Flagler Beach City Commissioner Jane Mealy often goes first when commissioners and the mayor make their final comments at their meetings. Last night, almost four hours into the commission’s bi-monthly meeting, she asked to go last.
Then she laid it out. She was unhappy with the commission’s conduct on and off the commission—chronically challenging city staff during meetings and requiring staff to generate what Mealy thinks is an undue amount of work outside of meetings on their behalf.
Mealy’s brief speech is a more public expression of a city on tenterhooks lately. Not only is City Manager Bernie Murphy leaving by the end of September, but his last budget, not yet presented to the commission, is expected to include severe cuts to most or all departments. Employees will go on three years without raises. Several employees are said to be looking elsewhere for work. “The city is in a bit of a chaotic state at this point in time,” Commissioner Ron Vath said today, only indirectly challenging Mealy’s contentions. “There’s a lot of stuff that’s been going on,” Vath said. “I’ve chosen not to bring it to the sunshine. I will, if she chooses to bring it out.”
Mealy cited one commissioner by name during her speech Thursday: Steve Settle, who’s been on the commission since March. But Vath, a commissioner since March 2001, was clearly in Mealy’s sights, too. She didn’t mention him by name, though when she asked that the commission hold a workshop later this summer to debate and better define commissioners’ roles, Vath said: “I look forward to that.”
“This is not something I’m comfortable with,” Mealy started, “but I see us becoming a very fragmented commission. I see commission members doing things that are above and beyond what a role of a commissioner should be, and I think that with us getting a new city manager, I think we have an opportunity to look at new relationships or the way relationships ought to be. I’m not trying to say that all five of us or six of us should agree on everything because that would be ridiculous, and we should only have one commissioner if that were going to be the case. But the last several months I’ve walked out of here—I sit under here with my hands like this”—she grips her hangs together—“and I’m going to get very bad arthritis, and I don’t think we’re doing what’s good for the city. It has nothing to do with how unhappy Jane is. I think it’s not for the good of the city.”
Watch Jane Mealy’s Speech and Settle’s Response (Courtesy of PCMA-TV)
Mealy researched how other cities’ elected officials conduct (or are supposed to conduct) themselves. A retired teacher, she handed out packets of copies of an ethics handbook from Mesa, Ariz., and articles with highlighted passages (“The relationship between a manager and the council is a critical factor in a community’s ability to meet the needs of its citizens,” went the highlighted portion of an article by a Colorado mayor from a trade publication. Mealy also clipped the Flagler Beach city charter relevant to commissioners—the part about “Interference with administration.”
“Steve,” she told Settle, who always sits to her left, “I don’t want to use you as an example but I’m going to. Today alone we had challenges on the Sinelli lot, on the water bills, on the police department, on the fire department and on the parking lot. And it makes it sound, and maybe it’s not your intention, but it makes it sound like you have no trust in the staff of this town. And I don’t want you to defend yourself now. It’s just a type of thing that should not be happening in this town and is destructive, I think, to this town.”
Other commissioners listened on with various forms of expression: high anxiety from John Feind, the commission chairman, who’s appeared increasingly tense in his chair in recent months, restlessness from Vath, and little to no expression from Joy McGrew, the most frequent swing voter of late (and on Thursday evening) and likely the panel’s best poker player, if she played.
Mealy wants commissioners’ duties better defined. “The charter isn’t clear,” she said. “In a manage-council form of government, we’re not supposed to be oversight people, and we’re not supposed to be ordering the city manager or staff around, and I see too much of that from several of us happening, and I just had to get it off my chest. I’m sorry. It’s been bothering me now for several months. I know people in the community are upset.”
In a soft voice, turning to Feind while pointing at Mealey, Settle said: “Mr. chairman, would you mind if I responded briefly?” He then went on: “I would welcome a workshop, but I think you might be misunderstanding the difference between oversight and asking questions. And as far as, one of the things I’ve talked to Bernie about and let him know, is it is very clear in our charter that we can talk to any of the employees of the city, we can talk to any of the people. I don’t believe that I personally have ever done anything that I haven’t let Bernie know what I was doing, have I Bernie?” He points at Bernie Murphy, the city manager counting the days before his last on Sept. 30.
“Now this gets to a question and answer,” Commissioner Joy McGrew objected.
“I just want you to understand that there is an instrumental difference between asking questions. That’s what I feel I was elected for,” Settle said.
Settle is right about the charter, though it does leave room for interpretation. The charter states clearly: “The Mayor nor the Commissioners deal with the City officers and employees, who are subject to the direction and supervision of the Manager, solely through the Manager and neither the Mayor nor the Commissioners shall give orders to any such officer or employee either publicly or privately. Notwithstanding the above, elected officials are not prohibited from discussing with any City employee any job or responsibility pertaining to their job description.”
That last sentence will be interpreted differently from different commissioners.
Feind put an end to the brief discussion. “I don’t think we’re going to accomplish anything worthwhile,” he said, at close to 9:30 p.m. “I think perhaps a workshop would be good. We can sit down and talk among ourselves, maybe at an earlier hour, and include the city manager so he knows where we’re coming from. I don’t have an objection to that. Does anybody else have an objection to that?”
There were none. At least not for the record.