After months of signaling that he would step down, Eric Cooley, the two-term Flagler Beach city commissioner and the commission’s current chairman, announced today that he is running for a third term in the March election, to “get all this through,” meaning the many initiatives the commission begun on his watch.
Assuming no one else files–qualifying ends Friday at 5 p.m.–that sets up a two-person race for the one open commission seat, with Bob Cunningham as the second candidate. The mayor’s seat is also up: Suzie Johnston has opted to step down at the end of her term. That seat has drawn one candidate, who would take it uncontested: Patricia King, best known as Patti King, who has run the Flagler Beach Museum for a year. The mayoral seat is non-voting.
The “catalyst” for Cooley’s shift was Doug “Bruno” O’Connor’s surprise decision to drop out of the race for the commission seat a few days ago, leaving Cunningham, who drew 15 percent of the vote when he ran last year, in a five-candidate race for two seats. He could have taken the seat unopposed had no other candidate jumped in.
Cunningham is a relatively recent resident in Flagler Beach. He is a regular presence at city meetings, but city officials privately express reserve at his greenness, while Cooley openly spoke about the risk of two seats turning over to rookies on a six-member commission (the mayor’s seat will change hands), though that’s not particularly unusual for this commission.
Cooley spoke of major and lesser ongoing projects, all of which he had a hand in, as motivating him to run again: the construction of the new hotel downtown, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ beach renourishment project starting in June, after a 20-year wait, the construction of the new pier, and beyond that, the joint quarterly meetings between the county’s municipalities, along with the county, that Coley initiated. He considers those meetings a key discussion about Flagler Beach’s place in a county heading for a population of 150,000 or more, with many of those residents crushing the city’s beaches.
“It would really be a disservice to myself and the city to get all these things starting to roll and just kind of let it go,” Cooley said. He had previously spoken of stepping down at the same time as Johnston, his companion, to spend more time as a family. Numerous people have contacted him, he said, asking him to reconsider.
“This has nothing to do with O’Connor or Cunningham, but O’Connor dropped out over the weekend, which was a catalyst for everybody getting really animated over everything we’ve been talking about,” Cooley said. “To turn one third of our elected body over at this critical time risks unintended consequences.” Cooley has significant influence and contact with residents through the 7-Eleven he owns downtown, an informal public square from where Cooley gauges the community’s temperature and seasons his ideas. For a time, he thought he might well continue to influence public issues that way, until he realized that, without a vote, he might only get frustrated.
Flagler Beach Commissioner Scott Spradley, who is completing his first year on the commission–and had been a regular visitor to Cooley’s town square before his election–welcomed Cooley’s decision, despite not being aligned with him on many issues.
“I feel we are on the front end of the three most important years in the history of the City of Flagler Beach and the seamlessness that would result from Eric’s continued service would be a welcome benefit to the board, in my opinion,” Spradley said, citing Cooley’s role in the major projects ahead or under way. “In formulating my opinion on this, I feel it is important to note that by no means do Eric and I have identical voting records on issues which come before the board. In fact, we often take adverse positions on a variety of issues.”
Notably, Cooley and Spradley were at opposite ends in a recent discussion–another Cooley initiative that appeared as if out of nowhere: Cooley’s proposal to turn the mayoral position into a voting position, and possibly to make the mayor the permanent chair of the commission, as is the case in Palm Coast and Bunnell. Spradley wasn’t opposed (as Commissioner Jane Mealy, who most often and most strongly disagrees with Cooley, was).
But he didn’t like the speed and lack of deliberation around the initiative, and didn’t see why it was being rushed. Cooley’s took sharp issue with Spradley, but in the end conceded the points. Coley can be abrasive that way, as he was against Spradley, who hasn’t held it against him. This commission tends to deliberate above personal antipathies.
“I simply view Eric as a commissioner who is thorough in his analysis,” Spradley said, “who spends the time necessary to develop an understanding of the issues and whose heart is in the right place when it comes to doing what he feels is in the best interests of our Flagler Beach residents and business owners–even when his conclusions and positions are different and sometimes adverse to mine.”