The Bunnell City Commission’s call for applicants to fill two seats vacated by the resignation of commissioners this month drew seven candidates, each of them bringing a rich, diverse set of qualifications that’ll make the commission’s choices a bit harde. The applicants include two former commissioners, a planning board member, a former candidate for the commission and code enforcement board member, and an employee of county government’s emergency management division.
But that employee, Nealon Joseph, who brings an accomplished resume to the job, was required to withdraw by the county government administration. The administration cited a recently enacted policy that bars county employees from taking elected office that “require the employee to interface with the County in a way that presents real or apparent Conflicts of Interest or which would interfere with the County’s administration of its intergovernmental activities.”
Ironically, one of the two seats was vacated by Donnie Nobles, who was a county employee in public works when he was elected in March 2019. Nobles resigned after suffering a series of strokes. The other seat came open when long-time Commissioner Bill Baxley resigned this month, a few months after the death of his wife, so he could move closer to family in New Hampshire.
Since the seats will be up for election in March, the commission by charter could fill them by appointment, which the commission intends to do at its meeting Monday evening. It sent out the call for applications on July 11, with a July 21 deadline.
The candidates are Robert Barnes, Daisy Henry, Gary Masten, Bonita Robinson, Tina-Marie Schultz, and David Wilhite. (The links take you to their applications.)
Barnes is a Federal Aviation Administration retiree since 2020, after working as an aircraft mechanic and rising to vice president of maintenance for Pan Am, the once legendary and dominant airline that went into bankruptcy and ceased operations in 1991. Barnes cites extensive experience in budgeting and negotiations with union and non-union personnel. (Budgeting experience is key as the commission is in the midst of budget season, its next budget to be adopted in September.) Barnes is also a board supervisor of the Deer Run Community Development District, a position he would likely have to resign since it is under the umbrella of city government.
Henry, a Bunnell pastor, had previously been community development director and served for several years on the city commission until her defeat in 2013, when she was unseated by Baxley. In effect, she’s looking to be appointed to her old seat. She ran in a special election in 2019, after the resignation of John Sowell, who had moved out of the city. She lost by two votes.
Masten moved to Bunnell in 2019 after what he describes as “a career in leadership in fiscal management for almost 41 years.” He’d most recently worked as the assistant voce president of an insurance company, a public safety aide in the Ocean City, Md., Police Department, a project manager, a claims manager, and so on. Like Barnes and others applying, he is a Grand Reserve resident. “While most of the residents are indeed from areas outside of Bunnell, it doesn’t change the fact that what everyone wants is to have decisions made that benefit Bunnell and all of its residents not just those in Grand Reserve,” he says of the large subdivision. “We all chose to live here.”
Robinson, who just earned public administration degree from Flagler College, served three years on the city commission, from 2014 to 2017. “It is clear that the board looking for a candidate that is familiar with the responsibilities associated with the Bunnell Commissioner role, and can perform them confidently and professionally,” she wrote in her cover letter. “Given these requirements, with my past commission experience and my Public Administration degree, I am certain that I have the necessary skills to successfully do the job adequately.” Robinson has held various jobs in county and Bunnell government.
Schultz, a business operations director for Thomas Orthopedic & Sports Physical Therapy, held jobs managing offices and filled numerous community service functions and was named “Outstanding Young Woman of the Year” in Idaho in 1988, according to her resume, has been serving on the city’s code enforcement board and ran in the last two elections for the Bunnell commission. “I jumped in when asked to help the City Administration with the Utility Fee Workshop and Town Hall meeting,” she wrote of her decision to serve on code enforcement, “bringing solutions to the workshop discussion that were then utilized.”
Wilhite, whose application was the least formal or solid, submitted a “letter of introduction” but no resume. He calls Bunnell “a great place to live and I do not want to see changes to the small town lifestyle we enjoy,” words that contrast with the farewell words of Baxley: “I can see it fixing to bust at the seams,” Baxley said two weeks ago. “I think it’s going to be really nice. It’s a nice community now but I think it’s going to be a lot better off in the future.” Wilhite’s introduction cites jobs in the long haul and telecom industry, owning a mobile tool truck and a foreman installing underground fiber optic cable for Qwest Communications. He says he also “worked in the underground industry as manager of new business development for a company located in Bunnell.”
Nealon Joseph, the county employee, brought a strong resume to the pool, too, including 10 years in the Air Force, completing bachelor’s degrees in psychology and emergency and disaster management from American Military University, and worked with Flagler’s emergency management division since 2018 as an emergency management planner.
Today, however, he withdrew: “I’m sorry to say that I have been informed that Flagler County has decided against allowing me the opportunity to serve as a City Commissioner,” he wrote Kristen Bates, the city clerk. “The County cites possible conflict of interest as the main cause. I’m sorry for the short notice but please remove me from the applicant list.”
In a detailed explanation, Heidi Petito, the county administrator, said the county had no intention to penalize Joseph or any employee seeking to serve in public office. But the February enactment of the county’s policy changed the situation. Nobles’s resignation made his case moot. One other county employee, Craig Lenniger, serves on the Ton of Marineland board. But he, too, will not be permitted to run for re-election, Petito said, though he is not being asked to resign so as not to disrupt the town workings.
“This item was treated with a great deal of fore thought and is consistent with the way the state handles this issue, as State government employees are not allowed to seek a State Office. Applying this same approach, local government employees would not be allowed to seek a local government office,” Petito wrote in an email in response to questions. “In addition, there are many reasons for doing so, as we would not want to interfere with any intergovernmental relationship. This would have the potential to complicate the ability of a transparent, straightforward relationship and may create many public perception issues. We would not want the appearance of providing influence over another jurisdiction as a county employee holding local office. This could present a conflict with administration of the county’s operation.”
In Joseph’s case, Petito wrote, state law places the county’s emergency management division as the de facto municipal emergency management agency during emergencies, so Joseph’s role as a planner would conflict with his role on the city commission. “This has also been supported from our Human Resource Director, the Emergency Management Director and our County Attorney,” Petito said, answering the questions that had initially been posed to Al Hadeed, the county attorney, and Jonathan Lord, the emergency management chief.
Inexplicably, Joe Mullins, the erratic and often bizarre county commissioner, attempted to keep Petito–the newly appointed administrator–from explaining the situation. “Don’t feel obligated to answer or be impacted by his gibberish,” he told her of the reporter’s questions.