This time, it’s final: there will be no fireworks off the Flagler Beach pier on July 4.
The Flagler Beach City Commission Thursday evening killed the possibility as Mayor Suzie Johnston said she would not sign a fireworks contract. She and commissioners cited unapproved changes to a fireworks contract since they had signed off their own approved version two weeks ago. Some, including the mayor, were angered by what they saw as procedural improprieties and lack of communication from the administration. And several were not comfortable with the vendor still not having proof of insurance.
Commission Chairman Ken Bryan and Commissioner Jane Mealy were still willing to give Ryan Allen, the Green Cove Spring-based pyrotechnics producer, seven days to make good on his promises. But when Mealy made a motion to that effect–to sign the agreement pending cancellation of the agreement without proof of insurance–she got no second. The motion died, and with it the possibility of July 4 fireworks.
That means the Flagler Beach pier will be dark of fireworks the night of Independence day for the third year in a row, and could be dark for many more years than that as the city is preparing to demolish the old pier to make room for a new, concrete structure. That’ll take several years.
It was the unsurprising culmination of six dreadful weeks of zigzagging promises, backtracking and halfhearted hopes that a show could be pulled off since City Manager William Whitson revealed to the commission in late April that the administration had sought to book its usual show with Fireworks by Santore too late in the season to secure the July 4 date. That started a scramble for other vendors.
Allen’s Island Outdoor Management–a lawncare company within which he was “doing business as” North Florida Pyrotechnics–emerged as an option, largely on Allen’s enthusiastic pledges of a “spectacular” show. But Allen then backtracked, said he couldn’t do a Santore-like show for $24,000, then agreed to do a modified show for that amount, then raised the cost to $25,000, and all along never produced proof of insurance, though on Thursday evening Whitson assured the commission there was a letter indicating it was a matter of time before he’d get the insurance. (See the letter here.)
For some commissioners and the mayor, however, the back and forth, and especially the changes to the contract they’d approved two weeks ago, revealed other issues that went beyond Allen. The mayor is reserved and measured at most meetings. But when she sees something seriously amiss, she does not leave doubt about her opinion.
“Wednesday I was here for a finance meeting was again given the contract asked to sign it,” Johnston said, retracing her timeline. “It wasn’t until I inquired about any changes I was let known that the contract was changed. The price was increased. The time was reduced. I’m not comfortable, and I’m not going to sign a contract that’s been modified and not told. That was an agreement that this body in this condition came to upon price and time. It was changed without this body’s notification, without their permission or input, and it leads to me to start to believe about procedures for contracts. I’m not comfortable changing the procedure of how this body works. And I’m not comfortable with the city manager changing how the procedures of contracts work. So as long as I’m going to sit in this chair as a mayor for the city, I’m not going to sign a contract that has been altered without commission consent. So you, this body here, can sign the contract. But I will not put my signature on it. I’m sorry.”
Bryan did not see the alterations as deal-breaking since the total amount appropriated for fireworks was originally $25,000, with a grant from the Tourist Development council. The city manager has authority to approve any contract on his own, up to $20,000. Bryan saw the alteration of the contract as dealing with $1,000. Nor did Whitson, who said the extra $1,000 was to find additional materials for the show. “And so there’s a slight uptick in the price for that. Everything’s going up,” Whitson said. “So I didn’t see that being a big deal to change the price from 24 to $25,000. I’m sorry if I offended the mayor or this board, but I did not see that as a significant change. So I will take responsibility for that.”
Whitson said he also did not see the three-minute difference in the show as significant, and that it could be addressed by stretching out the show.
But the notification issues were also in contention. “I’ve never heard of a contract being changed that the commission has agreed on without commission’s consent. Never have I ever heard of it,” Commissioner Eric Cooley said.
“Well, I agree with that. But I think it also goes back to how much authority we have given the city manager,” Bryan said. “I’m not being defensive, defending anyone here, I’m just trying to look at the principle of it. How much authority had we given our city manager authorization to approve” without commission intervention. “In this particular situation here he uses authority to exercise a decision to spend an extra $1,000.”
“City manager does not have any right to change commission contracts,” Cooley said sharply. “We’ve gone through this with real estate. Y’all been here when we sold property. If we are giving the city manager bargaining rights, then we stated clearly: we will go up to, or we will go to here, and we define the parameters. Then the city manager negotiates within those parameters.”
“This is why I asked what was the the amount that was totally allocated for the fireworks, which was the $25,000,” Bryan said, considering the final number still within that frame. “I’m talking about getting the job done here. You know: do we want fireworks or not? That’s the bottom line.”
“Not from this guy,” Cooley said, later elaborating on the recent history and the “red flags” from the vendor describing a different show than originally promised. “This guy has done bait and switch the entire time we’ve been doing business with him. I’ve called it on every single solitary meeting. I’ve asked for a backup every single solitary meeting for the fireworks provider. It is going to be a waste of our taxpayers money to do business with this guy. That is my opinion and my prediction.” He added: “If we have to choose bad fireworks over no fireworks, I’m thinking none.”
Commissioner Deborah Phillips described herself as “torn” over the matter. She conceded that the changes to the contract were minor, but was not comfortable with the process. “So I think at this point, I’m going to have to say that I think we need to not have a firework display this year.” Commissioner James Sherman, who spoke by phone–he was ill–said he was “let down” by the process. He said he’d lost sleep over the issue, but did not feel it was in the city’s best interest to risk going forward with Allen.
“It is disappointing that it appears that the vote is going to go with a no show,” Bryan said.
Scott Spradley, the Flagler Beach attorney who headed the city-appointed advisory committee on fireworks and Independence Day events (it concluded its work with a report in January, recommending to move forward with fireworks within certain parameters), had raised questions about the city’s handling of this year’s fireworks for weeks.
“I want to make it clear to anyone who has not been following this aware that this was not a Flagler Beach City Commission fail,” Spradley said on Friday. “ Problem one was when city management failed to hire the proven vendor, Santori, After the City Commission approved 4th of July fireworks. Everything since then has been an attempt to find a leftover vendor and that was unsuccessful. And this was not the City Commission’s fault either. While Mr. Whitson did the best he could with what was left, it did not work. The vendor made a bid, it was approved, the contract was written and sent to him. And here we are 3 weeks later with essentially a counter offer from the vendor to his own bid, which the City Commission rejected. And that’s basically it.”
It was not as simple as waiting yet another seven days for proof of insurance, Spradley said, considering the extent of preparatory work and staffing necessary if fireworks were to be held. “We are already less than a month from the event. Having the police chief and others sit on the sidelines wondering if they are going to have to staff the event makes no sense and is not fair to those trying to make 4th of July plans. Moreover, [we] are dealing with an unproven vendor who continues to change his mind on virtually everything. So in my view the City Commission made the responsible decision last night.”
Skies will not be entirely dark the weekend of Independence Day: Palm Coast has scheduled its own show on July 3, this time at the Flagler County airport, produced by Fireworks by Santore.