By Pierre Tristam
For over a month–from Jan. 2 to yesterday, Feb. 6–School Board member Christy Chong and the district administration evaded or suppressed numerous requests for Chong’s list of “causes” to fire former Board attorney Kristy Gavin. Thanks to the tenacity of Brad West, a Palm Coast resident who was finally more successful than I in our hunt for the document, we now have it.
There are two major issues here, both revealing of the board’s and the district’s contempt for truth, transparency, respect for law and respect for its own employees. One is Chong and the district refusing to comply with a public record request for Chong’s “for cause” document. We’ll get to that in a moment.
The other is the substance of Chong’s document, such as it is, and its feeble attempt to paint Gavin as a derelict lawbreaker, when the description is a better fit for her slandering accusers.
There is nothing surprising about the document. We’d heard it all in one form or another from Chong or her ax-grinding colleagues Sally Hunt and Will Furry, since last year. These aren’t “causes” that come anywhere near “just cause” as defined in Gavin’s contract: “dereliction of duty, failure to report to work, misconduct in office or violation of criminal law.”
Rather, they’re petty, inaccurate, gossipy and falsified grievances you might hear in middle school whispers between thin-skinned pimples, not grown-ups posing as serious professionals. The grievances have more to do with Chong being out of her depth, her embarrassment, her hatred for the press (and for me in particular) and her contempt for transparency and the public than anything to do with the quality of Gavin’s work in nearly two decades of representing the board.
Let’s take those “causes” one by one, at least the first three, since the last three are vague trifles that add up to: “I don’t like her.” (You can read Chong’s list in its entirety at the foot of the article.)
“1. Attorney Gavin has granted unfettered access to those who are not Flagler school employees which created the appearance of impropriety of the board to the community; allowing those who are not staff to have access to the superintendent’s suite. This also put board members and our Superintendents [sic.] safety at risk at a time of increased racial tension. On August 24th 2023 following a press conference on the situation at Bunnell elementary, board members and the superintendent walked back to the superintendent suite to get our belongings and support our interim superintendent after the press conference. We were together less than five minutes. Attorney Gavin walked back to the superintendent office with the Flagler live blogger through three doors then allowing him to snap a photo of us and write yet another misleading article accusing us of breaking sunshine laws.”
Chong is making things up and trying again to cover up what may have been an illegal meeting–and certainly had the appearance of one, with the board literally meeting behind closed doors after that press conference.
To be clear: Gavin did not lead me to Moore’s office or give anything like “unfettered access.” After the news conference I saw all five board members troop out of the room and head for Moore’s suite. Several minutes later none of them had reappeared. I knew they were meeting–illegally maybe, inappropriately certainly. Call it instinct. Call it experience with this particularly shady board.
Gavin was still in the room where the press conference had been held, along with dozens of people milling about. I found her, told her my suspicion, and asked that we walk back there to check. She was resistant at first, wondering how I could possibly know they were back there. Look around, I told her. See any of them? We walked back. There was nothing inappropriate about this: the public has every right to know if, where and when its elected boards are meeting, and to verify the legality of the meeting. Chong’s claims about the “superintendent’s suite” are a red herring.
Moore’s door was locked. Gavin had to repeatedly knock until someone inside opened. There they were, these members lusting for secrecy, four of them around the table–Sally Hunt had skedaddled–three of them sitting, Moore and Furry standing, none of them looking like they were just there to get their belongings, as Board Chair Cheryl Massaro confirmed to me in front of them when I told her they were certainly not there to discuss lunch. “No, we aren’t,” she said.
They were debriefing on the single-most prominent issue before the school board at that time, which had drawn national attention: the racist assemblies held for Black students at Bunnell Elementary the previous week. If they wanted to show Moore support as a board, they should have done it in the open. Instead, they were having an illegal huddle. Gavin told me had she known, she would not have allowed it.
Incidentally, Gavin did not “allow” me to take a picture. I took the picture because it is the public’s right, in a public building, to take pictures of its elected board meeting anywhere in that building, especially in inappropriate circumstances. What, exactly, were they doing that would have prohibited a picture? Why is Chong even thinking along those fugitive terms?
That’s what Chong couldn’t accept: being found in a closed-door meeting, by a “blogger” going outside the chain of command, to boot. Gavin did nothing wrong, aside from not having kept a close enough eye on her lawless board members: it’s her responsibility to keep them on the right side of the law. She correctly broke up the meeting.
Chong walked out in a huff. She is now fabricating the bit about Gavin taking me back there. Worse, she’s wrapping it up in that preposterous and faintly racist suggestion that a reporter going into the superintendent’s suite, as he has since the board has been at the Government Services Building since 2007, could somehow put board members or the superintendent at risk. Since I’m of Arab birth I must have that terrorist gene, right? It wouldn’t be the first time the suggestion’s been made that I shouldn’t be allowed in certain places at the GSB: remember Dennis McDonald and Mark Richeter, who made the same offensive claim some years ago, not to mention the similarly racist libels of Joe Mullins? Birds of a feather.
How any of this amounts to “dereliction of duty, failure to report to work, misconduct in office or violation of criminal law” for Gavin (the board’s violation is another matter), I have no idea. Chong must like writing fiction in her spare time.
More fiction: “2. Attorney Gavin has undermined school board members by making public statements to media causing dissension among the board. She has notified and confirmed with the Flagler live reporter of personal information about Mrs. Hunt and that she could possibly be moving. Personal information about board members should not be shared with media!”
Again, a fabrication. I did not hear from Gavin about Hunt’s possibly moving, but from other people in and outside the school administration, including at least one of Palm Coast’s elected officials. Hunt must be an undisciplined blabbermouth–she certainly is during board meetings–because her possible plans were all over the place, and Hunt herself alluded to them at a recent meeting when she said, “I’m not going to be on the board that much longer.”
This isn’t personal information, as Chong claims. It’s information the public has a right to know about the board member it elected, or thought it elected (alas) to a four-year term. It is Hunt’s irresponsibility not to discuss those possibilities openly or allowing her own rumors to fester without putting them to rest. But Chong, like Hunt, doesn’t think the public has a right to know anything they don’t want you to know. Remember: chain of command.
Bottom line: Gavin did not tell me about Hunt, and if she had, I don’t know how Chong’s outrage at a shred of potentially relevant gossip amounts to “dereliction of duty, failure to report to work, misconduct in office or violation of criminal law.”
Chong again: “3. For over 15 years Attorney Gavin has executed memorandums of understandings with an organization that did not legally exist exposing us to liability and possible tax evasion. In the end we found out that the Flagler Youth Orchestra was using a Flagler Schools tax ID number of which we knew nothing about.”
Must we? Again? After the district spent untold amounts of dollars auditing the program and, to Furry’s and Chong’s chagrin, finding nothing? Getting a legal opinion about the program’s set-up, and being told it was fine (but would have been better off had the board and the district provided the oversight they were responsible for all those years)?
Of course we must, because Chong’s reckless disregard for the truth here amounts to sheer malice: she knows what she’s writing is false. Aside from the fact that it’s the board that has executed those memorandums over the years, not the attorney (with unanimity, until Janet McDonald broke the streak a few years ago), she knows that FYO was the creation of Bill Debrugge, the former superintendent, as an internal, district program, continued as such by each successive superintendent. To claim that it did not legally exist is a slander suggesting that just because Chong was ignorant about it, it somehow was operating illegally.
Those annual memos of understanding were odd: the board was executing them with itself, at the request of Trevor Tucker, the former board member. Gavin could’ve brought more clarity to the matter when she probably obscured or muddled it instead. But if she’s to be fired over this, then Chong should be more worried about the likes of the district’s finance director and her predecessor, who seemed to have been asleep at their wheel, or of the half dozen superintendents who’ve overseen the program since its creation.
But again, and as the district’s own internal and independent reviews showed, none of this amounted to more than a hill of beans motivated by the witch-hunting of Furry, Chong and Hunt against a program whose director was married to me, their bête noire, or to be more accurate, bête Arabe, in Chong’s eyes. I was their target. Gavin got caught in the hunt.
The fourth, fifth and sixth items in Chong’s kitchen-sink causes are just plain weird. In one, she has no issue with the changes Gavin made to an inter-governmental agreement about the Carver Center (Chong voted approvingly!), but she just wishes it had been brought to the board’s attention before the workshop where it was discussed–even though workshops are designed for that very purpose: to discuss matters before they get to a vote at subsequent meetings, weeks later.
Chong never gives the impression she does her homework before meetings. Workshops are thick with items she and some of her colleagues seem to see for the first time. But she was grasping at straws with the Carver Center item, and this straw man looked ripe. Dereliction of duty? Misconduct? Violation of law? Someone should give Chong a dictionary. Or a clue.
The last two items on her list are just Chong pouting. The end run around the public record requests is more serious.
Chong wrote her “for cause” document not from her district account, but from her AOL account ([email protected]). In my experience public officials who do this generally are trying to evade the public record stream. Officials are certainly free to use their personal accounts, and for convenience many do. But professional organizations, among them Palm Coast government, ensure that whenever a personal account is used to generate a public document–including texts and similar non-email electronic messages–a copy is sent to the city’s archives.
The school district is not a professional organization. Some of its board members like to get away with as much as they can. We have repeatedly seen this with Chong and her colleagues (see above, see below), as we do again here.
On Jan. 11–nine days after Chong wrote her “for cause” list, subject line: “Causes for Flagler Board attorney”–I had requested “any ‘for cause’ letter or document turned in by any of the Flagler County School members” to “any entity,” including the law firm handling the termination letter. I renewed my request almost daily. Each time, Jennifer Gimbel, Superintendent LaShakia Moore’s executive secretary, replied with the same words: “At this time we have not received any ‘for cause’ letter/documents or a letter of termination.”
That was not true. The document was in the hands of Daniel Nordby, the attorney from the Shutts and Bowen law firm. The district was paying Nordby $570 an hour to handle the case. It was Chong’s responsibility to provide the document to the administration if and when requested as a public document. If Chong was being cagey, it was the district’s responsibility to seek it out from her or from Nordby.
Brad West had the same problem, requesting the same document day after day. We compared notes on the district’s suppressive habits, which extend far beyond this. It was only when he renewed his request yet again on Feb. 3, including David Delaney this time–one of the attorney the board hired as its interim counsel, in addition to the other one: there are actually three sets of attorneys handling different spheres of board and district business now–that Delaney himself produced the document on Tuesday, 35 days later than when it should have been produced.
This is the board–this is the district–we are dealing with: a troubling, broken district that operates in shades, evasions and slanders, and that’s now defined by the arrogance and contempt of a majority of its board members: Chong, Hunt and Furry. And that’s the context of Chong’s “causes.” But fabrications are not fact. Animus is not evidence. Vengefulness is not a “cause.” And to portray them as such is an invitation to sue.
Gavin didn’t lack for one. Chong’s “causes” are begging for an RSVP in court.
The Christy Chong “For Cause” Email
Hello, please see attached causes for termination of Attorney Gavin from the Flagler School Board. Thank you.
As the school board attorney, Attorney Gavin worked for this board, however it often felt like she instead worked against us. I personally do not have confidence in Mrs. Gavin as our attorney.
- Attorney Gavin has granted unfettered access to those who are not Flagler school employees which created the appearance of impropriety of the board to the community; allowing those who are not staff to have access to the superintendent’s suite. This also put board members and our Superintendents safety at risk at a time of increased racial tension. On August 24th 2023 following a press conference on the situation at Bunnell elementary, board members and the superintendent walked back to the superintendent suite to get our belongings and support our interim superintendent after the press conference. We were together less than five minutes. Attorney Gavin walked back to the superintendent office with the Flagler live blogger through three doors then allowing him to snap a photo of us and write yet another misleading article accusing us of breaking sunshine laws. Later when I asked her about this she tried to blame the office secretaries for allowing him in the office when he clearly was with her. Also when I later asked her what we were going to do about this, she changed the subject and does not answer the question. She is incapable of giving good legal advice. Why should I trust an attorney who cannot give me sound legal advice and exposes the board to ridicule? She works for the board, not for reporters. See attached article.
- Attorney Gavin has undermined school board members by making public statements to media causing dissension among the board. She has notified and confirmed with the Flagler live reporter of personal information about Mrs. Hunt and that she could possibly be moving. Personal information about board members should not be shared with media! See attached article.
- For over 15 years Attorney Gavin has executed memorandums of understandings with an organization that did not legally exist exposing us to liability and possible tax evasion. In the end we found out that the Flagler Youth Orchestra was using a Flagler Schools tax ID number of which we knew nothing about.
- Most recently Attorney Gavin made changes to the Carver Center ILA. While I do not have an issue with the changes, the board should have been made aware of the changes and should have also been sent the original ILA document prior to the workshop meeting. We were not aware until it was being discussed in the meeting.
- I do not believe that Board members are treated with impartiality nor are we treated equitably.
- I am not confident in her ability to represent me because she has proven to advocate for the interests of others. She is the school board attorney and represents myself and the board, however I do not believe that we are protected. Thank you.
Christy Chong APRN, FNP-BC
Vice Chairwoman, Flagler County School Board