Andy Dance’s election victories tend to be by acclamation. His voting margins, the times he does draw an opponent, have averaged 60 percent in his three contested elections since 2012. He twice ran unopposed. His election as chairman of the Flagler County School Board in 2012 was unanimous. So was his election last night as chairman of the Flagler County County Commission.
But it took three years for Dance to come in from the cold. Three of the colleagues who voted for him Monday evening had barely given him a listen in his first couple of years as he struggled to convince them that the commission could use new rules and procedures, that its deliberative process was in need of repair.
Dance, a landscape architect by profession, is meticulous, analytical, hard working, and extremely deliberate. He’s all about process. He doesn’t like issues hurried through without substantive discussion, and workshops when necessary. He prizes transparency. He prizes decorum. But in his first two years on the commission, his colleagues ignored him every time he made his case.
Matters began improving when Joe Mullins, the most disruptive presence on any local government board, was trounced out of his seat by Leann Pennington a year ago and Greg Hansen took the commission’s chairmanship. That returned the panel to a more work-oriented, less drama-prone default mode. Earlier this year, the commission adopted the updated rules and procedures Dance had been seeking.
“That was an important first step,” he told his colleagues last night, leaving no doubt that he did not see the chairmanship as a “non-event,” as Commissioner Don O’Brien had once put it. “I view this as an opportunity to put leadership practices in place alongside administration in order to improve our board processes,” Dance said.
He put it in concrete terms. Earlier in that same meeting, the commission had swallowed hard and voted to approve a humiliating settlement with Captain’s BBQ, the restaurant at Bing’s Landing that had sued the county in a breach of contract claim in 2019. The commission had approved a lease amendment with Captain’s that had not been properly vetted. It wasn’t Captain’s fault. It was the result of the county administration’s lack of transparency, an utter lack of workshops or meetings before the evening when the lease amendment was submitted to the commissioners for approval–on the consent agenda: the portion of the agenda that doesn’t get discussed.
Public outrage compelled commissioners to pull the item and discuss it first, but by then it was too late. The deal was all but done. The commission vote ignited more public outrage, forcing the commissioners to backtrack. The blunder would prove enormously costly. But it was a direct consequence of the commission’s and the administration’s secretive maneuvers around a more deliberate process.
Dance made the point Monday night. “That was a prime example of one of our most glaring troubles where we had lack of processes or just didn’t follow our basic processes,” he said. “It was rushed through, plenty of comments about it. Something that big being pushed on consent led to lack of trust with the community, lack of involvement with the community. And we’re still trying to come back from that broken trust with the community.”
Dance wasn’t merely summing up the meeting, as commissioners sometimes do, but placing his chairmanship in the context of his long-term goal. He was laying out his vision for his chairmanship, as few chairs of local governments do. He had done likewise when he took over the chairmanship of the School Board (he served 12 years on the School Board) in 2012, distributing a three-page plan to his colleagues and delivering what amounted to a State of the Board address, with an outline of his intention in the year ahead. His would not be a caretaker chairmanship.
So there was something very familiar about his prelude Monday. He had asked Joe Saviak, the leadership guru who’s led several leadership academies for the county, for some reading guidance (read W. Edwards Deming, Saviak told him, referring to the business theorist and management consultant credited for steering Japan toward its post-war industrial renaissance) and drafted a plan.
“So the first quote I had was: if you can’t describe what you’re doing as a process, you don’t know what you’re doing,” Dance said, quoting Deming. He said he would “work more collaboratively with administration to try and bring things to you that that hopefully will bridge that gap and improve our transparency with the public,” then read from his plan: “The best we can do is learn from our past and correct the processes that led us down the wrong path. I also want us to work more collaboratively on the budget process. Our administrator’s made great strides I think in two years of bringing us through the the old process. My first year process was disjointed. The last two years, we’ve really done well. But what I’ve missed is our collaborative feedback as a commission.”
He wants an earlier goal-setting schedule to craft a budget based on the commission’s goals. Commissioners need to be more deliberative about their priorities, whether it’s infrastructure maintenance, operations efficiency, safety and security, taxation.
“What we’re missing is [to] coalesce around a vision around a budget framework that staff can then construct a workable budget,” Dance said. “We’ll all be in support as we get to our preliminary millage public hearings in August. I think we’ve seen what happens at the at the end of the budget process in August when we’re not in tune, and we get sudden requests or offers that threw the budget process in whack. It’s not fair to staff.”
Last August the commission and the sheriff wrangled over a $700,000 request by the sheriff as commissioners pushed for a reduction in the property tax rate very late in the budget process. “I think we owe it to the community and our staff to avoid these last minute budget changes. I think it results in a loss of public confidence in our abilities to manage the county’s finances,” Dance said, closing what amounted to his chairmanship acceptance speech with a Deming quote (“Quality is everyone’s responsibility”) and appreciation for his colleagues and his family.