Flagler Beach Mayor Suzie Johnston will be stepping down when her first term ends in March, but she doesn’t want the mayor’s seat to be a non-voting, purely figurehead position anymore.
Nor does Eric Cooley, the current chair of the commission, who Thursday evening proposed placing on the 2025 ballot a charter amendment that, at least in the general form he presented, would reduce the commission from six to five seats, give the mayor the vote–no, the mayor of Flagler Beach has no vote on any matters–and the permanent chairmanship of the commission, and change the length of electoral terms from three years to four.
Cooley is not strictly wedded to those details, aside from primarily giving the mayor a vote, and giving voters a chance to weigh in. But the proposal drew mixed reactions from commissioners. Johnston and Commissioner James Sherman support it, Jane Mealy is rather strongly opposed, Rick Belhumeur is largely opposed but intrigued, and Scott Spradley wants more time, discussions and a workshop to vet the idea before the commission even votes on whether to place it on the ballot.
Commissioner Scott Spradley was not ready right now to put the proposal on the ballot. “We go from a non-voting mayor to a voting mayor, who is also a commissioner, who is also chair of the board. It just seems like a monumental change that I for one need to get my arms around the fact of how does that even work, with having basically a permanent chair voting mayor all rolled into one. Is that in the best interest of Flagler Beach? I have no idea.” At a minimum, he recommended tabling the discussion to have a broader discussion before a vote to place the proposal on the ballot.
“Scott, you were worried about, is this even the best thing for Flagler Beach. Well, is that your decision or would that be the voters decision?” Cooley asked him.
“If I’m going to take a position on whether to put something into an ordinance to put on the ballot, I need to know what it is. And I’m not asking that something be tabled for a year. We have another meeting coming up in a few weeks,” Spradley said. “It’s it’s very important to me as a commissioner that if I’m going to vote to put something on the ballot that I need to know something about it.”
It’s not as if there’s a timing crunch: it cannot be a ballot item in the March 2024 election anyway. That gives the commission a year to decide whether it should be on the 2025 ballot. So commissioners, after a sharply pointed–but never heated–discussion, voted unanimously to have a workshop on the issue. They did not set a date, though that itself becomes a delicate matter.
Cooley’s term ends in March. He has not filed for re-election, and has been mostly on the side of not running again, and today said that “as of right now, I do not have plans to run for re-election.” The qualifying window closes in January. (He and Johnston have been a couple for several years and are looking to devote more time to their family.) With both Cooley and Johnston off the commission by then, the idea may die of its own, because it’s not as if the rest of the commission is either eager or pressured by the public to float such a change. That may explain why Cooley, with his time running out, was hoping to have the matter dealt with now, and why other commissioners slowed it down.
Still, Thursday’s 45-minute discussion framed the debate, providing a preview of what may be ahead.
Palm Coast and Bunnell, like most cities in the state, have voting mayors, with the mayor the permanent chair. In Flagler Beach, the mayor’s power is limited to contributing opinions dring debates, signing city documents, and exercising the veto power over commission votes, a veto the commission may override only with a 4-vote majority. Vetoes are extremely rare: Linda Provencher threatened to but never exercised it in her nine years as mayor until 2021, and Johnston never has in her nearly three years.
“This is a very antiquated form of government,” Cooley said of the non-voting form of mayorship. “I thought it’s time that we get kind of caught up to the current century and have, if someone is elected and gets voted in, that they should be allowed to vote on issues. And I thought that it was a noble enough initiative to allow our citizens to have input on that, and whether we are for or against it. We could vote accordingly.”
Johnston researched the matter. She found that of the 411 cities in the state, 85 use the non-voting form of government. But over time, cities have moved in the other direction. The city is growing, she said, while residents need their mayor to have a voice. “I know that there was one time during the budget season here where I was the voice of the residents on my own personal situation, and I brought up about saving the city $100,000, and I was told ‘you need to stay in your lane.’ Well, I’m the people’s voice for the city.”
Johnston was referring to a clash on the commission in July 2022, when she had researched the cost of the city’s IT contract if the service were to continue to be provided by the county. Other commissioners told her she was overstepping her authority. That was incorrect, as the city attorney later clarified, though Johnston’s research had been conducted without the commission’s knowledge or consensus, which some commissioners took as a form of inappropriate unilateralism. It all left Johnston smarting. Having a mayor just to cut ribbons and deliver speeches at Veterans Park is “very archaic,” Johnston said.
“I would like to also give myself the term, the captain of the complaint department,” Johnston said. “Residents call me every single day with their concerns. And they are asking for my support. When it comes times with their issues coming up on the Dais, I have to remind them I don’t get to vote. And they all say what? well, we voted for you. We voted for you because we thought you could make a difference.” Johnston says she routinely goes before groups and organizations, talking about what she hopes to influence and change in city policy. “I can’t do any of those things. I can’t vote on the budget. I can’t make any decisions for residents.”
Mealy corrected Johnston: “My more visceral reaction I had when you say you are the voice of the city: I think all of us are the voice of the people. I hate to think that all the phone calls I get don’t count,” Mealy said. “The time that you were told to stay in your own lane was not because you were mayor. If I had done what you did, I would have been justifiably told to stay in my own lane too. There was no discussion amongst us as to the action you took. So it wasn’t because you were a non-voting mayor. It was because we didn’t know you were doing it, and you were speaking for the commission.”
Mealy is also very skeptical about Cooley’s or Johnston’s claim that it’s been a pressing issue for residents. “Do you know, I’ve had not one person bring this up to me? I know you said you have multiple calls,” she said to Cooley, “You say you have multiple calls,” she said to Johnston. “I have had zero.” When she asked Spradley how many people approached him about the idea, he, too, said “zero.” Cooley, too, said he wasn’t approached directly about it. Only when people learn that the mayor doesn’t vote, they react with surprise.
“It’s been the system we’ve had for almost 100 years. Does that make it antiquated in itself? Or does that mean it’s worked up until now? And why are we fixing something that isn’t broken?” Mealy asked. If people are pressing for such a change, they could initiate a ballot measure themselves, she said.
Thursday’s meeting was also proof of an absence of anything like a groundswell for that sort of change: though Cooley’s proposal was on the published agenda, the only person from the public who spoke on the proposal was Bob Cunningham, a candidate for a commission seat in the last election and a candidate again in next March’s election. He fell on the side of more having discussions.
There are cities, like Orlando, where the mayor is elected, serves as the chief executive and has a vote on the city council. That’s a strong mayor form of government. There are also cities where the strong mayor is elected but does not have a vote on the council. Only smaller cities have retained the “weak mayor” form of an elected but non-voting mayor. It was not intended to be merely a figurehead position, though it may have evolved into that.
In those cities, the mayor “can advocate for the people and can advocate so effectively because they’re outside of the legislative body,” Drew Smith, the city attorney, said. “That’s really why it was the original form of government. It was modeling the larger forms of government that we’re familiar with, where you have the legislative branch, and then you have the executive. But as we’ve developed professional city staffs, the role of executive I think, to the mayor’s point, has kind of become that ceremonial mayor instead of the true executive.”
Mealy had conducted her own research into the history of the city’s mayorship, finding previous mayors to have served 11 terms in one case, four in another. “People must have felt that this was a good thing,” Mealy said. She sees the mayor’s position as adding value to the way the government functions.
“I have seen mayors become very self-important people because they’re going to run the meetings,” Mealy said. “If they keep getting reelected, they’re the only ones who are going to run the meetings. Somehow the chair became a much more important job than it used to be. The last time I was chair all I did was run the meetings. I wasn’t the person that the city manager came to. I was an equal commissioner to everybody else, and somehow I think it was under Larry Newsom, that that changed. I don’t know how that changed. But it did.” She described it as “dangerous” to put one person in that position as long as the term lasts, or as long as the person is re-elected.
Reducing the commission to five members would also require that election cycles elect two commissioners one year, three another year. That makes Mealy nervous, too. She likes the current set-up, which has two seats up every year.
With Cooley and Sherman favoring the change, Mealy opposing it and Spradley hesitant (“I’m not against that. But I don’t know enough to be for it either,” he said), that left Commissioner Rick Belhumeur holding the swing vote, at least Thursday evening. He is not keen on “one person chairing meetings perpetually,” he said, or of having three seats up in a single year. Speaking as a commissioner in his seventh year of service, he said he was not big on four-year terms, either. “It’s just a lot of variables there,” he said.
The workshop will sort those out. Meanwhile, Smith, the attorney, left Johnston and the commission with the sort of Final Thought Jerry Springer used to end his shows with (not that in every other respect there is anything like Springer in Smith, or Springer Show behavior among commissioners; at least not lately): “In the cities that we represent with a voting mayor, they do not enjoy the broad public love that the city of Flagler Beach mayor does, precisely because they now have to vote on issues. They now make enemies every meeting they vote,” Smith said. “I think that is something unique to Flagler Beach and your system is that you have a mayor that the entire public gets to love because she doesn’t get to vote.”