County Commissioner Andy Dance is both the rookie on the County Commission, and by far its most seasoned, veteran elected official: he served 12 years on the Flagler County School Board before his election to the commission in November, and previously learned the ropes of elected office as his mother, Nancy, served on the school board for 16 years. It’s likely why Dance is among the least ideological, most pragmatic–and deliberative–elected officials of any local board.
In contrast, the four other people on the County Commission have an average of four years’ elected service between them. One of them hasn’t yet completed his third year. Ironically, the four non-veterans still react to Dance as if he were the unschooled outsider when he raises procedural, open-government or parliamentary questions, underscoring their clubbishness on one hand, and their resistance to running the panel more professionally on the other.
It’s having a direct bearing on the conduct of board policy.
Two weeks ago Dance termed himself baffled by the board’s agreement at one meeting to go along with more frequent workshops to vet issues–a plan the commission’s own administrator, Heidi Petito, had proposed after consultation with commissioners–only to flip-flop at its next meeting and vote the opposite way, returning the the current system of improvising workshops when necessary.
On Monday, Dance wasn’t explicitly baffled by the latest procedural issue to take him aback, but his tone left no doubt about his surprise. The commission had just held a two-hour workshop about its single-most important issue of the year: its coming budget. Because of its reluctance to hold workshops more often, and with still many questions unanswered, it was running out of time regarding the budget. It had to give its administration. So the commission did what it has routinely done in the past–and what no other local government does except in rare emergencies. It adjourned its workshop and called a special meeting of the commission, where it could take action by vote.
The special meeting had barely been noticed: a line about it was included in the workshop agenda, but it said nothing about the special meeting’s agenda. The state’s Sunshine law requires “due public notice” of meetings, though the law isn’t doctrinaire about a specific number of days’ advance notice, or about the details of the notices. The law goes to the reasonableness and purpose of the public notice: to give the public a chance to know what its government is up to, to be informed, and to have the opportunity to participate. That typically few people get involved in the budget process, at least in person, is irrelevant: elected officials must abide by its provisions.
The County Commission has always done so to the letter of the law. Unique among local governments, it’s not been as faithful to the spirit of the law, with those special meetings immediately following workshops a chief exhibit. (Lack of transparency–if not intimations of sunshine violations–are no small matter at the commission: When O’Brien was voted chairman of the commission last November, Joe Mullins, the controversial commissioner, was in line for the title. But O’Brien came prepared with a written speech, strongly suggesting that the decision–which normally would have been deliberated and voted on during the meeting–had bee made ahead of time, and therefore out of the sunshine. The whole maneuver looked pre-arranged.)
Dance on Monday was already explaining that the budget discussion had a long way to go before it could lead to a decision. “That’s one concern I have,” he said. “The other one is just the way we do these immediate meetings, following workshops, and then having decisions made immediately following. It’s just kind of again, to me, it limits transparency. And I’m not a big fan of this process.”
“That’s what you wanted to have with the schedule for next year,” Commission Chairman Donald O’Brien told him. “You wanted to have a workshop and then have a meeting right afterwards the same day.”
“Yeah, it doesn’t mean you have to vote on those items that same day,” Dance said. “There’s plenty of leeway built into that system. That’s a different discussion.”
O’Brien was, in fact, being either disingenuous or unaware of how workshops work with other governments (an unlikely possibility: O’Brien has attended other local governments’ meetings just to keep up with issues.) The school board, for example, has two scheduled workshops every month, one of them preceding its evening, business meeting by a few hours. But the workshop agenda and the evening meeting are not connected. The second workshop of the month is devoted exclusively to the evening meeting’s agenda, specifically to go over each item in turn. But it takes place two weeks before the business meeting, giving both the administration and the public ample time to digest any issue the board will vote on.
The Palm Coast City Council has a similar approach. It used to alternate between workshops and business meetings, one a week, until it switched earlier this year to two business meetings and one workshop a month, always scheduled. It’s tended to overload that workshop and extend it well past noon, but as with the school board, it’s scheduled at least one week out from when matters on the agenda may be voted on. Dance was leaning toward a similar approach when he favored a commission schedule that would include workshops ahead of each of the commission’s two monthly meeting.
Fellow-commissioners were not interested in that approach.
“Well in this process that we’re doing now, the only way we can make this work is for us to give guidance now,” Commissioner Greg Hansen said of th special meeting on Monday. He was right–and was unwittingly underscoring the vulnerabilities of the process. Monday’s workshop again illustrated why the commission is so often behind, ill-prepared and haphazard in its approach to some of the county’s most pressing issues–leaving its administration to pick up the pieces.
It was the same impulse among commissioners that led to Dance’s first bafflement, early in his tenure, when, after learning of the departure of then-Administrator Jerry Cameron, Dance raised the matter of starting a process for his replacement. O’Brien said he wasn’t interested. Nor were other commissioners.
This is happening under the chairmanship of O’Brien, an ostensibly reasonable official, with Mullins–the true rookie of the commission and its least respectful of process–poised to take over the chairmanship in three months, giving Dance little time to set any procedures protective of transparency in place.