Flagler County and Palm Coast governments may be close to resolving their most combative differences in recent years as the details of a deal to provide city water to the county airport are worked out, possibly making a joint meeting between the two sides unnecessary.
“Hopefully Craig and Jim will resolve this,” Palm Coast Mayor Jon Netts said, referring to City Manager Jim Landon and County Administrator Craig Coffey in a brief interview this morning, not long after he’d texted County Commission Chairman Frank Meeker about a possible meeting. “If not Frank and I will resolve it. There is a resolution. There has to be. We’ll get there.”
But Landon has a strange way of telling his city council that all is just about well with the county.
He announced the resolution to the city council at the end of an email Thursday afternoon that was preceded by four husky paragraphs filled with accusations and implications about county government that explicitly put the city’s trust of the county in question, that implies the county runs a less professional organization than the city, that accuses the county of at one point attempting to deceive a state agency, and that charges Coffey with resorting to “more of a bullying tactic” to get the city to go along with county requests.
Coffey has not yet responded: he is at a statewide county association conference, though Meeker, who is also there, did. “It almost sounds a little bit like maybe if I was writing something like that I might have counted to 10 before I push send,” Meeker said. “There’s really no reason for one government entity to be attacking another government entity when we’re all working for the same 100,000 people.”
The accusations are not made in a void and at least in part echo an attempt to retaliate for Monday’s criticism of the city by Coffey and three county commissioners, among them Meeker. Landon’s response is the equivalent of a pitcher beaning a batter after one of his own players is hit.
Landon backs up his charges with 131 pages of email exchanges between county and city administrations and documents going back to last September. (See below.) The documents trace a tortuous narrative thick with one side’s interpretation differing with the other, and various attempts to resolve matters through in-person meetings that did not materialize, at times because family issues out of anyone’s control interfered.
The documents also prove some of both sides’ points. They are proof that, contrary to the county’s claim, the city did not raise issues with minor details only recently, but raised them as soon as the original water agreement between the two sides was signed more than seven months ago. At the same time, the documents also prove Coffey’s point—that the differences were minor, some of them not even directly related to the airport agreement, one of them—the argument over an easement document—being a matter of differing interpretations, and some of them so minor as to be in the league of scriveners’ errors (the sort of scriveners’ errors the city has notoriously tolerated in its own ordinances and charter).
Personalities and interpretations delay a deal that appears to have been resolved months ago.
Put simply, there are no fundamental, deal-breaking disagreements between the city and the county, at least not according to the documents the city provides.
Landon himself acknowledges that the differences amount to “details.” But, he says, after blaming the conflict, first on “a different culture in the organizations regarding our standards for public infrastructure,” and claiming that the county “is operating a public utility system at the airport with dozens of customers under the standards of a private utility system,” he then blames the issue on his lack of trust in the county.
“I acknowledge there is little trust between the two organizations,” he says. “Historically, the city has often allowed details to go unfulfilled in an effort to be cooperative and help expedite a project on the promise that documents would be forthcoming and our standards would be met. We then struggled to obtain the information and documents we need – documents that are at times legally required and, most certainly, are needed to properly maintain our system.” He cites delinquent fees for water at the airport, which the county just paid, and a delay in providing documentation for an easement, though both those issues are actually not historical matters, but part of the several issues at the center of the current conflict. “The city is not asking for anything out-of-the-ordinary, and we spend a tremendous amount of staff time following up on these requests that should be standard operating procedure,” Landon says. He’s right, but it’s not new information: it’s those same details Coffey says are minor matters that did not warrant larger delays.
Coffey is also correct when he claims that Landon was holding the water agreement hostage to those other details. Landon acknowledges as much: “These past experiences have led us to take a position that we will not move a project forward until the details have been completed and our required documents are final, and we have communicated that to the County.” None of Landon’s demands were unreasonable, and all of them were necessary for the completion of the agreement, if not only at the airport, then elsewhere. Landon is detail-oriented to the point of being anal about it, but he also sees that as a necessity to protect the city from any potential liabilities. Coffey is deal-oriented: he likes to get something done and move on to the next deal in a damn-the-torpedoes sort of way, letting details to be worked out later. Both men are competitive Type-A personalities. Inevitably, the differing styles chafe.
Up to this point, the dueling criticism can be chalked up to differing interpretations and personalities. But on Wednesday, Landon took it a step further, making a grave allegation about the county’s deception of the state Department of Environmental Protection.
Landon’s allegation as conveyed to the council was itself less than the whole story, however.
“In the emails,” Landon tells the council, referring to the big batch of documents he attached to his letter, “you will note that at one point, the county even misled the state regulatory agency, FDEP, by telling them the new city line extension would be a private line (to receive a no-permit determination). This is clearly false, and if we had allowed it to move forward without the required state permit, it would have placed the city in a position of being in violation of state law for a public utility system. We are obviously not willing to allow that to happen. I believe the correspondence demonstrates that the county administrator has attempted to resort to more of a bullying tactic to convince us that our requirements are not necessary versus working toward a productive solution. Because that was not successful, he recently has taken the issue to the public forum in an attempt to have the city accede to his demands, only adding to the conflict between our two organizations and further delaying a resolution.”
In fact, the correspondence on that DEP matter shows that Landon was wrongly blaming the county for what a county consultant—and not the county administrator—had determined, a determination Coffey did not endorse, at least not in the documents Landon refers to. If Coffey was playing a duplicitous game, that documentation is not included in Landon’s batch, as Landon implies to his council. Indeed, Coffey states in an email on the matter that the county has been attempting to secure the DEP permit “for over four months.”
And the bully in that particular segment of the exchanges is, if anyone, Landon, who threatened to jeopardize the county consultant’s engineering license: “If you value your PE license as much as most engineers do, I would strongly suggest you reconsider proceeding with the construction of this water line in violation of the law and contrary to the direction of the City Utility,” Landon wrote Doug Norman of Hoyle, Tanner and Associates, the county consultant. Landon added: “If you or others associated with this project would spend the same amount of time to gain the appropriate approval that you have spent to circumvent the law, this project would be permitted and under construction.”
Naturally, Coffey took exception to the threat, which Landon had not shared with him. “I wish you would have had the courtesy to copy me on the email, met with me to discuss at a meeting, or at least gave me a call,” Coffey wrote Landon on June 9 in one of the bitterest exchange between the two executives. “I too take exception to the many maligning things said about the County in your email above. Leadership starts at the top to include your attitude towards the County. Our slow response has been directly related to attempts to hold us hostage to unrelated or unnecessary items, excessive delays we have experienced in permitting or our treatment as utility customer. This interlocal should have brought us closer together, unfortunately it has not. Had I known our level of cooperation from you would of been in this manner and that you would interpreted the need for many other agreements to even sign the interlocal agreement, I would have never presented it to my Board.”
The conflict between the two sides, only barely touched on here, is brought to fuller light in the documented exchanges (below). But it does not seem to alter this paradox: while there is more noise than light in the exchanges, they still do not reveal fundamental differences that, ironically, the city council and the county commission had not bridged long ago, even as their respective executives got mired in the details. Landon himself concedes, after taking on the county, that “With all that being said,” the matter is all but resolved.
In other words, the exchanges reveal what the mayor and the commission chairman seem already to have known: that their intervention could resolve the matter quickly by dispensing with the only serious obstacles in the way: the oversize personalities and egos of their managers.
“Jon and I get along very well together, make sure your readers know that,” Meeker said, “and quite honestly, Jim Landon is my favorite city manager, and Craig Coffey is my favorite county manager.” Nevertheless, Meeker said, the matters in conflict were not worth the delays or the aggravations. “It just got to be more than I wanted to mess with,” he said, explaining why he finally brought the matter to public light earlier this week.
Palm Coast City Manager Jim Landon’s Full Email to the City Council, sent Wednesday Afternoon:
As promised, I am providing you the history of our efforts and communications with Flagler County to resolve the outstanding issues related to the Airport Utility Agreement. The number of emails attached is voluminous, but I believe they provide important background.
The report below, put together yesterday by Beau Falgout, does not address the root of our struggles, however, and I would like to speak to that here. I believe there are two key factors that contribute to our conflicts – the first being a different culture in the organizations regarding our standards for public infrastructure. The county, in essence, is operating a public utility system at the airport with dozens of customers under the standards of a private utility system. The City considers our Utility a special asset that the first City Council acquired at a significant cost, so we could determine the future of our community. Since that time, we have invested millions of dollars to expand and maintain that public system, with our Utility Department winning numerous awards that demonstrate our knowledge and efficiency in operating the utility system. In light of news stories regarding other utility systems in the area and their issues, I hope we can all appreciate the difficulty and complexity in operating a system at such a high level. Much credit goes to you and previous City Councils for your vision and support, and to City staff for their professionalism and excellent efforts.
The second contributing factor to our conflict is trust. Based on a number of difficult experiences, I acknowledge there is little trust between the two organizations. Historically, the City has often allowed details to go unfulfilled in an effort to be cooperative and help expedite a project on the promise that documents would be forthcoming and our standards would be met. We then struggled to obtain the information and documents we need – documents that are at times legally required and, most certainly, are needed to properly maintain our system. An example is the delinquent utility fees the County has owed the City at the airport for years. County administration has acknowledged that additional capacity fees are required. I have received repeated promises that “the check is in the mail,” only to never receive the fees. Also, we have constructed multi-million-dollar infrastructure on County property with the promise we would receive the required easement, only to wait months if not years and still not receive the necessary documents. These requests are normal and reasonable; it is customary for governments to exchange legal documents and fees related to easements and capital projects. The City is not asking for anything out-of-the-ordinary, and we spend a tremendous amount of staff time following up on these requests that should be standard operating procedure.
These past experiences have led us to take a position that we will not move a project forward until the details have been completed and our required documents are final, and we have communicated that to the County. Even still, when it came time last fall for you to consider the Airport Interlocal Agreement for the airport utilities, City staff agreed the move the agreement forward in spite of past outstanding issues – on the condition those outstanding issues would be addressed before the agreement is signed and work began. As you will recall, the Airport Interlocal Agreement was a compromise between the County and City at the County’s request to avoid the required annexation of the airport property. In exchange, the City requested that future development not inordinately burden our citizens and ratepayers through impacts to our infrastructure. Recognizing the important asset that our utility represents, the City requested that the final utility plans meet the Utility Department’s specifications. The City also requested that the easement form be acceptable, so that following construction of the utility improvements, the City would have the legal ability to maintain an added asset to our utility system. This was especially important considering the delay in receiving other easements for other important utility assets, such as the Beachside Sewer project.
Rather than address these issues in a timely manner, though, the County spent the last year arguing that these items were not required or unnecessary. Since City Council provided clear direction and, in an effort to protect our citizens and ratepayers from inordinate maintenance costs and issues in the future, City staff have held firm in these requirements, while always seeking to find solutions to resolve the outstanding issues. I believe the communications attached demonstrate our sincere efforts and the County’s response clearly. In the emails, you will note that at one point, the County even misled the state regulatory agency, FDEP, by telling them the new city line extension would be a private line (to receive a no-permit determination). This is clearly false, and if we had allowed it to move forward without the required State permit, it would have placed the City in a position of being in violation of State law for a public utility system. We are obviously not willing to allow that to happen. I believe the correspondence demonstrates that the County Administrator has attempted to resort to more of a bullying tactic to convince us that our requirements are not necessary versus working toward a productive solution. Because that was not successful, he recently has taken the issue to the public forum in an attempt to have the City accede to his demands, only adding to the conflict between our two organizations and further delaying a resolution.
I think the attached documents speak for themselves and clearly show the depth of this struggle. Through it all, City staff have worked very hard to maintain professionalism while also being very consistent in clearly communicating our requirements.
With all that being said, I am pleased to report to you that, this morning, Beau received a communication from County administration that largely resolves the remaining issues with the Airport Interlocal Agreement. That email is attached, and in it we received the fully executed easement agreement for the Beachside Master Pump Station that will be included in the Airport Interlocal Agreement as the approved easement form (Exhibit G). In addition, we received confirmation that the revised FDEP permit application for the utility lines and the check for the outstanding capacity fees will be sent shortly. Only one remaining issue is left to resolve, the City’s request to update the 1996 Utility Agreement to reflect City ownership of the utility system and our rules and regulations. I am hopeful that a meeting with our Mayor, Chair of the BOCC, administrators, and necessary staff can resolve that issue in the coming days and weeks. This issue will not delay execution of the Interlocal Agreement or construction of the utility improvements by the County.
City staff appreciates your interest in understanding the full story. We believe our position in requiring details and documents to be finalized prior to commencing new projects is in the best interest of our citizens and appreciate your support of that.