Robert Cuff, Palm Coast City Council Candidate: The Live Interview
FlaglerLive | July 27, 2016
Robert Cuff is a candidate for Palm Coast City Council, District 1. He faces three other candidates: Troy DuBose, Sims Jones and Arthur McGovern, Jr.
Since its incorporation in 1999, when all five of its council seats were up for election, Palm Coast has not had an election like this year’s, when three seats are open. The council majority, in other words, is certain to turn over, with three new faces in November joining two relative newcomers: Steven Nobile and Heidi Shipley were elected only in 2014. That’s because Mayor Jon Netts, who has been on the council since 2001, is term-limited. Council member Bill McGuire resigned effective Aug. 15. And Council member Jason DeLorenzo is running for a county commission seat.
Of all the candidates running for Palm Coast City Council, only one–Milissa Holland–has held public office before. She was a county commissioner for six years. It will not only be the greenest council in 17 years. It is almost certain to be the youngest council, ending an era dominated by mostly retired council members.
This is a non-partisan election. That means all registered voters in Palm Coast, regardless of party or non-party affiliation–Democrats, Republicans, independents and others–may cast a ballot for all three seats, regardless of district.
If a candidate wins more than 50 percent in any of these races on Aug. 30, the race is over: that candidate is the winner. But if none of the candidates clears the 50 percent hurdle in the primary, then the top two vote-getters will face-off in a run-off on the general election ballot on Nov. 8.
Palm Coast council members serve four years. They’re paid $9,600 a year, $11,400 for the mayor, not including a monthly “telecommunications” allowance.
FlaglerLive submitted identical questions to all candidates, with the understanding that additional questions might be tailored to candidates individually and some follow-up questions may be asked, with all exchanges on the record. The Live Interview’s aim is to elicit as much candor and transparency as possible. We have asked candidates to refrain from making campaign speeches or make lists of accomplishments. We have also asked candidates to reasonably document any claim or accusation. Undocumented claims are edited out. Answers are also edited for length, redundancy, relevance and, where possible, accuracy. If a candidate does not answer a question or appears to be evading a question, that’s noted.
But it’s ultimately up to the reader to judge the quality and sincerity of a candidate’s answers.
The Questions in Summary: Quick Links
- Charter review
- Public service tax
- EMS and fire services
- Palm Coast v. County
- Council dynamics
- Post-Jon Netts
- Jim Landon
- Pot and civil citations
- Code enforcement
- Golf and tennis clubs
- Community center
- The arts
Since each council position is only one vote out of five, I think it is disingenuous for any candidate to promise the voters specific accomplishments. That said my policy priorities if elected will be:
Intergovernmental communication and cooperation should be our most important priority. Without cooperation between the various local governments, objectives such as attracting new businesses, increasing tourism or creating new public services will be far more difficult. The city can do much on its own, but can do much more if we cooperate with and can count on cooperation from neighboring governments. For this reason, my top priority would be to understand the opportunities and issues that would benefit most from close cooperation and then do my utmost to convince the remaining council members and city manager to be reliable partners with other governments and to develop working relationships with the individuals in other governmental entities whose cooperation can help make those opportunities become realities.
We need to maintain our city’s natural beauty and existing infrastructure. One of the most frequent criticisms of new construction or development in the city is that it will degrade Palm Coast’s natural beauty. I think the city has done good work in creating parks, bike and walking paths and other public spaces to preserve this beauty and make it available for public appreciation. In the same way, the city’s regulations have tried to preserve this beauty as part of the process of reviewing and approving new development. As the economy grows again and new development becomes a reality, one of my top priorities would be to make sure that the city does not lower its standards in this area just to attract more businesses or home construction. The less visible flip side of this issue is the city’s responsibility to maintain what it has developed over the last 16 years and be sure that tax dollars are being spent where needed to keep these services up to date and ready to meet the current and future needs of the city residents and businesses. It is easy to take things such as safe drinking water, storm water management or efficient emergency services for granted when everything is working well. But the council has to constantly focus on this most fundamental obligation of government. I would make it a personal priority to insist on regular review of the city’s development codes, such as the current revisions to the landscape and tree preservation regulations now taking place, to make sure these regulations actually protect our city and don’t needlessly inhibit development. I would also make it a personal priority to understand the maintenance and projected expansion needs of our existing facilities and insist the council consider these items as priorities in their budgeting and goal setting.
We also need to explore opportunities to use existing facilities and new technologies to make the city more attractive to business and provide better services to residents. The school board recently tore down the building at One Corporate Drive. Many people don’t know that this building was once Palm Coast’s state of the art office building. In the period between 1978, when the building was first occupied, and 2016, it became a relic that was less expensive to tear down than maintain. If the city council relies on conducting business in ways that are “good enough” or, worse yet, “close enough for government work,” we will never be successful in attracting the types of businesses and new residents that will keep Palm Coast vital into the future. My third priority, if elected, would be to stay abreast of new technologies and new uses for existing technologies, such as the city’s fiber optic network, for ways that can make the city more attractive and livable. Unless the council and staff are alert for these new opportunities, there will be little to distinguish Palm Coast from any other city or county trying to attract new businesses or better jobs for its residents.
Communication and cooperation with other local governments is my top priority and is clearly something we need to do better. I hope that little urging would be necessary to convince other council members of the value of more open communication and cooperation with the county and other cities. As noted elsewhere in this interview, I think my personal relationships with many of the individuals involved in county and city government can help create more open communications between the two governments and help the council understand how an issue may be viewed by the other governmental entity.
We need to do better at giving existing small businesses and residents the attention they deserve. One thing the boom from 2000 through 2007 showed is that it is easy to get excited about the new and the flashy. The council must remember, however, that we already have thousands of residents and hundreds of small businesses who rightly expect their needs and wishes to be heard and respected. If a local sports league has reserved a city facility, the city should honor its commitment to the local group before pushing it aside for an event from out of town even if the city thinks the new event will provide more exposure or revenue for the city. If an existing business has a problem with a city regulation, the existing business should receive at least as much consideration and support from the city as a new business coming to town with promises of jobs and economic benefits “if only” the city grants it a variance or some other concession. Again, I hope that simply keeping the other council members focused on this issue when a situation arises would be enough to make sure that our existing residents receive as much consideration as incoming residents or businesses.
I think the council relies too heavily on staff to generate new ideas for city action. Given the structure of the city government, it is easy for council members to rely on city staff to bring new ideas and proposals forward. The council can do more to bring new ideas and direction to staff for staff’s review and recommendations. Whether these ideas are suggestions from citizens or ideas from an individual council member, being more proactive in this area might cut down on a public perception I have heard that the council is simply a rubber stamp for whatever proposals the manager or senior staff present. I would do my best to keep up with best practices of other cities or new opportunities we should consider and would encourage other council members to do the same.
I have read the city charter. I do not think that a review of the charter is necessary at this time, although I would be open to input from others as to what portions of the charter they feel may benefit from review or change. Given the relative simplicity of the city charter, I think opening up a general review of the document without some clear idea of what changes members of the public think are necessary would be a waste of time.
4. Palm Coast has the authority to impose a public service tax on your utility bill of up to 10 percent, and a franchise fee on utilities, which would be passed to customers, of up to 10 percent. The money may be spent at the council’s discretion. Many counties and cities around the state partially or fully levy one or both the taxes. Palm Coast considered imposing a 6 percent electric franchise fee and a 2 percent public service tax in 2012, but reversed course in the face of strong public opposition, even though the two new taxes were intended to replace the existing stormwater fee. Either of the new taxes, proponents argue, would diversify the city’s revenue stream. Either could be used to generate revenue that would otherwise have to be generated by property taxes, though the public service tax and the franchise fee are regressive in comparison. Where do you stand on either new tax becoming part of Palm Coast’s taxing structure?
I do not favor imposing either tax at this time and would only be willing to consider either tax if there were a demonstrated need for the additional revenue without a better alternative for raising that revenue. As noted by the question, taxes on utility services are inherently regressive and disproportionately impact less wealthy utility customers. Given the perception by some citizens that utility rates are already too high, I think it is important that the council do its best to hold the line on any action that would increase these rates, including the two taxes described in this question.
5. Explain who provides ambulance and fire services in the city. Evaluate the quality of that service, including your assessment of the adequacy of fire stations and EMS, and what you would change, if anything, about it. If your proposed changes cost money, how would you pay for them?
Fire protection in the city is provided by the Palm Coast Fire Department. Ambulance services are provided by Flagler County Emergency Services. Both departments are trained to provide emergency medical services at the scene of emergencies, such as medical calls, accidents or fires. However, only the county is authorized to transport (ambulance services) individuals from those emergency scenes. At the moment, I think the quality of both services is good and the number of fire stations, EMS vehicles and crews and deployment of fire apparatus is adequate for the needs of the city’s population. Because this is an issue that directly impacts the lives and safety of our residents, the council should always be open to improving this service, provided the economic impact of any changes is justified by a measurable increase in the quality of the service. As the city grows and population density shifts, additional stations, equipment and personnel will almost certainly be required to maintain or improve response times.
6. Palm Coast and the county have a sniping, at times competitive, at times antagonistic relationship, as if between fiefs. To what extent are the two elected bodies responsible? To what extent are the two government’s managers responsible? How will you help foster a less medieval relationship?
I believe that intergovernmental cooperation is the most important issue in this election. I think that a certain amount of competitiveness between governmental entities with closely related missions is inevitable. In limited circumstances, this competitiveness can even benefit the public by inspiring one governmental entity to improve its services to match those of another entity. Higher levels of training or certification of key personnel is one example of competition I think could actually benefit the public, even if it is inspired by a desire to “one up” another entity’s training or certification level.
That said both the county and city exist and operate solely to benefit the public, not to feed the egos of their elected representatives or staff. I am not sure I’d agree that the relationship is medieval and I certainly don’t favor trial by combat to settle disputes, but recent public bickering and finger pointing over issues such as emergency services and funding for right of way acquisition do remind me of the “did not, did too” exchanges of children. These types of exchanges diminish public confidence in both governments and point to an inability to communicate that can only waste taxpayer money.
It is tempting to blame the city and county managers for this activity. However, both individuals report directly to their respective elected bodies and, ultimately, I believe it is the responsibility of the elected officials to set the tone for intergovernmental relations and to restrain their managers when disputes or antagonism waste public resources. During my years of legal work in the county and city, I have worked on issues with both managers, many members of their staffs and personally know most of the individuals now serving on the city council and county commission, as well as most of those who may be elected to those bodies. Within the limits of the public meeting laws, I would try to use this personal relationship to increase communication and transparency between the two governments to resolve any differences in a business-like way and without “war by press release.”
The city charter is clear that it is the city council that sets policy for the city and the staff. The staff, represented by the city manager, is given the authority to carry out this policy and manage the day to day running of the city. With the vast number of functions needed to operate the city government on a day to day basis, it is inevitable that the administration will sometimes interpret policy set by the council in a way that effectively results in the staff making policy decisions. If the city is going to function effectively for its residents, the council must be able to trust the judgment of the staff, since it is clearly impossible for a part-time elected body to publicly meet and decide every issue that might arise. In return, the manager must be careful to respect the direction of the council and be willing to proactively ask for input on matters where there may be a need for specific policy directions and not simply proceed without direction from council or use the council to rubber stamp a policy generated by the manager.
The answer sums up the relationship according to the spirit of the charter, but it does not give us your analysis of the relationship as it now is: the city manager has been criticized for leading the council rather than the other way around, as illustrated by a method of framing presentations on policy within narrowly defined boundaries of his, rather than the council’s making. You begin to allude to that yourself in your next answer, but what is your analysis of that dynamic?
I think that the current relationship is skewed too far in the direction of the council accepting what is put before it by the manager. The individual council members need to be more assertive and willing to dig into proposals offered by the manager to be sure that alternatives that might benefit the city aren’t being missed. A recent example is the manager’s reported rejection of the concept of leasing the Palm Harbor Golf Course as an approach to stemming the operating losses at that facility. I’m not suggesting that leasing is the correct approach to this problem, only that it is one alternative and Landon’s apparent categorical rejection of that option is troubling, particularly when the council is clearly struggling with a difficult situation and looking for alternatives. This approach of “manager knows best” does little to inspire public confidence in the council’s eventual decision on an issue.
8. Jon Netts’s tenure as mayor spanned half the life of the city: eight years. Ceremonial duties aside, what should the next mayor continue that Netts did best, and what approach or method should the next mayor discontinue or do differently, including parliamentary conduct during meetings? How do you hope the next mayor distinguishes himself or herself from Netts?
I believe that the next mayor could do much worse than follow Jon Nett’s approach to the position. As noted, Jon Nett’s tenure has covered half of the city’s existence to date and much has been accomplished during that time, especially when the devastating impact of the recent recession is considered. There is no specific issue that I hope a new mayor would handle differently, but I think the new mayor should do his or her best to solicit public input for presentation to the council. He or she should also insist that the city manager provide facts and alternatives on agenda items to assist council in its decision making process, rather than relying on power point slides pointing to the decision the manager wants from the council.
Even the Eisenhower years verged on overstaying their welcome by 1960, when the nation was ready for an assertive, youthful departure: Without diminishing Netts’s accomplishments, is there no departure from the past eight years we ought to be hoping for from the mayor’s perch, if only to avoid turning that city- and council-defining position into a relic-like equivalent of Corporate One?
As you can tell from my previous answer to this question, I have a lot of respect for Jon Netts and the job he has done for the city. However, I do think the relationship between our current mayor and manager has contributed to the perception by some that the manager is too powerful and assumes too much responsibility in his presentations to the council as a whole. Under the city’s system of government, the relationship of any mayor and manager, if it is to function at all, is going to be close and much of that relationship will be formed in meetings between the two individuals in those positions that take place outside of public council meetings. Because of this, I think one of the most important jobs of the next mayor will be to do everything possible to be sure that the entire council is adequately briefed on alternatives to what the manager recommends and dispel the appearance that proposals to the council in public meetings have been decided in advance between the mayor and manager and brought before the council for pro forma approval.
Having said that, I think it is also important for council members other than the mayor to do their jobs, review agenda items and ask for more back up or propose alternatives to recommended actions if they don’t think the staff is providing the information the council needs to make an informed decision.
9. Evaluate City Manager Jim Landon’s performance, citing strengths and weaknesses. His total compensation package is close to a quarter of a million dollars. He is seeking a raise. Would you grant it? [Note: the question went to candidates before the council’s vote rejected the request on July 19, though the question remains valid for the new council.]
I think Jim Landon has generally done a good job for the city in a position that, by its nature, attracts criticism and strong differences of opinion. The overall operation and condition of the city and the programs that have been completed during his tenure are examples of his strengths in the job. As for weaknesses, I would say that his style of management and communication can come across as condescending and dismissive, particularly in situations where he senses someone is challenging him or his point of view. I think this tendency has created some, but not all, of infighting between county and city government and resentment by some citizens and community groups. His current compensation is generous but not necessarily overly so compared to other managers of comparable governments. However, I think his latest request for a raise was poorly presented and justified to the council. Some salary or benefit adjustment may be justified, but I think the council needs to conduct a more formal review of his performance and study compensation levels of similar positions in other cities before acting on his request.
10. Palm Coast relies on the sheriff for policing. Evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of that contract, and tell us what specifically you would change about it. Are some areas of Palm Coast less effectively policed than others? Do you favor an independent police department for the city, now or in the near future?
I think that the city has been generally well served by its contract with the sheriff. The most obvious weakness of contracting such a vital service is the city’s lack of direct input on the day to day decisions regarding policing in the city. On the whole, however, the sheriffs who have served during the city’s existence appear to be responsive to city requests and input. If this changes in the future, it may be necessary to address contract issues or even consider establishing a city police department. At this time, I don’t believe that any fundamental changes in the contract are needed, I do not favor creating an independent police department and I don’t see anything that would likely change my opinion in the near future. I am not aware that any particular area of the city is less effectively policed than others, but would welcome input from residents who believe their area of the city is underserved.
11. The current council appears opposed to a civil citation program that would lessen the penalty for a first-time marijuana possession offense in many circumstances. Without Palm Coast’s approval, the county-wide effort is most likely doomed. Where do you stand on that proposal?
Given the enormous case load and chronic underfunding of the judicial system in Florida generally and Flagler County in particular, I favor the proposal. I would prefer that the change be implemented either in state law or, at least, by all of the governmental entities in Flagler County to avoid disparate treatment of an individual by different law enforcement departments or in different geographical areas of the county.
12. Code enforcement: Palm Coast is clearly the harshest enforcer among local governments, regulating such things as garbage cans in view of the street, work vans with commercial imprints on their sides parked in residential areas, and of course tall grass. The city has a fleet of enforcers, and an enforcement board that routinely levies fines on violators. Complainers to the city can remain anonymous. How comfortable are you with that regime, and what, if anything, would you change?
The codes and their enforcement exist (or should exist) solely to protect the welfare and quality of life of the residents of the city. Ideally, resident awareness of code requirements and their reason for being in the first place would increase voluntary compliance. Residents who know and speak with their neighbors about issues other than just complaints over lawn maintenance or vehicle parking would also go a long way toward diminishing the need for zealous code enforcement.
Although I personally do not like accepting anonymous complaints, I think the city has an obligation to follow up on anonymous complaints, at least until it is clear that the process is being abused by the complaining party. Communication between neighbors and, perhaps, neighborhood meetings facilitated by city staff would be preferable to relying too heavily on anonymous complaints for enforcement. Also, patrols by existing code enforcement personnel on weekends and evenings could cut down on the need for resident reporting, anonymous or otherwise, and provide more objective enforcement where needed, even if this required schedule adjustments or overtime pay for the individuals covering these after-hours shifts.
13. The Palm Harbor Golf Club and the city’s tennis club has been losing money since their inception while serving a relatively small number of club members. Should the two clubs stay open with city subsidies? If not, what’s your alternative?
I do not support subsidizing large deficits for these facilities. The clubs are, however, valuable community assets for existing residents and when the city presents itself to prospective residents and businesses, so I do not favor closing either. The council and staff should actively investigate and be open to alternative methods of operating these facilities to make sure they run on as close to a break even basis as possible. These alternatives could include leasing one or both to private operators under strict lease guidelines to protect the city’s interests. The city manager’s apparent outright rejection of this alternative surprised me and I would like to be sure there are sound reasons for those objections before discarding this option from consideration. Another alternative would be to look for another company to operate the facilities. The current management company (and, in fairness to Kemper Sports, its direct, national competitors) tend to have top heavy management structures that add to the cost of operation without increasing revenue. Exploration of other management companies with more streamlined management structures, perhaps regional or even local organizations, might allow the city to either eliminate the deficits or hold them to a tolerable level.
14. The city will be expanding and modernizing its community center next year. But residents from time to time have clamored for a senior center. Do you favor building and operating a stand-alone senior center? If so, how do you propose the city should pay for it?
I am not opposed to a dedicated senior center, but my top priorities in this area would be to see the Holland Park expansion finished and the community center modernization and expansion completed as quickly and efficiently as possible. The community center is one of the oldest public buildings in the city and this upgrade is long overdue. Also, the facility is a true multiuse facility and serves a wide variety of community groups and activities, not just one group as a dedicated senior center would.
As a member of the senior population of the city, I believe seniors are an important group with special needs that should be considered. But before committing taxpayer money to a city owned and operated special purpose facility, I would need more information than I’ve seen to date on the need, purpose, scope and funding for a dedicated senior center.
15. Question customized for Robert Cuff: You’ve championed many civic causes or concerns, not least of them the arts. The city’s recent support of the Palm Coast Foundation aside, the council has not been known for its generosity toward the arts, though it bends over backwards for sports-related special events and, more appallingly, spends more on marketing itself and its “brand” than on fostering culture and the arts in Palm Coast. What place will the arts hold in your vision for the city?
I believe a diverse and active art scene is very important for any community and that Palm Coast and Flagler County are fortunate to have many organizations and individuals doing much to foster this already. The city can and should do more to promote art for the benefit of our current residents as well as to help promote Palm Coast as an interesting and intellectually challenging place to live for new residents and businesses. A thriving art community and the reputation that brings to a city will do at least as much to promote Palm Coast’s brand as another sporting event or generic advertising touting our city’s unquestionable natural beauty.
Some may resist spending more to promote art because they don’t believe such spending can be justified in dollars and cents. It is probably true, for the time being, that even small sports oriented special events generate more immediate revenue in bed taxes and money spent by visitors in local businesses than most art events in this county, but the long term value of an active art scene in the city is worth far more than the short term economic benefit from filling a few more hotel rooms or seats in restaurants. In addition to real economic benefits that can come from being known as a city where art is valued, art in its many forms simply makes life better for everyone who takes the time to experience it. That experience can be a performance at the auditorium, a trip to a local gallery, participation in a “painting party” fundraiser for a local charity, joining the wood carvers who meet at the community center or simply noticing our panther lounging at the eastern end of Linear Park when you come off the Hammock Dunes Bridge. Art doesn’t have to be “high”, intimidating or inaccessible and additional support from the city can help make it available for more of our residents to enjoy at whatever level suits their interests.
While I’m not suggesting that we can or have to develop our own Spoleto, Art Basel or Sundance Film Festival, any vision for the future of the community should include building on the resources we already have by increasing support for local arts groups and providing for art in city facilities and other public places as part of every annual budget. This doesn’t have to mean greatly increased spending, but does require that the city acknowledge the value of art beyond just its short term monetary contribution. It is also an area where better cooperation between the county, the cities and our school system can help make sure that the resources we already have don’t go unnoticed for lack of a coordinated effort to let residents know what is available.