It didn’t take long after Palm Coast City Manager Matt Morton’s resignation last Thursday for speculation to start cascading about what would happen at next Tuesday’s City Council meeting, where Morton will still be on the fifth of his last 30 days as manager.
A lot of the speculation is just that, fomented by the same sort of overheated residents and notable non-residents who have crowded council meetings in the past few months, egged on by some of the council members, like a plan to fire Morton even though he’s resigned. Or a plan, somewhat more absurd, to bring on as manager Dennis McDonald, the perennial candidate for one office or another (including mayor last year). Or a plan, less absurd and more enticing to at least one council member, to bring on Jerry Cameron, the county administrator, as interim manager in Palm Coast.
The speculation about Cameron is fueling the feverish politicized atmosphere in Palm Coast, an unbridgeable rift on the council, rampant apprehension within city staff ranks, and the manipulative hands of elected officials on and off the council, all in the context of a special election for mayor in less than two months and the government’s budget season starting even sooner. Ironically, many of the same actors at the center of the swirl will be appearing together at the city’s and county’s Memorial Day commemorations Monday morning, looking austere, proper and innocent of the least bit of intense positioning and politicking that’s been grinding through the weekend.
Firing Morton does not appear possible by charter: a majority of three votes would be required. Neither Council member Eddie Branquinho nor Nick Klufas would vote to fire him, they said today. Council member Ed Danko said he wouldn’t either. ““Matt Morton resigned. He can’t be fired. I have no plans. Why would we fire Matt Morton?” Danko said. “I hope he stays for the 30 days. I’m hoping we figure things out before he departs. He’s given us his resignation, he has to stay for 30 days, that’s part of the city deal with him.”
Asked several times about it, Danko gave the same answer several times: he’d not heard that Cameron was being discussed as a possible interim manager. “You’re the first one I’ve heard it from,” he told a reporter. On the other hand, the same reporter had heard it from the Palm Coast fire chief, County Commissioner Dave Sullivan, Klufas and Morton among several others in the last 24 hours, the others wanting to remain unnamed.
Jerry Forte, the Palm Coast fire chief, who has as close to a deific reputation in the city as any, said he was “approached by other employees in the city if I’d be interested in doing it.” But he recalled his experience toggling both the chief’s job and the interim head of public works not long ago and doesn’t relish what 80-hour workweeks did to his health and to his family. “I’d have to take a long time to think about it.” But he had heard about the Cameron possibility–and that of Denise Bevan, one of two chiefs of staff Morton elevated to that position just a few weeks ago. Forte described himself as “extremely supportive” of Bevan.
“I have a lot of faith in Mr. Cameron if he’s asked,” Forte said. “I have a lot of faith in Denise Bevan as the Number 2, if she’s asked.” Speaking specifically of Cameron, he said “It would be a sound idea especially if Mr. Salinas is ready to hit the ground running.” Jorge Salinas is the chief of staff Cameron appointed at the beginning of the year. Cameron was himself brought on as interim administrator–a title he technically still holds–in the aftermath of the county’s meltdown over the era of Craig Coffey, his predecessor. In February he told county commissioners he would be leaving in June, back into retirement (Cameron is 75).
“I heard him say to someone publicly that it was the end of June and he’ll be gone,” Sullivan, the county commissioner, said of Cameron today. (Cameron did not respond to a text asking him about the Palm Coast possibilities.) “I don’t want him to go over there anyway before he leaves the county, I don’t think it’s a good precedent. They do have two chiefs of staff that have recently been promoted. Matt is going to be there to the 26th.”
But for Cameron to take the month-to-month job at the city after his tenure ends with the county is a different story, Sullivan said. “In a very tight, totally unanimous, all four remaining city commissioners would have to enthusiastically support it,” he said, “and the staff would be alerted properly, Palm Coast staff, that that’s what would be happening on a month by month basis until the election is over and they select a new city manager. But I don’t think that’s going to happen.”
Sullivan at least three times in a brief interview said he did not think that Cameron would end up at the city regardless, though if it did, he said, I’d ask anyone who’s in the public light to give it a chance,” including public, politicians and media.
Forte and Sullivan used different metaphors to describe a Cameron interim tenure: Cameron would be steering the ship down the river, Forte said, while in Cameron’s words, more reflective of the combustible atmosphere at city hall lately, he would “keep the lid on things.”
Klufas said he’d been hearing about the Cameron possibilities, among other rumors, all weekend, in the context of other scenarios he was worried about at Tuesday’s council meeting, especially if Branquinho, who is in Portugal, had issues with his internet connection and dropped off of Zoom. Klufas is worried that Council member Victor Barbosa and Danko would pull parliamentary maneuvers to execute various actions on 2-1 votes if Branquinho was not part of the meeting: that’s how fraught with anxiety council dynamics have become. Among those worries: the appointment of an interim without broader support, though the charter states that a three-vote majority of the full council would be required for such an appointment (or a firing), making it impossible by parliamentary maneuvers.
“I’m bothered because I’m hearing it through multiple sources that both Ed Danko and Barbosa are plotting this,” Klufas said, “which bothers me because we haven’t had the opportunity to meet as a council yet. So there shouldn’t be communications going on among them.” He added: “The protocols in place for the city to continue to operate, and bringing in someone like Jerry Cameron, is not necessary from our resilience plans. But it bothers me that they’re already talking about that, especially since they haven’t been through a process of hiring a manager before.”
Danko took issue with Klufas making accusations that Danko would have had conversations with another council member about pending matters out of the sunshine. “I have not had a word with Victor,” he said, reiterating his antipathy toward a council member he’s not been getting along with, though Barbosa has reconciled with Alan Lowe, one of the candidates for mayor, after a bitter falling out. Danko is running Lowe’s campaign, and would need both Lowe and Barbosa to get through his priorities at the council. But Danko said he was not in contact with him over council matters: “No, we’re not together. That is just absolutely false. I wouldn’t be working with Victor, he’s on the council. “I haven’t had a word with Barbosa and I haven’t had a word with Klufas. I don’t know what Klufas is talking about.”
Klufas said the talk and speculation had gone well beyond either: he was approached to have a meeting with Cameron to discuss his hiring, he said. “Someone offered for me to meet with Jerry and I said no, I don’t want to facilitate that type of communication before we talk at the council.” Klufas is cool to a Cameron tenure anyway. It overlooks city-county dynamics, making it “not ideal.”
Reached by phone in Portugal, where he’s been since last week, Branquinho said he’d been out of the loop: he had not heard about the Cameron possibility. “First of all I don’t even know if Jerry wants to do it, second I don’t know if I’d even agree with that,” he said. “At this point an experienced person would be better than someone who is not experienced.” But in terms of experienced persons, Branquinho mentioned Bevan and Forte, from within city ranks. “The question is, do we want to get somebody from the staff to deal with the two new people,” he said of Danko and Barbosa. Branquinho and Barbosa have not been getting along, either. “I don’t know if the two new council members would agree for someone from the staff to take over.” Danko, for his part, said he’d heard “many staff members” don’t want to step into the job.
All that aside, Branquinho said, “I’m intending to ask Matt to stay an extra month if he wants to because we need time to get a manager to take over for a couple of months. We cannot go to anyone who doesn’t know what’s going on.” But that would require not only Morton agreeing, but the council voting on it. Danko today was a no on extending the resignation window. He wanted to talk to Cameron. “Jerry is a decent guy, a hard working guy, that is somebody that I could support. I’ve had no conversations with Jerry,” Danko said. “If he was interested, I think that’d be a great deal, I think he’d be the type of person that would hit the ground running but that’s just my thought.”
Morton of course had heard all the Cameron talk, too. “I’ve had a wonderful interaction with Jerry. Me and Jerry have had a great working relationship. Jerry has done a great service with county in my opinion. I don’t have any criticism of Jerry Cameron whatsoever other than I think letting Jerry Cameron run the city of Palm Coast is letting Flagler County in Palm Coast. If that’s what people want–because of all of his relationships, his allegiances, his alliances, his relationship with Joe Mullins, I just don’t think that’s smart.” Mullins is the often incendiary county commissioner. “I think they need someone completely detached. Is Jerry Cameron professional? I really believe that. I think he’s a consummate professional. I think he would do what he thinks is right. I think he probably is in a position to do what he thinks is right. But I don’t think it’s in pace with where we’ve gotten the organization in terms of empowerment and leadership. And again I think again bringing somebody in completely detached from any local politics at the local nonsense, is the only way you started adding any credibility back.”
As for that plan to hire McDonald, Danko called it “the most absurd thing going on out there, that’s left over from the last campaign,” and it would not have his backing at any point.