It’s not that the questions weren’t designed to be revealing, or that the two candidates for the Flagler County Commission’s District 4 seat didn’t give each other chances to plow through the other’s answers with challenging rebuttals. Or that either might not be hungry for the $48,000 salary that comes with what is essentially—incumbents’ claims to the contrary—a part-time job.
But neither incumbent Bob Abbott, 64, nor challenger Nate McLaughlin,49, grabbed opportunities to stand out in a well-attended, barely hour-long forum sponsored by the Flagler Chamber of Commerce Wednesday evening at the Government Services Building. Their answers were alternately predictable, timid, vague or rich in rambles. If the more than 100 people in the commission chambers expected to see some compelling theater or instructive exchanges between two individuals reputed to have less than zero love for each other, they were disappointed.
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First, their moments of certainty. Abbott and McLaughlin are both opposed to taxes, including the proposed tax for “economic development” that’ll appear on November’s ballot. Both say they’re very much for economic development, which they listed as their top priority for the next four years. They didn’t explain how they squared being for economic development but against the economic development tax, or what their opposition to the new tax was based on other than the standard Republican opposition to taxes—nor were they asked, as WNZF’s David Ayres, the moderator, wasn’t given room to throw follow-up questions at the candidates. (McLaughlin and Abbott are both Republicans, though Abbott was a Democrat when he defeated Herschel King with 56 percent of the vote four years ago. King was unpopular then; Democrats are more unpopular today. Because no Democrat ran for the seat, the Republican primary counts as the general election for that commission seat: Republicans, Democrats and Independents get to cast a vote.)
Abbot and McLaughlin both want job-creation to be at the top of the agenda. Both think a Facebook approach–talking to retirees and former CEOs living here–is the way to network for more jobs. Both want to keep Bunnell’s Carver Gym open (though Abbott had been categorically in favor of shutting it down just last month, before he was confronted by a small group of unhappy black men and women, and McLaughlin didn’t specifically mention the gym, just the need to keep “opportunities” for youth available). Both agreed with a question that framed the county airport as an under-developed jewel, but neither had a clear idea what to do with it other than say what commissioners have been saying all along—find renters for empty buildings there that are costing the county $30,000 a month in mortgage payments.
Beyond that, they had a few disagreements on details: Abbott doesn’t see a fixed-route transportation system replacing the county’s current system, where riders schedule transportation days ahead of time. McLaughlin thinks some fixed routes on larger arteries might work, though he didn’t say how. He says development impact fees—one-time fees levied on builders to defray government’s infrastructure costs—are discouraging development and could use some form of abatement program. Abbott thinks the county has been instructed to “bend over” for developers, and is doing so, a remark that drew some laughter, though it wasn’t clear if it was because of the inelegant suggestion or doubt that the county is being so accommodating to developers.
And neither had much disagreement (or clarity) over the county’s relations with municipalities, though McLaughlin spoke of finding ways to reduce duplication of services between cities and county. Abbott, who dismissed that suggestion (Abbott doesn’t think there’s much duplication left) made much of taking a literal olive branch with a jar of olives to a Palm Coast City Council meetings four years ago, though he thought nothing of slamming Palm Coast when he had the chance: “Government work is slow,” he said at one point, setting up for the shot: “One person can’t make all the decisions, like some person has tried to do on some boards in Palm Coast.”
Beyond that, it was rambles and contradictions, sometimes in the same sentence, as when Abbott complained loudly in one breath that the commission isn’t listening to people only to then say that “people aren’t getting interested enough in their government. I wish more people would ask questions of us and come to the meeting.” Ironically, Abbott is notorious at commission meetings for asking the fewest questions, speaking the least, and showing the least curiosity about matters under discussion. He began his introduction by noting that over the past four years, “I’ve been very busy,” receiving 7,000 emails and what sounded like 500 phone calls. Even if he’d said 5,000 phone calls, that works out to an average of less than five emails and three to four phone calls a day—a leisurely, dreamy workload by any modern count.
McLaughlin, who won just 29 percent of the vote when he ran against Palm Coast’s Mary DiStefano in 2007, said his experience as a Realtor and his service on Palm Coast’s planning board (where he was chairman), among others, prepared him for the commission job. But when asked where there was a need for improvement in county government, and what he would do, his answer went no further than this: “We need to develop an organizational chart so we know where the bones are before we even get to them.” (He didn’t mean skeletal bones, but the bones nearest to which the county budget has been pared over recent years.) He wants a tax base that depends less on residential property owners, and he wants the county to stop chasing big employers and focus on smaller businesses, but few candidates from either party haven’t made the same suggestions in year after year.
As for Tuesday evening’s forum, the questions were culled from the various memberships of the chamber, the county’s Realtors association and the Flagler Homebuilders’ Association, plus some questions from the audience, with the homebuilders’ Jason DeLorenzo coordinating the lot. No clapping or booing or cheering was allowed, though the candidates gave the audience few opportunities to be so compelled to do either.