Flagler Beach City Commission Chairman John Feind began by almost admonishing his fellow commissioners Thursday afternoon: “I hope we can leave tonight knowing that we can all work together and that we can agree to disagree.” Commission debates, he said, is not about keeping score, or being right or wrong. Feind then reached for ice cream to make his point: Some people like vanilla. Some people like chocolate. That doesn’t make vanilla-lovers wrong in chocolate-lovers’ eyes.
Someone walking in off the street, even someone familiar with the Flagler Beach City Commission, which has its share of colorful moments, might have wondered what the lecturing was about, prefacing as it was a special meeting convened to address a “follow-up discussion,” as the agenda’s single item had it, “regarding commissioner Mealy’s comments from June 8, 2010.”
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It was at that meeting that Jane Mealy complained of a “fractured” commission that was meddling in the administration’s business too often, questioning the administration, taking up its time and causing disruptions. Mealy singled out Commissioner Steve Settle, who took the criticism personally, then demanded an apology in a memo to the mayor. The commission agreed to deal with the matter as candidly as possible in Thursday’s meeting–officially a “workshop,” where votes aren’t taken but plenty of decisions are made by “consensus” anyway.
That was the meeting Feind was prefacing Thursday afternoon in a commission chamber half darkened by the absence of camera lights (the meeting wasn’t to be televised or webcast, as are regular meetings) and attended by just 12 people. By the time it was over an hour and 23 minutes later, Settle had declared himself “ready to kiss and make-up” with Mealy, Mealy said she was grateful to her fellow commissioners for holding what amounted to an official group hug, without the actual hugging, and each commissioner and the mayor, in turn, spoke of the importance of staying in touch with city matters and speaking with city staff, for various reasons, without crossing the line from mere inquiry to entitled presumptions.
The heart of the matter was this: while the city charter makes clear that commissioners are allowed to talk to city staffers to gather information, they’re not allowed to direct staffers over the city manager’s head. They have to go through the manager first, and the manager may well ask that commissioner to take up the issue with the commission, rather than take up a staffer’s time first. Commissioners generally agreed, with more or less reserve: Settle insisted that there should be no distinction between a citizen’s right to speak with staffers and a commissioner’s right.
Both City Manager Bernie Murphy and Commissioner Joy McGrew rather forcefully set him straighter: commissioners are different, because staffers look at them differently.
“I talk to everybody every day,” McGrew said. But there’s a difference between asking how things are going as opposed to asking “what’s the dirt, who’s causing problems in your department.” Commissioners, McGrew said, are held (or ought to hold themselves) to a higher standard, so when they speak to a cop or a firefighter, “they don’t look at me as Joy Q. Public. They look at me as a commissioner. So if I ask them something I take a 50-50 chance that they’re looking at me as meddling.”
Murphy, who’s counting the days before his last, come Sept. 30, was even more forceful, reminding commissioners the innumerable hours he spends every week essentially at their beck and call while never standing between them and administrative information. “It’s a friendly crowd in here but there is a line that occasionally can be crossed,” Murphy said. In other words, commissioners are well aware when they cross it by using their title to extract information more quickly than an ordinary citizen might–or to send a message. More specifically, Murphy said he felt “some discomfort” when Settle asked the police chief if a parking policy (ill-fated, as it turned out) had been posted the morning it was to go in effect. “Yes you are a citizen, and yes you are an elected official, and they’re two distinct roles,” Murphy told Settle. When Settle interpreted that to mean that he had less rights than citizens, Murphy corrected him again. It’s not a matter of “rights,” but protocol.
Murphy also reminded commissioners that he’s been responsive to internal whistle-blowing. “I have terminated three or four supervisors since I’ve been here on the basis of what employees told me,” Murphy said, “mostly wrote to me, and were prepared to testify. In all those cases I told those employees they were protected,” that the commission or administration had no authority to fire them.
That comment was also directed at Settle, who says he wants to introduce at a subsequent meeting a whistleblower-protection measure to be incorporated into the city’s codes. Feind was perplexed, reminding Settle that, with state and federal laws providing for whistleblower protection, putting it in the city code would be superfluous.
A majority of the dozen people in attendance spoke at the end of the meeting, some of them commending the commissioners, one of them reminding them that whatever rules they make today might have to be changed when a new manager comes in, and one of them still looking for Mealy to “substantiate what she said that evening” (though she had a pile of substance, in paperwork, in front of her that, in that case, Commissioner Ron Vath had collected from the staff when he was unilaterally investigating an issue at the water plant.)
By then anyway the issue was mostly settled for now. “I think that this is a case that had become much to do about very little,” Feind said. “We’ve all said basically about the same thing. We cannot operate at all without asking questions.” Settle and Mealy spoke their peace words, there was a smattering of applause, and immense relief when the meeting adjourned.