The Flagler County Commission and the Palm Coast City Council are unexpectedly finding themselves facing an empty seat because of the departure or the death of one of their colleagues. Councilman Bill McGuire is resigning in two weeks, two weeks before the Aug. 30 primary. County Commissioner Frank Meeker died on July 22, with just over two years in his term.
In both cases, the choice will ultimately not be the council’s or the commission’s: the election will decide who fills McGuire’s seat soon enough, though by charter the council is still required to fill the seat within 30 days. That places the council in the strange position of soliciting applicants, interviewing, and possibly filling the seat for a matter of two to four meetings before the election decides it.
The Aug. 30 election may well decide it, if one of the candidates for McGuire’s District 1 seat clears the 50 percent threshold. Three are running, though only two are serious candidates: Robert Cuff, and Sims Jones. (Troy DuBose Troy DuBose dropped out today, and Art McGovern Jr. had been out of public view until last week’s mayoral forum at the Flagler County Association of Realtors. He has not responded to media inquiries about his candidacy.) If one of the candidates clears the hurdle, the council will seat that candidate early. If not, the council has decided at least to go through the motions of seeking applicants, with a decided shuffle in its feet: it won’t be hurrying through the process. The council is discussing iots options further at its meeting this evening.
The decision is also being made for the county commission. There will be no special election, even though more than two years were left on Meeker’s term. State law requires the remaining term to exceed 28 months for the governor to call a special election. That places the Meeker term almost two weeks short of the 28-month window. So the governor will make the appointment, according to the county attorney and the state Division of Elections. (The elections division informed the county’s supervisor of elections of that decision. The division has yet to confirm it independently with FlaglerLive.)
Meeker’s funeral was last Saturday, and a tribute to him was held at the county commission Monday. Meanwhile, there’s been quiet maneuvering behind the scenes to line up for the appointment, which will not take place overnight: the governor’s office will entertain elaborate applications, whittle down the applications to a short-list, then present that shortlist to the governor, who will make the choice. He has traditionally relied for advice on a region’s legislative delegation—in this case, Sen. Travis Hutson and Rep. Paul Renner. In 2009, when the school board’s Peter Palmer died that August, it took the governor almost six months to make the appointment, though Charli Crist was governor at the time.
“We always try to give the governor as broad a choice as possible,” Renner said in an interview Saturday. “It’s in the commission’s best interest that we get as many quality applicants as possible.” Renner said he’d heard that “the fix was in,” but dismissed the notion. He said he himself has not taken anyone’s side. “I have not indicated to anyone that I favor anybody over anyone else.”
Several names have been floated for the seat since Meeker’s death. FlaglerLive interviewed all the known individuals, all of whom spoke reluctantly in deference to Meeker’s services.
In sum, the current likely crop of applicants is as follows: Realtor David Alfin, Ed Fuller, a close friend and campaign manager to Commissioner Nate McLaughlin (an earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to him as Meeker’s campaign manager), Howard Holley, the businessman who lost to Meeker as an independent in 2014, Palm Coast Mayor Jon Netts, who had previously hinted at some interest in a county commission seat and whose term on the council ends in November because of term limits, and Patrick Kelly, the former chairman of the Flagler County Chamber of Commerce and a business-community favorite. All five have confirmed in individual interviews that they would consider applying, or will in fact apply, or have not ruled it out. It’s not a long list, but it’s may get longer soon.
There are those who have also ruled it out. They include Milissa Holland, who previously held Meeker’s seat and is now running for Palm Coast mayor, Garry Lubi, the banker and Flagler Chamber board member, Gail Wadsworth, the clerk of court, and Jim Ulsamer, who serves on the county library board and on the county’s economic development board. All confirmed they were not applying. Dennis McDonald twice lost in primaries against Meeker, but as of today he was continuing his run for Palm Coast mayor.
Abbie Romaine, who lost to Meeker as an independent in 2012, would not commit either way, though being a Hammock resident (like Ulsamer) she has been approached by those in the Hammock eager to have representation on the commission.
Nate McLaughlin, the county commissioner and Meeker’s closest ally on the commission, said he didn’t have anybody in mind, though others said he was pushing Fuller. McLaughlin said the governor would look for someone who’d be able to hold the seat.
“I know historically he’s not willing to appoint people who have run for the office and were not successful,” McLaughlin said.
That would rule out Holley, who lost as an independent to Meeker in 2014 with 41 percent of the vote. Romaine had lost to Meeker as an independent in 2012 with 45 percent of the vote.
“I come from an environment where when you strive for things and you fall short, it makes you a better person,” Holley said. “I have a high regard for the governor. I can’t believe he would use a criteria like that, and he is from the business environment, he would not use a criteria like that, though people may argue like that.”
Alfin, the Realtor, had spoken with Meeker of his intention to run for that seat, but not before at least 2018. “It’s no secret that this was a seat albeit a bit further out in the future that I was going to seek,” Alfin said. “I think Frank offered us a great deal, I would look forward to the county being able to build on all of the efforts he offered us through his service and convert that into opportunity for the future.”
“Would I serve? Yes. I think I have a fairly good understanding of how local government works,” Netts, who has never lost an election but is term-limited from his mayoral seat in Palm Coast, said. “I pretty well know the constituency of Palm Coast, whereas there are issues or constituencies at the county level that we as a council do not deal with.” He added: “Whoever takes that seat, there’s a huge learning curve.”
Kelly, a 51-year-old chief financial officer at a company in Ormond Beach—he lives in Palm Coast–was a little more cagey about his name floating about. “I’ve heard that too,” he said this afternoon. “All I’m comfortable saying is I’ve received a couple of phone calls related to that.” But, he said, “I haven’t ruled it out.” He’d considered running for supervisor of elections during the Kimberle Weeks years, but hasn’t actually run for a public office. Asked how he’d contend with the commitment to the Meeker seat if he were appointed, he said: “I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t think I could give it the time and attention that’s necessary.”
Those familiar with the ongoing process say the governor will heavily favor an individual with a business background, backed by the business community, who has a strong chance of holding the seat in the 2018 election.
The maneuvering continues—sometimes with unseemly collateral effects: Meeker’s widow was reportedly approached for recommendation letters by some applicants—and the governor’s site is taking applications (here).
“There’s nothing in the law that prescribes the manner in which the governor is to consider and make the appointment,” County Attorney Al Hadeed said, “so that would be up to the governor to determine how he will proceed to make an appointment. But the current protocol, which has been in effect many, many years, is that they have an open process in which individuals submit a very extensive form and submit it to the appointment office.” Applicants are interviewed, and a shortlist then presented to the governor. “There is no time limit by law that’s placed on the governor.”