. The county has been talking about economic development since the bursting of the housing bubble, and in 2011 established its own council and department. Evaluate the jobs council’s performance. What measurable outcome would point to a successful economic development effort, and what do you intend to do, as commissioner, to get to that outcome?
The success of the Economic Opportunity Advisory Council and it’s affiliation with the Palm Coast Business Assistance Center, the Chamber of Commerce, SCORE and others is self evident with the overall downward trend of the unemployment rate and the securing of major employers, such as AVEO and Goia Sails. We must continue to be positive about the future while being realistic about the opportunities in front us. For example we may not land an assembly plant but we certainly would like to get the ancillary businesses associated with it.
There have been significant job increases–about 3,000 more residents of the county hold jobs compared to four years ago–but barely a fraction of those jobs (literally a few dozen jobs) can be attributed to companies that dealt with the county’s economic development council, which raises the question: was the council needed, or are you suggesting that the “self-evident” downward trend is somehow attributable to the council nevertheless?
The volunteers on the economic opportunity advisory council have done an outstanding job in bringing future growth by contributing to the economic confidence that is growing in Flagler County. No, I don’t attribute fully the cause and affect of the trend to this group but I do give them credit for the jobs that they are creating. Economic development is a puzzle of many pieces in which many play a part.
I have been very clear on the disposition of the “old” Court House. The historical value is eclipsed only by the cost of renovating and maintaining. Short of an influx of private investment, grants or some other funding source I am of the opinion to sell the buildings.
That assumes the existence of a willing buyer or buyers. The sellers of the old hospital waited 10 years to sell their building nearby, unsuccessfully, until the county came along. But since the county owns this one, and assuming there won’t be a buyer for the next several years, as is very likely, and the county continues to be saddled with the $75,000 or more annual costs of mere upkeep, what then?
Without the financial resources of a private investor etc. the building will have to be sold or demolished. One of the “selling” options is an auction where the building is sold as government surplus inventory to the highest bidder.
9. “Taxes are what we pay for a civilized society,” Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes famously said. Do you agree? Do you consider local government taxes to be too high or too little? Do you favor increasing the local gas tax? If there was one tax reform you could implement locally, what would it be?
I agree with the quote. For the first time in many years the commission has not had to tap into its reserves to meet the cost of services. Building permits are up and the increase in the value of these formally vacant properties will significantly offset the increasing costs of providing service and the expansion of those services. I do not favor an increase in gas tax nor have I ever. I recently asked staff in a workshop where we are and what were the parameters to demonstrate to my satisfaction that we were not being excessive. (The maximum allowable local gas tax is 12 cents per gallon. It is currently 7 cents per gallon.) I don’t think a “tax reform” locally is as necessary as continuing to be diligent in watching over the way tax dollars are spent and what they are spent on.
10. Has the county commission managed the taxpayer-funded Environmentally Sensitive Lands program well? Can you cite examples of good land acquisitions, and examples of not-so-good acquisitions? What is your definition of a good ESL acquisition?
There is a citizen board that reviews and recommends the purchase of Environmentally Sensitive Lands. Not being an environmental scientist my self I am confident in the process and the work of those citizens in their review and recommendations. This was a tax voted in twice by the citizens of Flagler County and I believe that all are satisfied and happy with the results. A good acquisition would always be one that the land being preserved is of a high quality environmental value and could be in danger of developmental encroachment such as the property along Bulow Creek south of SR 100.
But you are still the ratifying board on every purchase. Have all purchases been to your liking, understanding that the fund is now nearly exhausted, and unable to take advantage of low-priced lands?
I am satisfied with the recommendations and decisions that have been made.
11. Some counties and cities in Florida have approved a domestic partnership registry, granting unmarried couples, including gay couples, the same benefits as married couples. The Flagler County School Board recently extended benefits to same-sex couples. That means partners can visit each other in hospitals and jails and can make funeral arrangements for each other. Would you be supportive of such a registry in Flagler County? If not, why not? If yes, would you be willing to lead the initiative from the commission?
It is my understanding that the State in all cases govern marriage laws. What agreements two people want to arrange between themselves should be recognized and upheld by the courts.
Yes, the state controls marriage laws–or the courts may, since five court decisions so far in Florida have declared same-sex marriage bans illegal–but meanwhile it would be in your power to extend same-sex benefits to your employees, if you so chose. Would you? And if not, why not?
Benefits to all individuals in whatever legal arrangement exists should always be offered.
Mr. Coffey is a fine administrator and in my opinion is very conscientious and hard working. His weaknesses are discussed with him privately.
That’s a surprise. You do not believe in making your evaluations of the administrator, weaknesses included, public, as all county employees’ (and government employees’) evaluations are? Clearly, you know his weaknesses as you perceive them. So again: what are they?
I’m not in the habit of discrediting any staff member in a public forum.
This is not a matter of discredit but transparency that goes to the heart of your job: the only employee, other than the attorney, you directly supervise, and evaluate, is the County Administrator. What you’re telling us is that you will tell him what he must work on behind closed doors, but you won’t share that with the public? Your reluctance prompted us to look up the last evaluation we had of his, in 2012 (we’ve requested additional ones), where you gave him almost all 4’s across the board, out of 5, and to ask you why, unlike a couple of colleagues, you do not find him “exceptional,” or consider that disclosure the public’s business, indeed in a public forum, just as your commission meetings very much are.
13. Evaluate the workings of the county commission: do you consider it an effective local government? Can you cite specific examples of its effectiveness—or areas of concern that you would deal with differently? Are you satisfied with the way the commission and its administration relate to the public?
The County Commission has become an incredibly cohesive group who can set aside private agendas and political leanings to accomplish the work of the people of Flagler County. For example ….the very tough budgetary choices that are made every year. The recent move forward in the responsibility to provide proper jail and Sheriff operations services and the facilities needed. The pre-trial release program was a cost saving measure carefully analyzed and approved. By continuing the existing half cent sales tax the commission was able to fund these projects without raising the tax burden on anyone. As stated earlier we can do better at getting the word out so that the facts of what we are doing are known rather that allowing the rumor mill to set the tone of public discourse.
I admire the tenacity and work ethic of all the commissioners.
An admirably diplomatic answer, but not of much use to voters who like to know their commissioner. The question fairly goes to your philosophy in relation to your colleagues and to the dynamics of the board, which voters have every right and expectation to understand as much as possible in order to make an enlightened choice going into the voting booth. And yes, candidates do their best to evade the question. Please try again.
Let me be more specific then….Mr. Ericksen; His quiet demeanor and natural inclination to observe and understand what is happening around him. Mr. Meeker; His exhaustive research capacity on all issues and understanding of everything pertaining to water. Mr. Hanns; His uncanny ability to relate to and connect with any individual. Ms. Revels, Her untiring work ethic and sense of fairness and rightness on any issues.
15. Have you ever been charged with a felony or a misdemeanor anywhere in Flagler, Florida or the United States (other than a speeding ticket), or faced a civil action other than a divorce, but including bankruptcies? If so, please explain, including cases where charges did not lead to conviction.
I have never been charged with or committed any, anywhere. However, I was one of the casualties of the economic downturn and filed a bankruptcy. I also lost a business many years ago before moving to Florida.