Around 1 p.m. Saturday over the Labor Day weekend, when City Hall was as vacant as it gets, Alen Lowe, who is in a runoff for a city council seat in against Theresa Carli Pontieri, managed to get into the City Council chamber and shoot a campaign video.
He positioned himself at the podium that usually faces the council members, turning it around to face the camera, and to have the city logo prominently displayed over his shoulder. A city policy forbids the use of its logo for political purposes. It also forbids the use of its spaces absent a permit.
“A facility rental request or a filming permit would be required for this type of use at a City facility,” a city spokesperson said. “The City of Palm Coast does have a policy prohibiting City employees from using City equipment, facilities, or buildings for political activities. However, City Council members are exempt from that policy.”
Lowe did not, of course, break into City Hall. He had help getting in: Ed Danko, the city council member, used his City Council ID to swipe him in. Danko has helped Lowe’s two previous campaigns for council seats.
Danko is seen in one surveillance video scanning his ID at a front door and holding the door open for Lowe, who walks in with a tripod. A different camera shows the pair, Danko first, walking into the darkened council chamber with Lowe (at the 4-minute mark in the corridor video). Lowe eyes the ceiling by the dais, then Danko plays the role of director, grip and coach (surveillance videos have no sound), distinctly showing the podium as Lowe’s stage, though they could just as much have been chatting about something else. They appear to run through Lowe’s script, with Danko holding a phone as Lowe reads (he would then position it below the phone taking the video, like a teleprompter).
If there was any doubt that Danko was choreographing Lowe’s campaign, the video of the video removes that doubt. (See two perspectives below. The lights go up a little after the 4-minute mark):
“We first checked to see if the facility had been rented or if a filming permit had been requested, which neither had,” Brittany kersha, the city’s communications director, said. “For security purposes, we then checked to see if there had been any badge swipes to the community wing over the weekend and reviewed security camera footage to see if we could discover who granted Mr. Lowe access to the building and to ensure that no doors had been left ajar. We did find a badge swipe from Council Member Danko around 1 p.m. on Saturday, and the corresponding security video.”
By escorting Lowe in, Danko got around the city policy, enabling Lowe to shoot the video.
“The way that we see it at this point is that he was escorte by someone who was allowed to be on the property, so we don’t have any policy issue or violations. I don’t believe there’s any action that can be taken,” Kershaw said, though the city is still studying the matter. As for the use of the logo, “He’s in the facility, so it’s not like he stamps the logo on a document or something like that, so we are still trying to navigate if there’s anything additional to be done. But there was not a trespassing or anything like that because they were escorted by a person who was allowed to be there.”
For Lowe, it’s been an established pattern: When he was running for mayor against David Alfin last year, his campaign literature drew a caution from the state Republican party to candidates like Lowe using the governor’s image, misleading voters into thinking they had the governor’s endorsement. (See: “An Alan Lowe Campaign Message: 60 Seconds, 2 Violations of Law, 3 Falsehoods, 4 Misleading or Deceptive Statements.”) During the same election, Lowe campaigned with Danko as Danko fabricated lies about the governor and former mayor Milissa Holland (See: “Danko-Lowe Campaign Fabrications: Governor’s Office Refutes Incendiary Claims About Holland “Criminal Charges”).
On Aug. 12, the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office issued a cease and desist letter to Lowe warning him to stop using Sheriff Rick Staly’s image in campaign literature. “You have used these images in social media posts, mailers and in commercials to imply both Sheriff Staly and the Flagler County Sheriffs Office are supporting and/or endorsing your candidacy,” John LeMaster, the sheriff’s office’;s attorney, wrote Lowe. “Both implications are untrue and provide a false narrative for voters. As you are well aware Sheriff Staly has not endorsed you, or your candidacy, for office.”
Citing the state law, the letter went on to Lowe: “You did not seek, nor were your granted, permission to use Sheriff Staly’ s likeness in your campaign efforts. You are misleading the voters of Palm Coast in support of your agenda without authorization. […] You will not receive another warning letter. Failure to comply will cause this office to take any and all legal action necessary to gain compliance.”
Similarly, Palm Coast’s code of ordinances is clear about the uses and misuses of the city’s logo: ” The Corporate Seal and logo of the City of Palm Coast, including any facsimile thereof, are intended for use by authorized agents or officers of the City of Palm Coast in conducting the official business of the City. No other person shall use the City Seal or City Logo for any other purpose.”
“From my understanding, that video had the city seal in it, and we have an ordinance mandating that the city seal is only to be use for city business, so that’s where I have an issue, using the city seal for a political issue or political gain,” Pontieri, the candidate in the run-off against Lowe (and an attorney) said today. She was not aware that he had been allowed into the council chambers “with the assistance of a city council member, which is concerning,” Pontieri said.
Neither Lowe nor Danko responded to questions about the Palm Coast video, which remains near the top of Lowe’s social media page. He released another video, that one standing in front of City Hall, repeating the same message. He has been urging residents to show up at this evening’s council meeting, at 6 p.m., to “voice your opposition against Mayor Alfin’s 15 percent tax increase.”
It is not “Alfin’s” tax increase. The tax increase is, in fact, the city administration’s recommendation. Four council members signaled approval of the recommendation, with Alfin justifying it in a long speech–dismayingly plushed up with a goofy character–other council members agreed with. The council is expected to approve a budget in the first of two budget hearings on Sept. 8 that would maintain the tax rate flat, which under Florida law would equate to a tax increase, because the city would draw more revenue next year than it did this year, thanks to rising property values.
The tax increase as legally reported by the city is 15 percent. But homesteaded property owners will not see anywhere near such a tax increase: the increase in taxable value of their property is capped at 3 percent by the Save Our Homes constitutional amendment, and commercial properties, like shops and rentals, are capped at 10 percent, making it inconceivable that any property owner would pay 15 percent more next year.
One of the properties Lowe lists as his own on his candidate campaign profile, at 47 Collingwood Lane, is fully tax exempt. Lowe’s tax bill: zero. (Danko’s W-Section home will see his Palm Coast taxes increase a mere $36.) A second property is listed at that same address on the property appraiser’s site. It is not homesteaded. The tax increase will be 5 percent.
So while property values are surging, taxable values are not surging in kind. The Publix supermarket on Belle Terre Parkway, for example, saw its market value increase 17 percent this year, from $5.4 million to $6.3 million. But its taxable value only increased 7 percent, from $5.4 million to $5.8 million. It paid Palm Coast $24,911 in taxes last year. It’ll pay the city $26,639 based on the tax rate currently proposed–a 7 percent increase.