Apologizing for it, the Palm Coast City Council this evening abolished an all but secret and plainly intrusive “Difficult Citizens List” the city administration started in early 2016, under the previous city manager, and filled with new entries until May 6, two years into the tenure of the current city manager–who resigned last week, effective at the end of June.
Dan Priotti, one of the people on the list, had his assistant read a statement, placed the blame on the previous city manager (Jim Landon) and commended the current city manager (Matt Morton) for a culture he described as “the most positive he’s seen in 20 years” as he asked for the list to be abolished.
City Council member Ed Danko, who compared the list to something out of East Germany (a notorious police state before the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989) put the blame on both Landon and former Mayor Milissa Holland, which is not accurate: the list was started in March 2016. Holland was elected later that year and was not seated until that November.
Danko and other council members said they had been unaware of the list (as Holland has since its revelation). Council member Nick Klufas said the list was unacceptable but said the matter of employee safety requires “some type” of system that enables employees to know if and when they’re going to a property that may be problematic. Other council members agreed, but said it should not be secret.
The list, which has made the city vulnerable to lawsuits, cited allegedly “difficult” residents by name, usually listed their addresses, and at times included their pictures. The list included four entries this year and 33 entries going back to the first in March 2016. Some of the individuals on it were cited repeatedly.
All entries were the result of resident interactions with city staffers–code enforcement officers in the field or customer service representatives at City Hall. Many of the entries reflect distasteful, at times dangerous, almost always offensive behavior by residents–at least the way they are described in the “Difficult Citizen List.” But the entries can also be vague and general. In 2016, one resident allegedly “Directed Profane or Vulgar Language” at city staff and displayed “Harassment or Continued Disruptive Behavior,” though the behavior is not further described nor is its context. The same entry includes a reference that the resident’s “current residence has multiple code violations”–which is irrelevant to an individual’s behavior in the cited incidents: numerous people carry code enforcement violations.
On the other hand, the same resident was said in the list to have “sent an e-mail indicating that [he] will ‘exercise my American rights’ if employees ‘step foot’ on his property. He indicates that that is ‘his domain.’ Use Caution and if you have need to be there, do not hesitate to contact the Sheriff’s Office for escort.”
The most recent entry on the list describes an alleged case of sexual harassment. A resident approached the front desk at City Hall to make a payment. The man, who is identified by name in the list, “slowly unbuttoned his pants, then he unzipped them. The top portion of his jeans were folded down and he proceeded to reach across his body and put his hands into his pants,” reads the description of the incident. “He reached his hand in and slowly comes out with a debit card. I proceeded to process the payment and afterwards he put the debit card back into his pants, slowly zipped them up and then buttoned them. He stayed around the bump out attempting to make conversation until another customer approached and was waiting.”
City Hall has had its own armed security guard since spring. It isn’t clear why the security guard was not summoned. In many instances of conflict reported on the list, a sheriff’s deputy is made aware.
For all its unquestionably disturbing allegations, the list is entirely one-sided, as is the process that led to it and its continued use. Those on it never knew that they were on it. They never had the chance to contest either the description of the alleged incidents described by city staff or contest being on the list. As a matter of due process, they had none.
The list was not, strictly speaking, a secret–it could be obtained by public record request, as the News-Journal did when it first reported the issue last week. City Manager Matt Morton had indirectly alluded to the process weeks ago, leading the News-Journal report to inquire about it. But in effect, it was a secret list: the city never let on that it maintained it nor took any steps to be transparent about it while it was being populated.
Council member Eddie Branquinho, speaking by Zoom from Portugal, who also said he was not aware of the list, suggested a discussion with the sheriff on how to proceed with cautioning employees about problematic residents. However, he said, “everybody should be notified” about “dangerous” citizens, because if they can be dangerous to city employees, they could be dangerous to “everybody,” Branquinho said.
Morton, the city manager, said the list was conceptualized by a former city council member in 2015 who was privy to abuse leveled at employees. He said problems with residents need to be documented in police reports rather than in spreadsheets, and proposed a process that would ensure due process, including several steps, well before an individual was placed on such a list.
Danko motioned to immediately cease using the list then move on to figuring out “how to do this properly.” The list itself may not be destroyed–not for many years–since it is a public record. But the list will no longer be used. Klufas was concerned about eliminating the cautions about specific individuals that the list enabled. But Morton said a corrected process could be forthcoming in a matter of weeks. The vote to eliminate the use of the list was unanimous.