The Flagler Beach City Commission is still confused—and confusing—regarding parking in the city: what to do next, how to do it, whom to ask on what to do. It may have made matters worse last Thursday even as one of the commissioners was attempting to bring some clarity to the matter.
Commissioner Steve Settle at the commission meeting on May 14 called for a referendum on paid parking, asking residents whether they favor or oppose it. The idea was to clarify his own motion two weeks earlier, after an outpouring of opposition to paid parking by city residents. Settle directed the city administration to distill a parking task force’s recommendations into something workable, although Settle was under the impression that the commission had directed the administration to “start a regime or paid parking.”
Commission Chairman Marshall Shupe put it less explicitly: “We asked our city manager to see where we’re going,” he said, while Commissioner Jane Mealy though the commission had directed the city manager to analyze the ramification of a particular approaches and what it would cost the city, not that he would implement anything. No two commissioners could agree on what had, in fact, been the direction to the city manager.
City Manager Bruce Campbell, who served on the committee that recommended paid parking, himself strongly favors the approach, chiefly as a new revenue source for the city. But when he sought to clarify the commission’s intentions, interpreting Settle’s motion as a broader directive to implement paid parking, Mealy snapped: “Is he not acting like the sixth commissioner right now?” she asked the city attorney.
There was confusion even about the confusion of the motion—the one Settle presented two weeks ago, and the ones he proposed last Thursday: He tried to have his two-week old motion reconsidered. But the proposal failed, 3-2. Settle then killed his own referendum proposal, saying it could wait. But he’d seen the scribbling on the wall: more than an hour earlier in the discussion, when he first proposed the referendum idea, no other commissioner was prepared to second the motion.
Instead, his proposal had provoked yet another discussion on parking in Flagler Beach. The discussion shed some light on what, paradoxically, is still an obscure matter: what, exactly, are the city administration’s parking directives and goals in the immediate future, and to what extent is the commission itself in a cul-de-sac on the issue? At most, the administration is proceeding with proposals for better signage and defining what can or cannot be done with city parking lots.
Settle acknowledged that he’d done a “terrible job” when he made his motion two weeks ago on the parking issue. He called it vague. Settle read the motion again, word for word: it made no more sense on second reading than it did on first. “It turns out that the direction we gave to staff doesn’t seem to be understood by anyone in Flagler Beach,” Settle said, with different people in the administration interpreting it differently. A too-vague motion, he said, would be illegal.
“I’m a little bit confused myself as far as what staff is being asked to do,” Campbell said, describing how different media outlets interpreted the commission’s vote differently. But he said he has gone ahead with analysis on what to do next, only to trigger calls and emails second-guessing him. “There’s a vast amount of confusion,” he said.
The commission appears to have discovered in its confusion a new way to punt on making hard, clarifying decisions.
That’s because neither the commission (two weeks ago or again Thursday) not Campbell have made clear what authority he does have to operate within what parameters regarding the recommendations. As Campbell has been going ahead with his own understanding of the directive, he’s only provoked questions from constituents similar to those of some of the commissioners. But the confusion starts with the commission, which appears to have discovered in its confusion a new way to punt on making any hard, clarifying decisions.
“Maybe there are those that are worried that if we hold a referendum, we will find out something we don’t want to know,” Settle said, explaining his referendum proposal. “But that’s the purpose of what we’re doing, a straw poll simply, is non-binding, it’s well precedented in Flagler Beach. We’ve done it before.” He added, “the clarification that we would be seeking is that the people of Flagler Beach absolutely want paid parking.”
Commissioner Kim Carney, a supporter of paid parking (“the quaint city feeling that we all have, it’s not based on paid parking or not,” she said), called the matter an emotional issue that can’t be covered in a 75-word ballot question. “I believe this is a budgetary item, and we don’t usually seek advice, like we didn’t with the fire truck, I don’t think we seek advice from the general public on budgetary items,” Carney said. “Only if you believe that this is a budgetary item though. I do believe it’s budgetary. I believe it’s driven by the inconvenience to our citizens of all of the tourism, but I do also believe it’s driven by our direction to staff to look for revenue sources. So therefore, I would not suggest putting this on a straw ballot. It will not change my mind at all about whether or not I want to move forward with looking at parking.”
Mealy is opposed to the proposal for different reasons. “We get elected and paid the big bucks to make the big decisions,” she said, “and I think based on the knowledge that we have, the last time a really major issue came up, somebody, one of our citizens, or a group of citizens, put together brochures and went house to house and convinced people who in their busy lives don’t have time to do the research, that they should vote a particular way on an issue. I see that happening with this.” (Mealy was obliquely referring to Carney’s efforts to with some allies to sway the commission on the fire truck purchase last year, which she opposed. She had been part of an effort to solicit petitions opposing the purchase.)
Commissioner Joy McGrew said she’d be fine with putting out the matter to voters, but only after the commission itself had worked out its own very significant confusion, starting with unanswered questions from the two-year committee analysis of the matter. “I think we missed the mark in our study. Who are we trying to help get to share the cost of maintenance and upkeep of the services of the beach?” she said. “There’s a lot more information that has to go out, and we have time between now and March to get out more information that we haven’t even studied? I doubt it. Do I think the people have the right to have a vote on it? Yes. Would I like to hear from the people? Yes. Do we have enough time between now and March, do we agree on the direction we’re going in, or the direction we’ve gone, do we agree that we need to go in another direction to find out more direction? And until we know that I don’t know how we necessarily put it out there and expect them to know that.”
Mayor Linda Provencher, who also served on the parking committee, has been frustrated by the recurring reduction of the two years’ work to a mere question of paid parking or no paid parking. “There’s more in that research than just paid parking,” Provencher said. “There are lots that we have in this city that are not complete. If we have such a parking problem, why are those lots not finished? Have we gone to the county to talk to them about additional moneys? No. I’ve spoken to several commissioners. I think the county realizes that yes, if they’re going to bring people here, and they’re going to advertise this beach, that yes, we do need more than $72,000 a year for lifeguards. But do we know if there’ll be repercussions if we institute paid parking. Will they then not give us any money for anything ever again? There’s a lot of questions that need to be answered before you can even think about us voting on it, let alone putting out there, do you want paid parking, yes or no.”
She said the city could start small, enforce its current regulations, “which we don’t,” put up better signage, and complete existing parking lots. She was also critical of the press, saying “they hardly ever get the follow up on what’s really happening.”
Several members of the public spoke, but again did so largely—but not entirely –in opposition to paid parking, among them Matt Dunn, the county’s director of tourism (as vice president of the chamber of commerce). He disputed the claim, repeatedly put forth by commissioners, that tourists impose a financial burden on the city. “Visitor spending lowers your residents’ taxes,” Dunn said, offering to present his claim’s methodology. He also downplayed the notion of a parking problem, describing it more as “challenges,” while reminding commissioners of alternative means of getting revenue for parking, other than paid parking—namely, beach management funds from bed tax revenue administered by the county.
In the end, Settle’s attempt at clarification appeared to have complicated an already intractable issue a little further, leaving it to Campbell to figure out what he may and may not do, and bring that back to the commission in the form of updates that may or may not entail further calls for commission decisions. If commissioners have made one thing, and only one thing, very clear in the whole matter, it is that they are either unable or unwilling to make a decision. At least not yet.