Dennis McDonald, Palm Coast Mayoral Candidate: The Live Interview
FlaglerLive | August 2, 2016
Dennis McDonald is a candidate for Palm Coast Mayor. He faces three other candidates: John Brady, Milissa Holland, and Ron Radford.
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
- Being Dennis McDonald
Place and Date of Birth: April 11, 1950.
Current job: Retired.
Party Affiliation: Republican.
Financial disclosure. Not provided.
Resume. Not provided.
Website: Not provided.
A. As mayor I would work for an independent audit of the last 10 years of operation of all city departments.
B. I will safeguard all transfers from our Utility Enterprise Fund. No dollars will be loaned out for any purpose. We will strictly adhere to the definition of “enterprise fund” and money received for utilities will never be used for anything but the stated purpose of the fund.
C. Palm Coast is a exceptional place to live and it generates a solid revenue base that if properly administered will meet our needs. These needs do not include the needs of developers, special interests, individuals, and corporations that have been successful at getting the current mayor and past council to subsidize infrastructure for private ventures at taxpayer expense. An excellent example is the new city hall rejected by 82.7 percent at a public referendum. We must not spend what we don’t have.
The city is audited every year by outside, therefore independent, auditors. How would the audit your are proposing be different, how would you pay for a 10-year audit, which may run into six figures, and what are you suspecting? If the city has a need for a few million dollars it could either borrow at more expensive interest or borrow from the utility fund, why deny the utility fund capability? The referendum against a new city hall is over a decade old. The new city hall was built with money accounted for. We may debate whether it should or should not have been built, but it was built, residents did not rise up, and the city has moved on. Isn’t it time to look past old conflicts?
Having spoken to these auditors once outside a city meeting I was told they only do what the state requires. The audit they do is anything but comprehensive. My CPA has looked at the utility fund and met with me and Chris Quinn, the city’s finance director, on more than one occasion. When I inquired of specific amounts, Quinn told us, “I was told not to give them to you.” After the meeting, my CPA commented, “if I have to open 13 screens to see where the money went, you guys have a problem.” There is much more here to discover and your comments prove you have no interest in getting to the bottom of a very expensive waste of taxpayer dollars.
Considering that we devoted about 25,000 words to the city hall controversy back in the day, from which you got most of your assumptions about that issue, your suggestion that we’re not interested in getting to the bottom of anything looks suspiciously like a sidestep around the question: the city may well need the more comprehensive audit you’re proposing, but you’re not telling us how you’d pay for a very expensive proposition, what you are suspecting, what would be wrong with borrowing from the utility fund to avoid steeper charges, and what city hall has to do with the utility fund.
We know that Hidden Lakes/Tuscano gave back impact fees which is certainly illegal and this one really raised eyebrows when John Ruffalo showed his documentation to the FBI. Could it be that the audit is paid for as a Criminal Investigation? Let the voters elect folks that will open the doors wide.
[Note: We asked Palm Coast’s Cindi Lane, its chief spokesperson, and Chris Quinn, to address the allegation in McDonald’s answer about his meeting with Quinn. Lane provided the following statement:
“The City’s auditors follow national standards, as well as state requirements. All of this information can be found in the auditor’s report, issued annually. See page 5 in this most recent audit. Chris Quinn is very accessible to citizens, elected officials, political candidates and the media any time they have a question about City finances. There have been a few times over the years that Mr. McDonald has come in as part of a larger group. But at no time has he ever requested his own meeting with Mr. Quinn, and he’s never brought along anyone who he’s identified to us as his CPA. We do remember one meeting involving the Observer, Mr. McDonald and other political candidates where the citizens brought along a man identified as a certified fraud examiner.
“We respond to all public records requests and answer all questions to the best of our ability. We certainly would never tell Mr. McDonald or anyone else that we’ve been told not to give them public information. It is possible someone could ask for a public record that doesn’t exist or for custom reports that our system isn’t capable of producing, and in that case, we would provide all the information we have in whatever format is available. The City strives to be as transparent as possible, and has extensive current and historical financial information available on its website.”]
I met with John Ruffalo and our CPA who was identified as a CPA in a conference room at the Palm Coast Business Assistance Center with Quinn when the city hall was at City Marketplace. All of my comments can be verified along with many other happenings at this meeting. I don’t believe Lane was employed by Palm Coast at that time and she certainly has zero direct knowledge. Her statement is false, why do we need a expensive spokesperson? I know that when I met with Quinn he could speak very well.
C. Traffic flow east to west on Palm Coast Parkway and Route 100 is unacceptable. Even after spending millions on Palm Coast Parkway, the stop and go continues. There needs to be an honest attempt to coordinate these signals without spending millions more for a big brother camera system. Field management by traffic services would be a good start and creates a job that provides a direct service.
You’re referring to the city utility’s debt. It’s not clear how your answer in the first question would halt that debt, or alter a method of financing capital acquisitions (the utility) or expansion that most local governments use. Palm Coast may have made a bet on development that never materialized when the housing bust did, but that’s a bet many local governments across the country made and lost. It would not have changed the bond to acquire the utility in the first place. Should that utility not have been purchased? Since it has been purchased, what do you propose to do going forward? Sell it? If not, should the debt not be paid, bondholders having ways to break the knees of cities that don’t pay? Can you cite a couple of recent examples–aside from the Old Kings Road widening–where utility dollars were used to run city operations?
This mayor and former council “bet” the ratepayers’ dollars. Acknowledging that many governments were “betting” on development that didn’t happen, is not a sound excuse, since government should not be in the development business because they put our tax dollars at risk. They are an embarrassment, especially when their own bond attorney told them “you can’t bond dirt” at a city meeting, but they continued off the cliff. I will never “bet the farm” when others have to pickup the loss.
Yes. Yes, it is past time for a review, as charters are typically reviewed every five to 10 years to make sure the plan is still most efficient operation for the growing community. We are a much larger, more complex city than we were in 2000. I would ask the council to vote to form a review committee, having each council member choose two or more residents. This committee would work independently and formulate suggestions to the Charter. The City Council would then further examine the recommendations and refine that list to create a public offering. After public vetting the Council would decide whether to further align the changes to coincide with public input. The final product would be put to a binding public referendum.
Are there a couple of charter changes you would propose?
I want to hear from the residents first what their suggestions are. I work for them. It may be a new departure from past practice, yet I trust that the community has very good sense of how they want to structure their community. It is part of our civic duty.
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 support a new Electric Tax! We pushed this back in 2012, yet this June Mayor Netts rolled it out in what I believe is his final end run on the taxpayers. This was his game on the city hall and I believe he wants to use the “lame duck” council to vote this in before election. If in fact the outgoing council is successful, I will make it my first order of business to rescind it when elected.
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?
Of the calls to the fire department, over 90 percent are EMS and are delivered by the County under Chief Don Petito. These county EMS units are located in city fire stations. Our county EMS members compete nationally and internationally and bring home the “gold,” why would any rational person change? I am in favor of keeping the best EMS in the USA in Palm Coast. Palm Coast operates the fire apparatus within the city limits, and it had only three structure fires last year. A review of the city fire department should be considered by the council so that management resources could be combined for cost savings and efficiency. In Palm Coast many times the county engine is on the scene before the city engine due to proximity. Why not consider the advantages and forget about the turf war that does not serve the residents?
[Note: We reviewed Chief Mike Beadle’s weekly memos on fire department activity: there were three structure fires between the last week of June and the first three weeks of July alone, and many more brush fires.–FL]
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?
The majority of the present council and all of the county commissioners are at fault for not controlling their respective agendas. This failure allows the managers too much authority. In theory the managers work for the council/Board of County Commissioners and these elected officials work for us. You would never know that by watching these meetings. The city council should cancel the city manager’s current agenda of “empire building” at Taxpayers’ expense. For many years this has been accomplished by meeting with the Palm Coast Observer that force-feeds this agenda. If the publisher wants to drive public opinion for his advertisers he should go to Tallahassee and register as a Lobbyist, like his good friend Milissa Holland, who became a lobbyist in 2014 for Thrasher’s Southern Strategies. Was this arrangement responsible for the seven-year contract with Red Light Cam company ATS? I do know that when Mayor Netts and others voted for red-light cameras they never discussed a seven-year contract in public. So how did the manager sign off on this seven year contract? This city does not need a paid “spokesperson” position. If the city manager can not speak to the residents directly, the Council has the wrong person in the seat.
Palm Coast/Flagler County is sitting idle while the surrounding counties are moving forward. I will terminate the insider play of the last eight years and move Palm Coast in the direction of opportunities.
Where to start? The question was about the relationship between county and city governments, over which, to our knowledge, 10 men and women and their two managers, rather than the Palm Coast Observer or Southern Strategies, have jurisdiction. There’s little disagreement anymore that red light cameras were Palm Coast’s version of a lucrative electronic Inquisition on its residents, but the cameras were installed three years before the Observer was born and one year after Milissa Holland won election to the county commission. Considering the Observer’s long-running “Red Lights of Doom” feature about the cameras, it’s difficult to imagine the paper had anything to do with a contract extension, but if you have any evidence that it did, or any evidence at all for the above paragraph, we’d like to see it. The extended contract with ATS was approved with little discussion (and one exception: Jason DeLorenzo picked up on the long extension), but that took place in 2012 when Holland was running for a House seat, not 2014. Inaccuracies aside, what has any of it to do with the question at hand, namely, relations between county and city? Finally, you describe Palm Coast/Flagler County as “sitting idle” while surrounding counties are moving forward, a few answers down from declaring that “Palm Coast is a exceptional place to live.” Which is it? And how did it get that way?
The economy is lagging compared to our neighbors, yet this is an exceptional place to live. The problem is for many that this is not an exceptional place to work.
McDonald did not answer the rest of the question.
The first few sentences answer the question asked. If you do not agree with what I believe has been taking place since 2012 that is your option. The facts are that Milissa Holland changed from life long Democrat to newly minted Republican just months back. She did register as a lobbyist in Tallahassee (was this on her resume?) and works or worked for Southern Strategies which is know to be connected to John Thrasher. She, as Southern Strategies lobbyist, did receive a $10,000 payment from OHPOA to lobby for the Vacation Rentals that all of the county commission members said they lobbied for? The public needs clarification on the whole “Vacation Rental Story.” Did the county commission get “the basket” while Southern Strategies got the “assist” or did County Attorney Al Hadeed get all the “points”? This was amazing political theater that served a select few residents because their HOA was inept. As Mayor I will steer clear of all the above.
We don’t question your ability to steer clear, certainly not of specific questions asked: you answered part of the original question, but raised several incendiary issues in the process, which prompted fair questions. Rather than answer those–on John Walsh as Oz, for example, or Milissa Holland as Jack Abramoff, and both of them stuck at a red light–you first steer clear, then answer with a new digression that yet again has nothing to do with any of the questions asked, this time about the vacation rental issue: ironically, one of the more successful examples of a local government lobbying the Legislature to gain a change in law beneficial to the county–but which had nothing to do with Palm Coast, or the questions asked. The one distantly relevant issue to this race that you keep bringing up is Holland’s lobbying years, though to what end remains very unclear, other than your implication that lobbying is somehow wrong. Do you consider lobbying improper? Unnecessary? Un-American?
McDonald did not answer the question.
I would ask the council to examine the manager’s agenda item by item and vote off items that are not ready for “prime time.” I would encourage the other members to add their items by voice vote so as to work the process in public not behind a closed door. The Council answers to the Voters, but as it is now the Voters take what is forced on the Council by the manager.
I will work with the other members to have the city manager stop the county takeover agenda he is pursuing. I will encourage the BOCC to step up and meet the responsibilities that serve Palm Coast residents as Taxpayers of Flagler County. There has been a demonstrated reluctance by both to remember that the operational dollars come from the same pocket…Ours !
“The county takeover agenda he is pursuing”? Can you explain?
In today’s terms, our county EMS service is presently #1 in the USA and the city manager wants us to switch to his brand? This is not a rational thought!
The city manager has a thing for branding but this is the first we hear of his desire to “switch” to anything. The city hinted at possibly in the future having the capability to transport patients, as county EMS does, but dropped that approach. It wants additional county ambulances in the city, but has never talked of changing the fundamental working relationship between city and county fire departments. You still have us lost about the manager’s alleged intentions.
What is said through Cindi Lane, the Palm Coast spokesperson, and what is on the street are two different stories. The response to the city manager is simple: keep your hands off the best EMS in the USA, we do not need another Holland Park. The city should congratulate the County EMS on our behalf for this achievement.
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?
No comment on Jon Netts. As Mayor I will consider myself one of five council members with a district that is at large. All council members should share an equal footing. I will change to a format that shares ceremonial responsibilities so that the residents will know all of the council members equally.
By charter you would be responsible for running the meetings and, for example, dealing with the Dennis McDonalds of the world, whoever they may be when you’re in the mayoral seat. The question is whether you would differentiate yourself from the way Netts handled that part of the responsibility, or how he handled parliamentary procedure as a whole, and if so, how.
Netts-no comment. The people who ask questions are participating in local government. Without that, you have a government that is disconnected from its citizens. Citizens can not be heard if the mayoral seat is being influenced by special interests. Since I will be serving all taxpayers, not special interests, my ability to listen and properly respond will be unimpaired. Allow me to retell the story of when I presented the Mayor a framed copy of the Referendum Vote that showed 82.7 percent of the Palm Coast voters rejected the new City Hall. About a month later Virginia Smith, the City Clerk, asked if she could meet with me. Virginia gave back to me the framed results that I asked the Mayor to hang on his wall. Virginia stated, “the Mayor asked that I give this back because we are now a paperless city”! The Mayor was deaf to the voters, even the 2850 out of 54,000 possible that voted for him in 2010.
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.]
The current city manager has been involved in “empire building” at Taxpayer expense. As for the compensation package that Palm Coast pays to its manager, let us factor out all personalities to be fair. I believe the compensation package is grossly over the top when we pay more than major metropolitan cities in Florida. I would vote to reduce the salary and compensation package to a much lower level. I am quite sure some very qualified person would want to come manage “paradise,” if they were not already here.
Can you give us two or three examples of “empire building”? What would be a “much lower level” salary?
Expanding the water company west of U.S. 1 in 2011 and getting handed a bill for the $721,000 that it cost to power the well heads. This was a cost that should have been borne by the developer. The Palm Coast ratepayers swallowed the cost due to the managers contract failure. The Old Kings Road Special Assessment District. The Town Center entry boulevard fiasco.
His salary should be in the $110,000 to $120,000 range with a much shorter benefits package.
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?
The Sheriff’s deputies do an outstanding job in Flagler. I believe the current approach works well in Flagler county because the city of Palm Coast is the majority of the population. It has no competition from another large population concentration, I see no compelling reason for change as it stands. Regarding the question ‘Are some areas less policed than others?‘ I believe that the Sheriff relies on field data that drives the application of resources everyday with every shift. I have not read the Sheriff’s contract, yet my input would be included in a city council conversation when the next contract is due.
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?
From what I have observed this program seems to be driven by politicians absent the Sheriff who is ultimately responsible for all the work. Why? I would need some major input from the guy we pay millions to for our protection and well being before advancing any opinion.
You have it somewhat in reverse: the civil citation program is being proposed by Sheriff Manfre (with Commissioner Barbara Revels doing the political heavy lifting) to reduce deputies workload, not increase it. He has been providing that input through the Public Safety Coordinating Council and in interviews for months. You could find out voluminous information and arguments by searching “civil citation” in our search box. A civil-citation ordinance is making its way to the council for its vote. So: where do you stand on the proposal?
We may be electing a new sheriff. This decision can wait for whomever next heads the department and must implement the policy, with or without changes. With national trends showing this move is not beneficial for limiting drug abuse, the community needs to give clear message about entry level drugs and their danger. We elected and pay Sheriff Manfre to be our primary law enforcement provider. He needs to do the heavy lifting, not a political surrogate.
[Editor’s note: The latest research on the effects of pot legalization and drug abuse indicate no increase in use of the drug among young people, and paralells a decrease in the use of several other, harder drugs, and of the use of cigarettes. It is the job of county commissioners to shepherd county ordinances to fruition; it would be inappropriate of the sheriff to do so, beyond his role as an advocate and adviser for certain policy positions.]
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?
Barb Grossman and her staff have the toughest job in Palm Coast. There is always room for a little give and take, if the result is successful. Allowing the enforcement director the ability to delay the implementation of fines declared by the board might help public relations and achieve positive results for our neighborhoods.
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?
The tennis center might be explored as a location for the future multi-generational recreational center that the county has long needed to step up and provide. The money planned to be used for the redo of the community center might be better spent on this long term County facility. The residents do not need another Holland Park money pit and we do not need duplicate public services. The present county senior center offerings are pitiful and embarrassing.
But should the current arrangement at the golf club, which loses money every year, be continued unchanged? Where in city plans is there any intention to cede the tennis center grounds to the county, and even if such plans were to exist, should city taxpayers underwrite a county park?
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?
See #13 – which should cover the needed response for a senior center and advance a multi-generational recreation center to serve the countywide community.
The question is about what’s within the city’s scope: setting aside what plans there are (or more likely, aren’t) for the county facility you describe, is a city-run, city-built senior center necessary, and if so, how would you pay its operating expenses without raising taxes?
Think beyond the present limited mindset.
Asked for further explanations, McDonald said:
We need to build one multi generational recreation center for the whole county. Let’s stop wasting our tax dollars on this patchwork embarrassment spread between county and cities. The Tennis Center property is sixty two acres at the intersection of major roadways. This was County property given to the city in 2000 when the City was formed. Let us remove Coffey vs Landon and get this done before we waste more tax dollars redoing the Palm Coast community center. The Bridge Club would love to buy this building as is so we can move on to a modern facility that serves all Flagler residents of all ages.
15. Question customized for Dennis McDonald: You have spent the last several years doing battle against, litigating, criticizing and deploring the very people and institution you now seek not only to join but to lead from a position that requires a degree of statesmanship and sensitivity for fair arbitration. Tell us how you intend to make the transition, and why voters should trust you would accomplish it effectively.
A citizen’s duty is to participate in local governance and to question actions that are beyond the boundaries of community interest or ethical limits. I have built everything from water companies, packaged treatment plants to low rise complexes. I got projects completed on the private “dime.” If you do not have an understanding of the “at risk business world,” you would not know what it takes. I have worked effectively with all levels of government and regulations, while facilitating construction projects that have added value to every community. Presently the city can’t finish Holland Park and the overruns will be extensive. Let’s be clear- I am not joining anything, those are your words. I am offering to lead Palm Coast for the Taxpayers, not the many political insiders, for an efficient and effective community that serves all.