Tonight could be Bernie Murphy’s last city commission meeting. It should be, if the commission has any mercy for him. The Flagler Beach city manager is 69 years old. He was hired as an interim manager on Sept. 11, 2006. Interim stints don’t usually last 1,500 days, though courting the unexpected is a recurring trait in Murphy’s years. He’s sat through thousands of town government meetings in a 40-year career in governments that’s taken him from Florida to New England, and occasionally to the beleaguered cities of Ethiopia or India, where he’s volunteered his time for the United States Agency for International Development. But he’d like to retire now and travel to less demandingly exotic places, like Italy, Austria and Ecuador.
So tonight’s meeting, likely a very long one, should be Murphy’s last, but you never know with the Flagler Beach City Commission. Murphy announced his resignation on April 22. That should have been plenty of time for the commission to find a replacement. But Flagler Beach operates in a time zone all its own. More than five months and 140 applicants on, the commission is still unsure about its next manager, and may not have one until mid- to late October, if it doesn’t stalemate over its shortlist of three candidates and what has turned into a disturbing battle, on and off the commission, between those who want their new hire to be Bruce Campbell—a former executive with no government experience, but a Flagler Beach resident—and those who want a professional city manager with reliable experience in the field (Surfside’s Gary Word and Nassau County’s Edward Sealover are the two remaining choices).
The hiring of a city manager isn’t supposed to be a popularity contest or a political campaign. In Flagler Beach, it’s turned into both, with a divided commission readying either to ratify the charade or to blunt it, and possibly risk paralysis. Either way, what had been a commission aiming for stability is taking a turn for the dysfunctional again. The commission could very well ask Murphy once again to extend his stay. But they have his deputy, Libby Kania, who would do the job as well, as long as it’s on an interim basis (Kania declined to add her name to the list of candidates for the permanent job).
(Thursday evening update: Murphy was allowed to retire; the commission appointed Caryn Miller, its redevelopment director, acting manager.)
It’s no wonder Murphy is somewhat eager to leave. Looking back on his career in an hour-long interview in his office this afternoon, he was tired just thinking about the long meeting tonight, heavy as it promises to be with contentious issues—but no less ready to take it on than he’s been with every meeting before it. “You get used to it,” is how he put it. And you prepare. He credits the commission for doing its homework. This isn’t a scattershot bunch: they get into their staff reports, they read them, some more than others, but they all do. Respect for the commission is one of the things that’s kept Murphy going in Flagler Beach. His staff is the other.
“You have an excellent staff here,” he said. “That’s another thing that’s kept me here. We had people that we had to let go or encouraged to leave, but I think that the staff currently serving this community is extremely dedicated, extremely professional, and they work very hard.” (The staff hasn’t had a raise in three years. This year it’ll get a one-time bonus in December, the equivalent of 2 percent of each employee’s annual pay.) So Murphy summed up his years as good ones, disassociating himself from the city’s image as a kind of political playground that might have made for a good sequel to “Lord of the Flies.”
“For years Flagler Beach had that reputation,” he said “When I was in Ormond I used to read the newspapers of course and when I lived up here I was aware of what was happening, so for years it was a bit raucous. They had some periods of stability, but then they would seemingly go back to some instability. But my experience here has been really wonderful. It’s probably one of the better boards I’ve ever served.”
That said, every manager, hates to leave things still undone, Murphy included. “There are ongoing significant programs and projects in this community,” he said. “Some of it is pretty obvious: the master stormwater plan that sat around for eight years is being implemented, the money has been set aside, the bonds have been floated. There’s continuing effort to upgrade the whole CRA. One of the things that I regret that we didn’t get done in time, but it’s mired down in the Washington politics, is the approximately $1 million grant to wrap each pylons on the pier, essentially give it a 50-year life and restore those pylons to their original strength. That’s been an ongoing cost and an ongoing problem, and Congressman Mica is taking it upon himself to be very involved in this, and I think the city will ultimately get that money. I was kind of hoping we’d get it this summer.” There’s more work to be done in rewriting ordinances and the land development code.
His notable achievements? “It hasn’t been my agenda, but in following the political agendas of those I follow, we have been assertive and in some measure aggressive in putting forth things,” Murphy says. “Tearing up the CRA band tearing up streets for the stormwater plan didn’t make everybody happy. That’s for certain. I think ultimately they will be happy. But it was disruptive, it was a change. The short-term, rental implementation: that had both sides to it, very pro, very against it. That was, you know, somewhat disruptive. We’ve tightened some ordinances, we are aggressive on our bill-collecting, we have become more assertive in code enforcement. There’s at least one critic out there that absolutely says not, and that person is totally wrong. The numbers will speak for themselves. We went from basically complain only to more active code enforcement. We’re not to the extreme, as some communities are with their code enforcement endeavors and values, but we have done a better job with that. Obviously you develop your critics and folks who just don’t like what you’re doing over things of that matter.”
It’ll be the next manager’s issues now. They’ll be serious.
Murphy has “serious doubts” that the economy will improve next year. “If things worsen, if valuations continue to decline, if the non-tax revenue continues to decline—they appear to have stabilized this year, last two years we lost over a half million, almost $600,000 in non-tax revenue, that’s revenue that’s hard to replace—if that continues to happen, and if there’s any measure of inflation such as increased health care, increased pension costs, supplies, chemicals, we use a lot of petroleum-based products here from road-paving to diesel in our fire engines, if that continues then the manager and the commission is really going to be faced with examining the service levels in a very serious manner.” He speaks of parks and libraries being closed elsewhere, and mentions the word, dreaded by some, that other communities have been embracing: consolidation.
“I’m not saying political consolidation. I’m saying we’re going to have to look long and hard at some functional consolidation. I don’t want to give you a such as because that would be pinpointing a department or two, I don’t want to do that. But other communities are looking in those directions. Some of them have currently rejected it, but I believe they’ll be back to reexamine those opportunities, if you can call them that, in a year or two.”
The most recent example of a town rejecting consolidation is Bunnell, where a city commissioner had proposed inviting the Flagler County sheriff to take over policing—only to be rejected outright. Flagler Beach likes its identity as a small town. It likes its own police department, its own fire department. But Murphy warns that some forces may be out of Flagler Beach’s—or any small town’s—control.
“I have thought recently, that, be it intentional or not, there appears to be a state force to with various amendments and acts of the Legislature and unfunded mandates and things of that nature, that there’s either intentional or not intentional force at work to force consolidations, and I’ve said this to the commission several times. I’ve raised the question as to whether or not small Florida communities can survive as independent small Florida communities. I think that is a legitimate thing to put on the table and to think about. I’m not encouraging that, political consolidation, what I’m saying is we need to be aware that there are forces out there that are heading in that direction.” He adds: “This is a city that likes being itself, this is a city that takes pride—they don’t want to be part of anybody else, and I respect that. But I think to preserve that, folks have to be aware of the threats out there to the things that they love and cherish. I’m not so sure that when I get out there and say it, as to whether or not it’s taking seriously. But it’s clearly there.”
The father of four children—one daughter died of cancer; his youngest is in college—and nine grandchildren, Murphy doesn’t like to talk about himself much. He was uncomfortable even sitting for what sounded too much like an exit interview, though his reserve can be outdone by graciousness: He spoke generously and expansively, without pretenses. He had to be prodded several times to reveal what gnawed at him, if anything, in his tenure in Flagler Beach, where the political is often personal, and the personal can be bitter.
“I have a 40-year record of working with hundreds of elected officials, being under media scrutiny,” Murphy said. “I’ve been in cities with two newspapers and TV stations and radio stations. My work is all subject to public disclosure. My finances are subject to rigorous audits in all states that I’ve been in, and I’m subject to the whims of elected officials and what not. I believe I’ve stood the test of time with respect to my integrity and my trust and my loyalty and my professionalism. I guess the only thing that really bothers me is when people or an individual doesn’t trust or doesn’t believe. I’ve got 40 years of earning that trust and not a blemish on my record.”