For well over a year the Bunnell City Commission has been an uneventful, all-business government, spared the shock of losing a city manager as in Flagler Beach, the theatrics of the county commission or the roiling insurgencies, firings and resignations of Palm Coast government. “I think any city manager would love to have a city commission like I have now,” Bunnell City Manager Alvin Jackson, now the dean of local executives executives despite having just three years on the job, said this evening.
But Bunnell is now going through a bit of an upheaval of its own: Bill Baxley, who won election eight years ago, ushering in a sea change on the commission, and has twice been re-elected, tendered his resignation this week, in the second year of his three-year term. The term expires in March. Baxley, at 82 the senior-most elected official in Flagler County, prefers to call it his retirement. “I’m through working, put it that way,” he said. He is moving to New Hampshire to be close to his daughter.
Donnie Nobles, 61, a county employee elected to the commission two years ago, has been absent from the last few commission meetings after a stroke, just months after a stroke had sidelined him earlier this year. His future on the commission is uncertain. Like Baxley’s, his seat is up for election next March, as is that of the mayor.
That leaves the commission with two choices, Jackson said: the remaining three–Mayor Catherine Robinson and Commissioners Tonya Gordon and John Rogers–can leave things be and power through budget season as a trio. But key votes, such as that setting next though key votes, such as those setting next year’s tax rate at two successive public hearings, will have to be unanimous: the votes must have a minimum of three to pass. And if any one of the three happens to be ill, or needs to miss a meeting, then there won;t be a quorum to hold a meeting.
The other option is for the three commissioners to appoint a replacement for Baxley, if not for Nobles as well if his absences accumulate. Gordon said this evening she favors making one appointment. “I think it’d be in the best interest of the city for us to appoint somebody,” she said, so as to avoid the risk of leaving the city in a lurch in case of an unexpected absence. “I think that would be better than the three of us.” It would also give the commission a fourth voice through budget season. But commissioners would need to find an able candidate who can pick up the task without too much of a learning curve and with some familiarity with budgeting, the way the Palm Coast Council last year appointed former mayor and councilman Jon Netts when Jack Howell–who had beaten Netts in the previous election–resigned.
One obvious choice for Bunnell–Rogers liked the idea–might be Elbert Tucker, who served on the commission from 2008 to 2019, never losing an election and choosing not to run again in 2019. But he was quick to dismiss the idea this evening. “I would rather not because it would really shed a bad light on Tonya, ” Tucker said: Gordon works at Tucker’s business, Tucker Insurance, in Bunnell. “I don’t want to besmirch her reputation and have people think we’re discussing things that are on the agenda, because I really don’t try to influence her even now.” Tucker’s suggestion: “I would vote for Shannon Strickland, he’s a better numbers guy than I am.” Strickland served on the city’s planning board many years. That board may well be a source of appointees.
A special election is not required because the next election is so close.
Either way, retirement and Nobles’ absence is a loss of cohesion for Jackson, the city manager. “They were a great team, they were working together, not only myself but my executive team, everyone just working extremely well with Commissioner Baxley and the mayor and the commission,” Jackson said. “So yeah, we’ve been clicking and moving forward and just quietly getting things done.” Baxley, Jackson said, had focused on building a healthy reserve, focusing on economic development and infrastructure. He was “always easy to communicate with.”
“I think I accomplished quite a bit of the things I set out to do, because my major concern was spending money they didn’t have,” Baxley said. “I’m a firm believer in you can’t spend what you don’t have. In my opinion, in the beginning, that’s what they were doing, but I think with my constant reminding them of that, it woke some up.” Like Jackson, Baxley had seen the commission’s recent run as especially smooth. “In the last year or so it has been running real good, and especially Dr. Jackson coming on board, he seems to have a grasp of things, in my opinion he’s doing a great job, and I think he’ll do very well. We’ve been all pulling together, in one direction.”
Baxley in his years on the commission displayed an easy going demeanor and could seem deceptively affable: his calmness and modesty masked a steely resolve that could stand up to anyone–and anything, including immense personal challenges in his years as commissioner.
For the past six years Baxley had taken care of his wife, who had been battling four successive bouts of cancer. The last one took her life only a few weeks ago.
“I’ve been through a lot of stuff but this is the worst I’ve been through,” Baxley said this evening. His daughter flew in for the funeral, and talked to him about living closer to her in New Hampshire. “In the beginning I wasn’t too keen on it, but then after she left, and it was just me and four walls, I came to the conclusion that I needed to be closer, because I have no family in this area.”
He put his house up for sale. It sold in a week. He’d already put a deposit on a new house in New Hampshire. “I tell you, the good Lord opened all the doors,” Baxley said. He will attend his last City Commission meeting this coming Monday, July 12. Knowing Bunnell, and particularly how Robinson, the mayor, likes to show commissioners and employees appreciation, it is likely to be a warm and poignant farewell.