As the wrangle over the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office’s space needs enter its second year, with two or three more years to go, a stalemate has developed between the county commission, which is responsible for the sheriff’s needs, and the clerk of court, more of whose square footage the sheriff is seeking at the county courthouse.
The county commission voted to have the clerk yield more space. But that hasn’t amounted to more than a vote: action has not followed, and those responsible for that action are indicating that they’re not quite prepared to take it. At least not yet–not if it means legal action or if it precipitates what County Administrator Jerry Cameron has called a “constitutional crisis.” The chorus line of can-kicking has left the county commission vote looking more like an advisory opinion for its administration to consider than a mandate for it to execute.
The May 21 decision by the Flagler County Commission was unanimous and unequivocal: it ordered Cameron to do what’s necessary to accommodate the sheriff’s need for more space at the county courthouse. “We don’t need to look at other options,” County Commissioner Joe Mullins said, making the motion.
But it’s not been as simple as Cameron walking over to the courthouse and telling Clerk of Court Tom Bexley to yield. Bexley says he’s given all the space he has to give and then some. He’s made it clear he won’t yield to further demands, at least not without a fight, and very possibly a legal fight.
The county administration has been weighing the consequences of such a fight, and finding it a terrible option. The alternative is to avoid a fight and look for space elsewhere. Leasing costs, however, would be in the millions of dollars, according to calculations by the sheriff’s office. That’s whether the county were to lease trailers or lease a new 20,000 square foot building off of U.S. 1 in Bunnell. That’s not an attractive option for the county, either, though commissioners have been weighing the approach as well despite the May decision.
And regardless of that May vote, Cameron is not looking for a confrontation with the clerk of court.
“I did have discussions with both parties if they were interested in talking about additional space for the sheriff,” Cameron told the commission Monday. “The clerk was not interested in pursuing that discussion. His position is there is no additional space. The sheriff’s department did submit two proposals that they said would meet their minimal needs. I do have those on file.”
The proposals were prepared by the sheriff’s Chief Mark Strobridge. They were not provided to FlaglerLive upon request: Strobridge cited an exemption to the public record law, saying the proposals were floor plans. But Strobridge said the plans amount to a request for the first floor of the west wing portion of the courthouse. Bexley has said previously that yielding the first floor would be too disruptive to his own operations and to his staff.
“Those,” Cameron said of the sheriff’s plans, “would be referred to only if the county attorney [Al Hadeed] tells me that we have legal authority to carry out your direction to identify that space.”
Just as the commission itself passed the responsibility to resolve the issue to Cameron (none of the commissioners has been willing to put himself on the line individually by negotiating with the clerk), Cameron told the commission on Monday that he was deferring the commission’s vote to the county attorney’s analysis. But just as Cameron is looking for a way to avoid confrontation, Hadeed has not been willing to be the one to decide whether the county is on legal firm ground or not.
Hadeed provided the beginning of an analysis to commissioners in a June 14 memo. He specified that it was not so much a legal analysis as “food for thought.” Prefacing his remarks by noting that the case did not quite mirror Flagler’s, he cited a Florida Supreme Court decision that urged clashing government agencies to resolve their differences “in the spirit of cooperation,” and to seek legal remedies only when those approaches have been exhausted.
“This is why I have declined to answer the question of whether the County Commission has the right to dictate space use by the Clerk or by any other party,” Hadeed wrote. “I do not want to undermine the good will of the stakeholders by stating a contentious position that forces them to respond in kind.”
Declining to provide the legal advice asked of him, at least at this stage, Hadeed went on to justify his approach: he said the court’s docket is crowded enough that government agencies shouldn’t be further crowded by issues that would distract from the functions of agencies such as the sheriff’s office, the clerk, the county commission. “The duties of these constitutional officers and our Commission are too important to the public to mix them up into an evidentiary mixing bowl”–that is, legal action, or a lawsuit–“and see where it lands,” Hadeed wrote. “That mixing overlooks the cost of that activity, that is, that our taxpayers ultimately are paying for all sides of the argument.”
If the issue were to go to court, he cautioned, a judge from outside the circuit, or at least a non-Flagler judge, would have to hear the case, since local judges are situated at the courthouse in question.
All sides have given ground–literal ground, in the case of the clerk, the court system and the State Attorney’s office–Hadeed noted. “There is an abundance of good faith, but I think we need more,” he wrote. “I will do all I can to promote cooperation with and among all the stakeholders. Going to court to resolve this is a scenario that I will ask you to resist until we have exhausted all means to achieve resolution. Unfortunately, there is no time to waste.”
He concluded: “In the final analysis, the victim for any further impasse is our public.”