Bunnell elections are like the town itself: blink a couple of times and you might miss it. Most Bunnell residents needn’t even blink. They either don’t know or don’t care that a municipal election is taking place Tuesday.
Two city commission seats are up. The city of 3,000 will be lucky if 300 people turn up at the polls—or rather, the poll, at Bunnell’s old city hall–although in that regard Bunnell’s traditionally dismal turnout is only slightly worse than Palm Coast’s or even Flagler Beach’s of late.
The difference with those two towns is that in Bunnell no one bothers to host candidate forums. So issues are hardly discussed outside of commission meetings, giving incumbents an automatic advantage since they can simply advertise themselves as sitting commissioners with “experience.” Also, not much is done to signal the coming election and give potential candidates a better chance to enter the race. As a result, few do. Mayor Catherine Robinson was re-elected, without opposition, just as she was three years ago.
Two commission seats are up. Both incumbents (Elbert Tucker and Daisy Henry) are in the running. Only one additional candidate is in the race, Bill Baxley, who fell three votes short of winning a seat two years ago.
That’s still better than Flagler Beach’s municipal election, which was to be held concurrently with Bunnell’s. Two seats were up on the Flagler Beach City Commission, but after one candidate briefly flirted with challenging the two incumbents, he withdrew, resulting in the automatic re-election of Jane Mealy and Steve Settle. That’s unusual for Flagler Beach, where elections have been hotly contested in recent years, if with a revolving set of familiar candidates.
In Bunnell on Tuesday, the top two vote-getters will be elected. So at least one of the two incumbents will be reelected.
Absent forums and public interest—and better coverage from local media, this news source included—Bunnell’s city commissioners are left to their own devices to draw the few dozen votes that assure them victory. That involves the usual campaign signs and knocking on a few doors. But mostly, it involves the equivalent of a mass mailing, or as close to a mass mailing as Bunnell’s absence of anything like a critical electoral mass can elicit: Henry, Tucker and Baxley each sent a letter in the form of a personal appeal to registered voters.
The letters are the sharpest self-portraits by candidates that most voters are likely to get.
They are also, in one case, the cause of controversy: Henry’s letter to constituents was so poorly written, so incoherent and at times factually wrong that it drew a letter of protest from Hardy Underhay, a Bunnell resident, to the mayor and the commission. Underhay’s letter might have carried more weight had it not itself had its share of misspellings (it’s “grammar,” not “grammer”), terrible punctuation, and run-on sentences. But Underhay isn’t running for office.
“Receiving a letter like the one mailed to us by Ms. Daisy M. Henry is a poor reflection on all of you, the City of Bunnell and not to mention Ms. Henry herself,” Underhay wrote. “What a disgrace to think that this is someone who is supposed to be out there helping to run the City of Bunnell.”
Henry, a pastor, wrote lines like this, reproduced here exactly as they appear in the original letter: “As a native of Flagler county, resident, and commissioner of Bunnell. I have serve as your commissioner for fourteen years. I am very proud of the position ,it have been very, very challenging educational, and rewarding.”
The lines don’t get better.
No one would begrudge a local politician’s poor writing skills. Few can write. But most try hard, when they write, either to edit their work, or to get a little help from someone who can, before disseminating it widely. Not doing so can be as offensive to the intended audience as it can, or should, be embarrassing to the author. It also raises questions of competence beyond English, especially when Henry asks residents to “please remember that some commissioners live within the city” (no, all of them do, otherwise they couldn’t run for office there), or that “the millage have not increase in a while” (yes it has, though the actual taxes property owners pay may not have increased as much, or in some cases at all, because of falling valuations).
Each letter is revealing in its own way, as are to a lesser extent the candidates’ campaign finances. Both are detailed below.
Baxley’s letter is the briefest, and like Baxley himself, it is to the point and frills-free. It makes no outlandish promises, as candidates often do. Baxley tells constituents of his service in the Marines (10 years) and the Florida Department of Corrections, tells them he’s now retired, giving him time to devote himself to city issues, and tells them that he’s attended commission meetings and “studied the agendas for the past three years.” That’s no boast: few local residents attend any of the county’s five local governments’ meetings as religiously as Baxley attends Bunnell’s. He’s also been serving on the city’s zoning board for the last two years.
Baxley pledges to “lower taxes when possible” and “lower the water and sewer rates,” two very difficult promises to keep in an economic climate that keeps pushing tax and water rates the other way. Bunnell’s recent acquisition of the Plantation Bay utility will also—its officials’ promises notwithstanding—sooner or later likely lead to higher water rates for all residents, because the city (along with the county) took on a clunker. Repair costs will be heavy. The city will not be able to isolate them entirely from ratepayers elsewhere in the city. (The closing on the Plantation Bay utility sale is not before May).
Baxley also says he will cast his vote “to cut all excessive spending” (a vague enough pledge that doesn’t necessarily flirt with the impossible) and “to bring more businesses to Bunnell” (an obligatory and costless pledge every candidate in every election makes).
Baxley’s campaign finances are as spare as his letter: through Feb. 28, he raised $700, including $500 in a loan to himself, and $100 each from Charles Chambers of Bunnell, and Vickie Waddell of Bunnell. He spent most of the money on signs and mail.
Elbert Tucker’s letter is the longest of the three, but also the most substantive, and just as revealing for what it says as for what it doesn’t. Until the election of John Rogers two years ago, Tucker was the commission’s lone ranger, voting in dissent more often than any other commissioner. He is also the odd man out when it comes to ideas: he proposes them, sometimes from a limb, even though a majority of commissioners usually rebuff him. It was Tucker’s idea to invite the sheriff to take over policing in Bunnell two years ago, after a State Attorney’s investigation revealed, for the third time in 10 years, that the department was a morass of incompetence and corruption. Consolidation with the sheriff’s office would save the city hundreds of thousands of dollars, Tucker argued. But his colleagues rejected the proposal.
Tucker’s dissents were at times prescient, as with his early opposition to Bunnell’s participation in a consortium, led by Palm Coast, to build a desalination plant. Bunnell’s participation cost it $40,000, Tucker says, a contribution he opposed early while the rest of the commission approved it—only to realize, as every government that joined Palm Coast’s consortium eventually did, that the desalination plant would instead be a white elephant. The plan died after local and regional governments lost well over $2 million on it.
Tucker also takes credit—though it was more of a group commission effort—for the city’s resumption of running its own garbage pick-up operations. He also takes credit for ending the city’s illegal scheme, operated in conjunction with its police department, of seizing and towing vehicles, usually on flimsy pretexts. Drivers would get their cars back for $350 fees the city pocketed. While it’s true that Tucker voted to repeal the ordinance that made the scheme possible, he did not initiate the idea: a State Attorney’s investigation exposed the scheme’s excesses, embarrassed Bunnell, and essentially forced the city to repeal the ordinance, since it was illegal, and make refunds available to drivers affected.
Tucker also takes credit for opposing merit-based raises to city employees (he was in dissent on a vote that a majority of the commission approved). “I recognize the value of our city employees and believe they should be paid a meaningful wage,” he writes in his letter to citizens. “But, in these bad economic times and with many of our own citizens themselves suffering (those on fixed incomes, those who have lost their job or have had their pay or work hours cut) I didn’t think it right to ask Bunnell taxpayers to fund ‘merit’ pay increases for city employees. Do you?”
Tucker had no such concerns when it came time to give himself and the rest of the commission a 100 percent raise a few years ago. Commissioners and the mayor voted together to double their pay, to nearly $10,000 a year, and bring it in line with the pay of commissioners in Palm Coast, a city with 25 times the population of Bunnell. Tucker was even defiant about his vote approving his raise: “I’m worth every dime that I get paid for this job,” he said at the time. “Here’s the final analysis. The people don’t like us, they need to vote us out and get the salaries back to $4,800.”
Tucker raised a total of $1,100, all but $300 from himself. He got a $250 check from Jay Beggelman of Palm Coast, and a $50 check from Diane Minotti, who also donated $50 to Henry. Minotti is married to Perry Mitrano, the city’s solid waste director who owes his job, in part, to Tucker’s support of Bunnell resuming those services.
Henry’s Feb. 6 letter notes the creation of the solid waste department and the hiring of City Manager Armando Martinez, whom Henry does not name but credits for being a qualified manager. Martinez brought on a strong administrative staff and placed the city on a stronger footing after years of instability and poor management. But it’s just as true that Henry’s long tenure on the commission oversaw Bunnell’s more wayward years.
The rest of her letter makes general statements about the city’s business friendliness, its ability to get grants and its special events, none of which entailed Henry’s direct or, in most cases, indirect involvement. “Even though you don’t hear or read anything I say in the media I am silently working in your behalf,” she claims. If so, she works in mysterious ways.
Henry can be fierce, passionate and pious, but only concerning matters that concern her directly, if not personally. Her commission colleagues never give her leadership responsibilities, condescending instead to let her pray or speak her mind on occasions, but little more. There is no mystery to her successive reelections: she is black, and as such enjoys the only solid, unwavering constituency in the city with the highest proportion of black residents in the county—and the only city still with a black ghetto. Bunnell’s South Side, where Henry lives, is a blight of poverty, crime and political indifference unparallelled anywhere in Flagler. It’s also her base. (Palm Coast is relatively well integrated, and Flagler Beach has no ghetto because it banned blacks from living there until recently; few do anyway).
Yet when Carver Gym, the one unquestionably positive icon that stands out as a service to South Side residents, was threatened with closure by the County Commission in 2010, it wasn’t Henry who led the battle to save it. She was vocal and organized her own neighborhood’s grass roots, but it did not go further than that. Nor did her colleagues entrust her with that battle. After a failed attempt by Bunnell Vice Mayor Jenny Crain-Brady to lead the effort, it was Barbara Revels, the county commissioner (and a long-time Flagler Beach resident) who took up the fight, and won it. It’s still Revels more than anyone who’s keeping Carver Gym’s organizational structure and funding solid.
Henry seldom votes in dissent: she is a quintessential status quo commissioner, who largely goes along with Martinez’s administrative initiatives, and provides the surest third vote for Crain-Brady and Robinson. Martinez’s future in Bunnell may well depend on her re-election.
Revels is among Henry’s campaign contributors: she donated $100. Other contributors include Crain-Brady ($50), former Bunnell City Commissioner Jimmy Flynt ($200), Frank Giddens ($100), and Bunnell developer Mark Langello($500).
Henry’s campaign finance documents are confusing, and in one case clearly wrong: her last report, covering Feb. 9 to Feb. 28, lists just $100 as “total monetary contributions to date,” when it should list all of her monetary contributions in the course of the campaign, which appear to top $1,000. Henry was also fined $50, in accordance with state law, for turning in a report late.