Next Thursday–Feb. 15–the Flagler Beach City Commission will hold a special workshop to discuss what could result in momentous changes in commission procedures, though not without voter approval.
Some of the questions that will be discussed: Should the mayor have a vote? Should the mayor be the panel’s permanent chair, as the Palm Coast and Bunnell city governments have it? Should the commission membership be reduced from six to five members? Should there be term limits? Should commissioners’ terms be changed from three to four years? Should this not be vetted through a charter review committee first?
But the commission is heading to that workshop more divided than not both about the questions themselves and the purpose of the workshop. That does not bode well for its outcome–at least the outcome Commission Chair Eric Cooley wants.
Cooley brought up the questions at a meeting in December, when he was hoping for a vote then and there to put some or all of the questions to referendum, where voters would have their say. With the exception of Mayor Suzie Johnston–who is stepping down at the end of her first term in March–the rest of the commission was intrigued at best, chilly and resistant at most, casting doubt on whether the ideas would even muster enough support on the commission for a vote sending them to a referendum. (Johnston is not closing the door on future runs for office, though her decision to run again in Flagler Beach may well hinge on the outcome of the discussions on the mayor’s and commission’s roles there.)
Thursday evening, Carol Kennedy, a resident, raised the question about the Feb. 15 workshop, which is leaving residents confused about its purpose: “Are we just supposed to be educating the residents on what the charter says? Are we trying to decide whether we need a charter review committee to look at that?” she asked, seeking clarification. (See: “Should Flagler Beach Mayor Have a Vote and Chair All Meetings? Commission Is Split on Possible Ballot Proposal.”)
Chances are that the Feb. 15 workshop will draw little more than bemused interest, if at all, by residents who might ask: why now? At whose instigation? To what end? But those are also some of the questions commissioners will ask themselves, and if they face a relatively empty chamber, that might give them some of the answers.
“If I had to sum up what I believe that workshop is intended to do, In one word, I would say: brainstorm,” Commissioner Scott Spradley said. “It’s to collect as much information and then to see if we can come up with a consensus of recommending action at a future commission meeting.”
In December, Mealy did not see much reason to go forward with the proposed changes. Spradley and Commissioner Rick Belhumeur were interested in vetting the questions before any decisions. When commissioners discussed the coming workshop at the end of their meeting Thursday evening, there was some disagreement about what the workshop itself would be for–again, another indication that the run-up to the discussion does not suggest any kind of consensus.
“This is a chance for us to sit down,” Cooley said, “kind of get it all out and get our heads together and go: could this be a potential referendum item that we would need to then put on an agenda item to bring to here, to then make a formal motion to put to referendum?”
Mealy though it had more to do with public information: “What does it all mean to somebody who has sat up here? What was the purpose? And I thought that was the purpose,” Mealy said. She’d spoken to City Manager Dale Martin about possibly lining up a neutral facilitator, like Drew Smith, the city attorney, or somebody neutral from the Florida League of Cities. “Because when you speak, as much as you try to be neutral, you’re not,” she told Cooley.
“None of us are neutral,” Cooley said. Mealy agreed. “I think we have to decide really what the purpose of the workshop is,” she continued. “Is it to inform the public as to what the repercussions of any of that is? Or is it just for us to work it out between us?”
Cooley and Johnston thought the discussion was designed for the commission to discuss the questions, not primarily for the public. The public could weigh in, but the matter was for the commission to decide.
“That’s the point of doing the workshop, is to figure out what would go on referendum,” Cooley said.
Spradley–the emerging Solomon of the commission–sought to combine the two elements: commission discussion and public input. “That’s why I say brainstorm,” he said. “I want to hear what the residents have to say, those who have gotten themselves informed and have an opinion. And I think as with any sort of public comment on an issue, my opinion gets shaped by what I hear from the public. So that’s part of it. But it also is an opportunity for us to have a discussion. So I think it’s both.”
That’s assuming that the public will turn up. It’s a big assumption. It’s not as if the commission chambers have been overrun by residents clamoring for changes to the commission’s make-up or the way it does business, or even changes to the mayor’s role. Before Cooley brought up the issue, not a single resident had done so before the commission. None had brought it up to commissioners in emails or side conversations, other than incidentally, when residents would find out that the mayor has no vote. That, Cooley and Johnston say, peaks their interest. Many residents still don’t know that the mayor has no vote. The mayor’s power is limited to a veto, and to contributing opinions and perspectives during discussions, though the mayor signs all commission documents.
Still, vote or no vote, it’s not as if the mayor has been relegated to a back-benching role all those years. The position depends on its holder’s personality. Its last three holders have had very different personalities, but have each left their mark. Alice Baker served with august ceremony between 2006 and 2012.
Linda Provencher, who had also been a voting commissioner, ended up being the longest-serving mayor in the city’s history by the time she stepped down in 2021. She may not have had a vote, but if most people have no idea that the mayor has no vote, it’s because of tenures like Provencher’s, which she filled as if her voice was a vote: it certainly carried that weight whenever she staked a position. Johnston stepped up that role further, and both Provencher and Johnston’s voices played heavily in decisions to fire and hire city managers.
But when Spradley said that he was interested to hear “what the prevailing view in the city is on that issue,” he was hinting that he was not necessarily interested in manufacturing an initiative solely based on what commissioners think or want: if there is no desire among residents for a change, then why pursue it unilaterally?
To Cooley, the answer is simple: a referendum answers that question clearly, which is why he’s been pushing for it from the start. But Thursday evening’s discussion, brief as it was, revealed to Cooley–as to the rest of the commission–that there was nothing straight-forward about his proposal, try as he might to keep the focus on his intentions.
“It sounds like we’re getting a little deep in the rabbit hole because this was a proposal for us to put on referendum for the citizens to vote on,” Cooley said. “And then the confusion came from–well, what will that proposal for the referendum look like? And that’s where the confusion was. We will not be deciding if the mayor is going to vote in that workshop or in a meeting, because that’s the charter that only the voters can decide. The discussion was to be: if it was to go to referendum, then what would it look like?”
And would the commission even decide to place it on a referendum. Whether it does or not, it would not be in this March’s ballot, but on the March 2025 ballot.
“I suspect there’ll be strong opinions expressed both ways,” Spradley said. “Not even just both ways. There’s so many different issues that we’ll discuss.”