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Flagler County Royalty:
The Trouble With Uncontested Elections

| March 31, 2016

From left, Property Appraiser Jay Gardner, Tax Collector Suzanne Johnston and Clerk of Court-in-Waiting Tom Bexley

From left, Property Appraiser Jay Gardner, Tax Collector Suzanne Johnston and Clerk of Court-in-Waiting Tom Bexley.
(© FlaglerLive)

At a recent public function attended by the usual political suspects a prominent person in town asked me why elections for three county constitutional offices were going uncontested: the clerk of court, the property appraiser and the tax collector. They’re royalty, I replied without hesitation. You don’t run elections for our local kings and queens.

pierre tristam column flaglerlive That’s a shame, however deserving those kings and queens may be. (At the time Doug Courtney hadn’t yet filed to run for clerk of court, but Doug is the photobomb of elections: he pops up every few years only to run in place.)

Jay Gardner is the property appraiser, Suzanne Johnston is the tax collector, and Tom Bexley is clerk of court Gail Wadsworth’s crown prince.  I have nothing against them. They’re three Republicans I would vote for with my eyes closed, even though voting Republican considerably increases my chance of a cancer recurrence.

But those three are great at their jobs. They have their detractors, but I don’t go by hearsay. I go by experience. As a reporter who depends on their offices for loads of information, they’re models of transparency and courtesy. So is their staff, who could teach a thing or two to other public offices in town.

I’ll never forget the day when, three years ago, the last time my wife and I were able to take a vacation, I called Bexley from Normandy after I’d been tipped off about a break in a major case. I needed the court papers immediately. He had them in my in-box across the Atlantic within minutes. He’s been no less accommodating during or after hours Stateside. Gardner and Johnston run the same sort of citizen-friendly offices: they may be royalty, but they treat residents and us subhuman reporters as royalty, too, which explains their success. They should be reelected.

That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be challenged. There’s something bigger at stake: when elected positions go unchallenged, we all lose.

Democracy is like a muscle. It must be exercised. We know Usain Bolt is going to win every race he enters. We want him to and we love it when he does, but it would be meaningless if he were running in a field by himself. His competition pushes him to new limits, keeps him sharp, keeps the sport relevant. I don’t think our elected offices are much different. We need our elected officials to prove their relevance periodically, to be challenged if only to remind us how good they are at what they do, and how good others must be if they ever intend to replace them.

It helps us as citizens, too. Casting a ballot is an election’s afterthought. The campaign is the story. That’s when we connect with our candidates, with the meaning of their office and, on a larger scale, with the purpose of democracy, which ultimately depends on a lot more than those winning individuals. They represent institutions that are bigger than they are, and that need the periodic transfusion of public engagement to remain vibrant institutions as opposed to arthritic bureaucracies. Only elections, contested elections, make that possible.

Others will replace Johnston and Gardner eventually, and maybe Bexley sometime in the 22nd century. But those replacements must know how high their predecessors have set the bar. We need these guys periodically to make their case—not just to prove that they’re not done yet, but to also show us and show their staff that they’re not taking their office for granted, that they’re not entitled. Even royalty needs accountability.

In that sense, Doug Courtney is providing an excellent service. You can’t blame Gardner and Johnston for not having their photobomb candidates. But it’s not as if a county of 100,000 people can’t muster young turks to cut their teeth against King Gardner and Queen Johnston. A quarter of the population is running for sheriff, the other quarter is running for Palm Coast mayor. Most of those candidates make even Courtney look like DNA from the House of Windsor, so it’s not as if we could urge some of them to migrate to other races. But surely as fertile a land as Flagler’s could produce a couple of upstarts and give Gardner and Johnston a run for their crowns and who knows, surprise us by being elected royalty in turn one day.

Pierre Tristam is FlaglerLive’s editor. Reach him by email here or follow him @PierreTristam. A version of this piece will air on WNZF.

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17 Responses for “Flagler County Royalty:
The Trouble With Uncontested Elections”

  1. Bill McGuire says:

    Running for office is a noble endeavor. But, unless you can spend long and arduous hours campaigning and can tap into a sizable amount of cash, your chances of defeating a member of “royalty” are slim to none.

  2. Fredrick says:

    This is probably one of the best articles that you have written. You get an A+ and a smiley face Pierre. They are all doing a great job and should be commended. King Jay… he is never going to live this one down……..

  3. Veteran says:

    The reason nobody wants to run against them IS because they are good at their jobs.

  4. Kendall says:

    Great piece Pierre! I agree that these three offices, as well as the County Elections Office for the last 13 or so months- are led by proactive, helpful, community oriented people. But challengers will help them to stay at the top of their game.

  5. BeenThereDoneThat says:

    But Pierre.. We aren’t a Democracy…

    If you check in with Princeton they may provide you their final review which rated the US a full fledged Oligarchy.

    So to be honest all I have to say is… IF the shoe fits!

  6. Jane Gentile-Youd says:

    ” King Jay’ deserves an A++++ because he not only maintains he State of Florida Appraiser’s license which his not required to ‘serve’ he is past President of the State Appraisers Association. He also took the Property Appraiser’s web site which was ‘.from hunger’ and created a user friendly up to date comprehensive easy to understand and very professionally designed in my opinion as a licensed Florida Realtor for 37 years
    However after many years of nicknaming King Jay as the greatest property appraiser on earth as royalty sometime does, I believe he has abused his royal position. He created a link to all listings in Flagler County listed by a private Realtor Association, The Flagler Association of Realtors, which is not a branch of Flagler County Government and is not the only Realtor Association ‘allowed’ to list property in Flagler County. The link he created furthermore allows anyone to contact listing agents directly, see their other listings and photos, including listings by two County Commission Board Members who are members of the private Flagler Association of Realtors, ( Nate McLaughlin and Barbara Revels) as well as Jay Gardner’s wife.
    Many Flagler County residents who are licensed realtors, like myself, have chosen the ‘Daytona Area Association of Realtors and other Associations which are all allowed to ‘list’ in Flagler County. King Jay offered ‘my chosen board’ the same privilege but at a ‘charge’….
    This is wrong and I hope that King Jay will own up to abusing the authority granted under his crown and offer such links to all properties listed by any realtor in Flagler County, as well as those selling on their own, or remove the current unethical link to his wife’s listings and those of the two Flagler County Commissioners.
    I hope my comment is approved because such actions are certainly not befitting anyone of royalty.

  7. Nancy N says:

    It is a noble cause indeed to be a sacrificial lamb for the sake of a principle. Too few have the nobility, and too few of the noble have the time, resources, and credentials to exercise their nobility.

  8. steve miller says:

    While you have freedom of the pen was it really necessary to drop the dropping cancer bomb?

  9. Oldseadog says:

    To get to be a successful elected official, one must abide by the rules of the game, and then you have to play better than anyone else to keep your job. These three county constitutional
    officers have all clearly proven themselves and have demonstrated their value to this community.
    Attempting to run against such “royalty”, would simply be quixotic and fruitless unless any
    of these no longer continue to perform as well as they have in the past. Other political races
    often show great competition when, in the eyes of the voters, the position being sought is
    one in which the public is discouraged or dismayed in the present or past performance of the holders of such office.

    (Gee the Sheriff’s Office race here seems to fit that last observation—-eh!)

  10. Donna Heiss says:

    Hmm, Pierre. You’ve been here long enough to know whats going on.

  11. Frances Royals says:

    I generally like your reporting and articles, but I find this article about Jay Gardner and Suzanne Johnston rather offensive. These two people have worked extremely hard in this county to do a great job which you mention in your article. They have also assisted with County functions and been outstanding citizens in our county. I’ve lived here for over 30 years and I think referring to them as “royalty” is rather insulting. They aren’t “royalty” – just two hard working people who do an excellent job at what they do and make many contributions to our county. They and their families are well known in this county – well known for doing some remarkable things for people and being good, hard working, honest people. I don’t know Tom Bexley so I can’t comment on him. I guess, bottom line, is I don’t know why you would write a column like this. I get the democracy bit, but I do not understand referring to these two fine people as “royalty,” as if they think they are entitled. Sometimes when you’re decent and hard working people recognize that and vote for you. To me being a Republican or Democrat doesn’t really matter. It is who the person is and what he stands for that matters to me. Just my opinion.

  12. downinthelab says:

    Having met all three at one time or another, I must say they all will get my vote.

    Having also met the current sheriff, not so much…

  13. PJ says:

    Pierre! you are real hoot.

    Only you can jam in one article references to local royalty (that most everyone I know likes them) (and do a great) speak about them as a matter-of-fact that they are all Republicans too and then that you have had cancer.

    You are cooler than cool sometimes………….great article….PJ

    P.S. Good peoples Gardner, Johnston and Bexley.

  14. BIG JOHN says:

    I think those find Pierre offensive have missed the whole point of his satire.
    Didn’t any of you ever read Swift?

  15. Dave says:

    “” Republican considerably increases my chance of a cancer recurrence.”” Pierre I would rather have you vote some other party that even attempt your little bit of humor in regards to cancer.

  16. Julie Mathis says:

    I want to give a shout out to the professionalism of Jay Gardner. Owning a Real Estate office, I have had numerous occasions to interact with the Property Appraisers office. Top quality customer service. At times I have spoken and worked with Jay Gardner. Jay is not only professional, but very knowledgable about all aspects of Flagler County. I find him approachable, very polite and friendly and willing to spend the time helping with any issues that might need attention. While there might be a case for competition during election time, it would be almost impossible to compete with the customer service in regards to the Property Appraiser’s office. Just sharing my experiences.

  17. Jack Howell says:

    I consider Suzanne, Jay and Bill friends. No question that they deserve to be reelected as they are extremely knowledgeable in their areas. Most important is they, and their staff, will bend over backwards to help you. I appreciate their efforts to be at the top of their game. They only complaint that I have is with the ugly paint job on Jay’s plane!

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