Earlier this week Palm Coast City Council member Bill McGuire put his colleagues on notice about what he’s been hinting at for months: that he will likely not complete his council term, which doesn’t end until November. “I’d say there’s a 95 percent chance that I will go that route,” McGuire specified this morning in an interview from St. Louis, where he’s already got more than a foot permanently re-planted.
Because it’s so close to the election, McGuire’s pending resignation creates a problem for the council, which by charter has 30 days from a member’s resignation, death or removal to appoint a successor. The council has gone through the process four times in its 17-year history, three of those times seeking applicants and appointing one after a ranking process.
But seeking applicants this time would mean that declared candidates running for that seat could also apply, as two of the four candidates said they would, given the chance. A third candidate said he would not apply, nor should the council consider appointing from the list of candidates, as that would give the appointee the advantage of incumbency while, as council member Jason DeLorenzo put it, “it would look like an endorsement.”
The council could also ignore the charter. It did so in 2005, the second time it was in this situation. Council member Ralph Carter had died in mid-July, two months before the city primary, four months before the general election. The council argued first that it would take longer than 30 days to solicit applicants, and that the primary winner, if he garnered more than 50 percent of the vote, could be appointed in September, thus making an earlier appointment moot. But the primary winner, Alan Peterson, got 43 percent and had to be in a run-off with Bill Lewis in November. Jon Netts, at the time a council member, favored appointing someone to serve until the general election, but he was in the minority. The council ignored the charter again and waited out the time until Peterson won the run-off (he defeated Bill Lewis) and was sworn-in in November. The council went four months, including budget season, missing a member.
There was another reason the council had been reluctant to make an appointment: it had gone through that process in 2002, and had not distinguished itself. Council member Jim Holland (father to Milissa Holland, currently running for Palm Coast mayor) had died. The council appointed Tom Lawrence. The appointment was messy, partisan and contentious. It ended only after council members agreed to rank five applicants, without interviews. The term had 20 months left. Lawrence ran in the 2003 election but did not win.
Palm Coast elections and appointments are ostensibly non-partisan. But partisanship has never been far from the process, or from sitting council members’ minds. It may be playing a role again.
This morning, Ralph Lightfoot, chairman of the Democratic Executive Committee, emailed council members to let them know that Holsey Moorman, who lost to McGuire in the 2011 election by 55 votes (out of 5,693 cast), “would be willing to serve until November. He has no plan to seek elected office.” Moorman is a Democrat.
On Wednesday, Netts, the mayor, was having lunch with Alan Peterson, a former member of the Palm Coast City Council and the county commission, and a Republican. They were talking about Peterson’s interest in filling out the term. Peterson was, like McGuire, particularly keen on budgeting and financial issues, and has remained involved in public issues beyond his continuing service on the county library board.
Looking for a way to avoid a politically fraught appointment or leaving the seat vacant for months.
Either appointment would spare the council from favoring one of the four candidates running for McGuire’s seat, should any of those candidates apply for the position.
“I was asked and it’s only for a few months, so I said yes, I could do that, help out, I have knowledge of the city operations and workings,” Moorman said this afternoon, referring to Lightfoot, who had asked him if he’d be willing to serve. City officials have not contacted him, he said. I’d be more than willing to step in for a few months. I’m not looking to take on additional long-range goals.” Moorman still serves on the board of directors of Florida Hospital Flagler, the board of directors of the Community Partnership for Children in Volusia County, and on his church’s board, in addition to having been made responsible to raise two great grandchildren. The youngest one, still in his charge, is 4. “I’m not looking for work. I have plenty to keep me busy,” he said.
Peterson confirmed his interest in an interview this afternoon, and did so to make clear that he wasn’t interested in just keeping the seat warm for his successor. “Yes, I’d be very willing to serve the remaining portion,” Peterson said, “because I am very frustrated that this issue of the EMS service provided by Palm Coast and the county is getting nowhere.” The two governments have been stalemated over whether and how to improve ambulance service in the city, which is run by the county alongside city paramedics. “And since I know and have good relations with Craig Coffey and Jim Landon and know the city council members and have worked with almost all the county commissioners I think we can come to some solution that would be beneficial to both the city and the county, and if the opportunity exists, I would like to be part of that issue being resolved, instead of just back-biting between both sides.” Coffey is the county administrator (Peterson had met with him this morning), Landon the city manager.
Peterson’s resignation from the city council in 2008 had itself necessitated an appointment to his seat. In September 2008, he resigned to run for the county commission. The council sought applicants, who had to submit a letter of intent, a resume, and then submit to one-on-one, closed-door interviews with council members. They were then ranked. There were four finalists, including Lewis, who had lost to Peterson in the election, and who won appointment only after a coin toss, as three rounds of voting had him tied with Sarah Nunziato.
In 2012, council member Frank Meeker resigned to run for the county commission, a seat Milissa Holland resigned to run for a state House seat. The council went through the same process it had with Peterson’s resignation, eventually appointing David Ferguson from a list of 16 applicants—and violating the Sunshine law along the way by ranking applicants outside of a meeting. (The council re-ranked the candidates in an open meeting, though the one-on-one interviews with the candidates had again been held behind closed doors.)
Four people are running for McGuire’s seat: Robert Cuff, an attorney, Troy DuBose, a web designer, Sims Jones, a pastor, and Arthur McGovern, about whom little is known and who does not return calls. Cuff and Jones said they would apply for the position if applications are sought. DuBose said he would not.
“It would be kind of unethical, it would look like an endorsement,” DuBose said, if the council chose one of the candidates. The council would then open itself up, potentially, to a lawsuit. “I want to be picked by the people. I don’t want to be appointed.”
Cuff isn’t enthusiastic about an appointment, calling it a two-edged sword. “I haven’t had a lot of time to think about it but I would say yes that I will, depending on what kind of application and interview process the city decides it needs to follow,” he said of the prospect of applying. “It’s an unusual situation, given the length of the vacancy.” He would be more in favor of the council choosing a neutral person, however—someone who is not running, and has no intention of running, but someone willing to fill pout the term. “I suppose that’s one way to do it but that’s asking an awful lot of some citizen to give up the next three or four months of their life just to learn the issues and keep the seat warm.” He suggested former members of the council, without naming names. At the time, he was not aware of Moorman’s and Peterson’s interest.
But if there were to be interviews, Cuff said, they would have to be open and public.
Jones, too, said he would apply. “My concern though is others may feel, or it could be looked at as an unfair advantage because someone who’s appointed, technically they would be now an incumbent, as opposed to just running for the office,” he said. He, too, said, interviews should be open.
Netts did not respond to several phone calls and a text, though he clearly has been maneuvering behind the scenes. According to someone familiar with the process—not Peterson, though Peterson, too, intimated the same thing—Netts, in contrast with his position in 2005, is favoring leaving the position open until November to skirt around the pitfalls of making an appointment that would look too political. McGuire of course could drag out his tenure to make an appointment moot: he could still sit on two or three more meetings, stretching his service through July, and could miss three meetings before being deemed in violation of the terms of his service, pushing the calendar into September. By then, the council could drag its feet in turn, with the application process alone requiring a few weeks. By then appointing someone for two or three meetings and a couple of workshops might seem absurd.
The charter is clear about only one thing: that an appointment must be made within 30 days of a seat being vacated in circumstances similar to those triggered by McGuire. The charter reads: “If, for any reason other than recall, a vacancy occurs in the office of any Council seat within the last two years of a term, the office shall be filled by appointment within 30 days following the occurrence of such vacancy by majority vote of the remaining Council members. Such appointments shall last until the next regularly scheduled election, at which time the seat shall be declared open and an election held for the regular four-year term.”
The charter leave silent the method the council may adopt for the appointment. It is not bound to interview candidates or even to rank them. But it’s not clear if the council could arbitrarily appoint an individual—if, for example, a council member could make a motion to have either Peterson or Moorman appointed, absent advertising for the position.
Either way, Peterson said, “it’ll be interesting to see what Bill’s decision will be knowing that there are at least two reasonably knowledgeable people willing to fill in. I’m sorry to see Bill leave, I like Bill, he’s a friend, and he’s done a good job.”
McGuire’s wife Sandy died on January 27, ending his attachment to Palm Coast and prompting the likelihood of his resignation. “I do so, as Lyndon Johnson would say, with a heavy heart,” he told the council on Tuesday, “but without Sandy here, there’s nothing here for me in this city, and I do intend to go back where my family is in Missouri. So please indulge me and work with me, but I’ll probably not make it.”
Though he’s been offered places to stay until November, he said today, “the reason I’m leaving is not going to change,” he said, with the move out of the house a psychologically important step for his well-being. “I need to consider how I’m going to live the rest of my life and I choose to live it with my children and my grandchildren in Missouri.”