In the end, it was the possibility of litigation that convinced Clerk of Court Tom Bexley that some kind of breakthrough was necessary. That breakthrough, for a “generous” amount of additional space for the sheriff’s temporary operations at the county courthouse, is now in the works, with a formal agreement Bexley will deliver to the county administrator Monday.
Bexley invited County Commission Chairman Donald O’Brien and County Administrator Jerry Cameron for a meeting at his office early this afternoon, where he presented his “last offer,” in his words. The meeting was brief: 25 minutes. It went well. It was all business. All three men afterward described it as productive, and both Cameron and O’Brien agreed that the offer was generous.
“I could give you the details right now but they’re still a little sketchy until I actually formalize them, and we’re going to do it in an interlocal agreement,” Bexley said, referring to the sort of agreement two government agencies adopt on joint projects or the joint use of space, “just so it’s a formal document. That way there’s no confusion about the term that we would extend the offer,m or the actual square footage, the total space. It’s not going to have a whole lot of strings on it, though. I can promise you that. It’s going to be an offer of space that is contiguous with a piece that we’re offering that they currently occupy right now.”
Bexley said it’s the lowest-cost option. It will entail the construction of temporary walls on the first floor (the walls will look permanent but will be easily taken down at the end of the term, and will be in the records division on the first floor) and will give more autonomy to both the clerk’s staff and the sheriff’s staff. Both had strained under conditions that had the two operations mingling uncomfortably, with confidential documents and transactions at stake. That will end.
“I know what a lot of folks are probably going to say: well you had this all the time. Why did you wait so long to offer it up?” Bexley said. “That’s a fair question. The thought process was: I really don’t have this to offer up. I got my team together over the last couple of days. We really wracked our brains. We said, right now we’re at the point where we don;t have anything more to give. But we identified a couple of spots that will do us the least amount of harm. So is there going to be some reorganization on my part? Oh, yeah. I’m going to have to move an extensive amount of equipment, records and people.”
The proposal would end what had been the threat of a lawsuit by the county to force the clerk’s hand. None of the sides wanted to go down that route. “The idea of formal litigation and all of the taxpayer money that would be required by the board and the clerk was just a road I just simply did not want to go down,” Bexley said.
Nor did the county, whose attorney had as much as implored commissioners not to go that route, either. But last week commissioners voted to do exactly that, giving Bexley 48 hours to agree to a space study and its results or face litigation. By Friday, he’d called O’Brien, stopping the clock and setting up today’s meeting. Now it appears even the space study will not be necessary, with Bexley essentially conceding enough space and along the sort of plan the sheriff favored to make the issue moot. He would not specify exactly what the space allocations would be. “It would certainly afford the sheriff more room for his operation. Id on;t know what he wants to use it for, that’s his call,” Bexley said.
“It was a really good discussion and I think it puts all of us in a much better position than we were,” O’Brien said, speaking shortly after the meeting in the parking lot of the Government Services Building, “only 45 minutes ago.”
“The clerk is quite willing to reestablish dialogue and he is working on some proposals for us, and we’re hoping we’ll have those by tomorrow.”
“We feel like he met our request of responding within the time-frame and I think we’re back on track with a productive discussion on what can be done over there,” O’Brien said.
“He did. He said I’m willing to do a little more. I don;t want to do verbal stuff, he said, because I don;t want anything confused in the media, and I’ll finish up my calculations tomorrow and I’ll have those over to you tomorrow,” Cameron said, quoting the clerk. “As always, we are consistently pursuing all options. When there’s a million dollars of taxpayer money at stake, we’re going to pursue until we have something in lieu of $1 million.”
Assuming the county approves the agreement, and Sheriff Rick Staly is satisfied with the offered space–which will entail a couple of new walls, a new entrance, and segregated spaces for both the sheriff and the clerk–the months-long wrangle over space at the courthouse will be over, and the county can go back to concentrating on building the sheriff’s office a new operations center in Palm Coast. The construction will not be expensive.
“The positive thing is that the clerk reached out to us,” Cameron said. “He didn’t make any ultimatums. He just said: ‘Here are some other options that I think you all should think about involving that space and how we could reconfigure.'”
The county’s litigation clock, of course, is still stopped and may disappear by Tuesday afternoon.
But “yes, there will be a deadline,” Bexley said of the accommodation. He said it will be “something clerk, board and sheriff should be able to live with.”
“We have a lot of other big things and we have a long-term relationship between the clerk and the board administration that we have to think about. This is just one of those issues,” O’Brien said.
Bexley stressed that the situation will not make anyone entirely happy and that it will hurt his operation, but “if we can get to a point where everybody is at least not displeased,” he said, that “hopefully it will work and we can all stay out of court.”
He didn’t say as much in an interview after his meeting with county officials today, but his decision, as magnanimous as it seemed, was also staking a position in case the matter somehow ended up in litigation: today’s proposal is essentially an effort to show that he was willing to make additional accommodations, but also willing to defend himself in court should it come to that, albeit now armed with what would be an agreement showing how far he’d be willing to go. He’s putting the ball back in the county’s court, now making it the county’s call to decline his final offer, in contrast with how it looked last week, when Bexley was simply saying No, if he was saying anything at all.
He was intent, in what he did say, on explaining his rationale: “This really had nothing to do with a letter or an ultimatum or anything else,” Bexley said. “What it had to do with is the thought that there would be a lawsuit. And I never mind defending myself when I know I’m doing something right, which I still stick to my guns. Everything I’ve done thus far is right. But taking that next step is such a cost. I was just unwilling to do it. Now if it comes to the point where they decline my offer and they feel like they have to litigate, I’ll defend myself. But that’s not where we want to go.”