One of many the reasons the South Bunnell community around Carver Gym reacted angrily to the county’s proposal last month to close the gym is trust: there’s not much of it between South Bunnell and the rest of the city or the county. South Bunnell is the poorest and grubbiest part of the county, a black ghetto in all but name. Most people ignore it, as do elected officials. When those officials do pay attention, it’s not usually good news. And it wasn’t last month, when the County Commission announced its intention to—in the inelegant words of Commissioner Bob Abbott—“get rid of” Carver Gym.
In the early 1980s, the County Commission leased Carver Gym from the school board, and eventually acquired it, to maintain some recreational activities for children there. The Boys & Girls Club has also been there. In the hierarchy of county care and attention, Carver Gym is toward the bottom of the list. As Bunnell City Commissioner Jenny Crain-Brady put it Monday, “it’s underused, it’s underfunded, it’s under-cleaned, it’s underserviced, it’s everything.” It’s that way because the county doesn’t much care for it. But at least it was paying $110,000 a year to keep it open, which is $110,000 more than Bunnell has ever put into the place.
When all but one county commissioner last month agreed to shut it down, they set off a storm of protest. They also queried the Bunnell City Commission and the Flagler County School Board to see if they had any interest in keeping it open. Crain-Brady took the lead and organized a meeting of representatives from four government agencies to discuss possibilities. The meeting was held on July 8 at the old Bunnell City Hall. It was by invitation only. Crain-Brady thought she was doing something noble, and in some ways she was: her intentions were to find ways to keep the gym open.
But the manner in which she went about deciding who would and who wouldn’t attend that meeting carved open the same wounds that have bloodied South Bunnell’s relationship with the rest of the county. Crain-Brady had a short list of people she wanted there, and a long list of people she didn’t want there. That long list included the general public and every black organization involved in the original protest against closing the gym—the Masonic Lodge in Espanola, the NAACP, the African-American Cultural Center, and Daisy Henry, one of Crain-Brady’s own fellow-commissioners and the only black elected representative on any of the three government bodies involved in the Carver Gym controversy. And Crain-Brady did not advertise the meeting in accordance with the state’s open-meeting, or Sunshine, law.
“Here’s what’s gone on for so many years and it’s still going on. It’s a slap in the face to every citizen in Bunnell,” said Chris Borgmann, a member of the Masonic Lodge who was among those who spoke to the county commission last month in opposition to the closing of the gym. He’s also among organizers of a public protest meant to coincide with the next time the commission discusses the issue. “They can’t include the other organisations, the professional organizations that have led the fight to stop the county to do this? I guess because they’re politicians they want to have those back-door meetings to impose their will. And they wonder why there’s so much animosity between the citizens and the city of Bunnell.”
That’s why it’s not just about the Sunshine Law. It’s way beyond those implications, though understanding the slithering around sunshine helps understand why the larger picture is once again more mucked up than it ought to be, if everyone’s intentions had been pure, as Crain-Brady and her supporters claim.
Crain-Brady and Armando Martinez, who helped organize the meeting, say no Sunshine Law violation took place because strictly speaking, no two members of the same government agency were there (which isn’t true: George Hanns, the chairman of the commission, and Barbara Revels, a member of the commission, were, though neither knew the meeting had not been publicly noticed). Martinez agrees that in hindsight the meeting should have been announced. Hanns was more explicit: “I’m sorry that I was involved in this thing. If the city of Palm Coast asked me tomorrow to meet with them, I’d go but I’d make damn sure it was noticed, if not by them, then by us.” He said he had “no idea the city of Bunnell did not notice the meeting. This is commonplace, everyday stuff.”
Colleen Conklin, a member of the Flagler County School Board who was there with Superintendent Janet Valentine, defended Crain-Brady and said she might have held a similar meeting, considering what was at stake. “In hindsight did we embrace the spirit of the sunshine? I would say no, we probably did not. However I do believe that it was not intentional. We were all invited some place with good intention, and while we may not have lived up to the spirit of the sunshine, I don’t believe that there was one single person around that table that came with the intent of trashing the spirit of the sunshine law.” True: many people around the table didn’t know the meeting was not a public one, as that, too, had been dissimulated from them.
But the meeting had also been dissimulated from key players obviously not at the meeting, including County Commissioner Milissa Holland, who found out about it from a reporter on Tuesday. Holland’s involvement at Carver Gym, through the Boys & Girls Club, on whose board she served, through her own James F. Holland Foundation, and through her direct recent involvement in discussions over closing the gym, had her in the thick of the issue. Not last week or this week. “Am I surprised this is the first time I hear of a meeting such as this? I am,” she said. She was even more surprised that neither Hanns nor Craig Coffey, the county administrator, mentioned the meeting during a three-hour county budget workshop on Monday—the same sort of workshop where the Carver Gym issue first flared last month. “Having a budget workshop would be a perfect venue for that discussion,” Holland said.
One of the reasons Holland tried to fire Coffey on June 7 was because she felt he blindsided the commission on some issues. Coffey said “things aren’t that fluid”—meaning that not every meeting that every commissioner attends as a representative of the county is reported on immediately afterward. But not every meeting warrants as much public interest as the Carver Gym issue does. Coffey also disputed Crain-Brady’s characterization to her commission Monday night that she felt comfortable in saying that Carver Gym would not close. “I never said Carver Gym would not close,” Coffey said. “Obviously, I’ve got direction from my board.” That direction, for now, is to close it pending better alternatives.
Yet two county employees did visit Carver Gym this week to look at the place’s decrepit air conditioning unit, and saying it might be replaced. They wouldn’t be doing so if the county wasn’t repositioning itself toward keeping the gym open.
Questions over the sunshine law or air conditioning units pale compared to the real problem Crain-Brady’s invitation-only meeting kicked up: the mistrust from the very community she claims to be helping. The mistrust is not vague. It’s quite precise in one regard: Crain-Brady invited a half dozen members of the Boys & Girls Club to the meeting. For those who, like Borgmann, are fighting for Carver, keeping the gym open is only half the battle. Keeping the Boys & Girls Club from taking over is the other half. The Boys & Girls Club is reviled by people running and supporting the gym now, which is why the Boys & Girls Club wants to leave. Crain-Brady, Conklin and others look to the Boys & Girls Club as a solution because they want more “structure” at the gym. It’s not clear what they mean by “structure.”
It’s a code word for control. What the battle over Carver Gym is coming down to is who will run the place—South Bunnell’s own, or outsiders imposed on South Bunnell, supposedly for the good of the children at the gym. Even as the likes of Crain-Brady and Conklin speak of doing what’s good for South Bunnell, they also know that they’re not dealing with the equally raw issue of how South Bunnell doesn’t want to lose a sense of ownership over the only thing it has there. Real or not, the Boys & Girls Club taking over would be perceived as rob the neighborhood of its stake in Carver Gym.
By holding an invitation-only meeting with the Boys & Girls Club to the exclusion of most other interested parties, Crain-Brady did nothing to build trust or good feelings, at least not in the Carver Gym community proper. The judgment call, well-intentioned but stupendously ill-advised, only reinforced the sense that white politicians will do what they’ve always done with South Bunnell—paternalistically, exclusively deciding what’s best for South Bunnell, to the exclusion of South Bunnell’s most interested parties. No mask of good intentions can hide that reality. It’s a burdensome reality any future discussions on Carver Gym will be contending with, if those discussions are to include the gym’s core community.