If the Flagler Beach City Commission isn’t at war with itself today, it has Linda Provencher to thank. The former mayor’s intervention at a critical time at Thursday evening’s commission meeting immediately and perceptibly calmed tempers, shifted the discussion and redirected the commission in a more harmonious direction it had lost over the past few weeks, to the point of reaching a cliff between Wednesday and Thursday.
By then, conflict was raging on two fronts.
One front had three city commissioners and the mayor–Deborah Phillips, James Sherman, Eric Cooley and Suzie Johnston–range between skeptical and bitterly disenchanted with City Manager William Whitson, whose fate now appears to hang on Phillips. She called and chaired Thursday’s special commission workshop to speak about Whitson’s future. She proposed what amounts to a 90-day probation period for the embattled manager, who is barely 14 months into a tenure he thought would be his last, but not on these terms, not with this now-serrated timeline.
The commission agreed, if with gritted teeth for some.
The other front, roiling beneath the surface until it erupted in the open Wednesday and Thursday, is the cold war within the City Commission itself. City Commission Chairman Ken Bryan and Jane Mealy were on one side. They are Whitson’s strongest backers. Cooley and Johnston, Whitson’s fiercest critics, were on the other. Sherman and Phillips were in the crossfire on that one, a relatively new development on a commission that, until the July 4 fireworks fiasco, had worked collegially.
That second front was two-edged. It was fortunate for Whitson, as it deflected some of the pressure he’s faced, giving him an unexpected harbor where he could rebuild his sails, assuming he chooses to.
But it was also reflective of dissention that began only after Whitson’s arrival, turning what had been a cohesive commission into a brood of discontents. It recalled the way, more than 15 years ago, a collegial Flagler County School Board took a similar turn after the arrival of then-Superintendent Bob Corley. As on the Flagler Beach commission, the dynamic entailed some of the elected getting treated more favorably than others. Dissention grew to the point of dysfunction until Corley was forced to resign. The board almost immediately reconstituted itself more cohesively under Bill Delbrugge.
Tensions on the Flagler Beach City Commission flared at the beginning of what would turn into a nine-hour budget workshop Wednesday when Bryan, broaching a subject not on the agenda (he related it to the budget), criticized Johnston for “going to our sister agencies in the county in a manner that gives me serious concern.” The chairman of the commission intimated that the mayor was “potentially undermining our city staff, this board’s decisions and our relationships with our neighboring jurisdictions.”
Bryan didn’t mention Johnston by name. He referred to her as “one of us here at the dais.”
Johnston immediately outed and defended herself, saying she’d merely conducted research on budget issues by contacting city managers and department heads in Bunnell and the county, “which is exactly what the residents would want. When you have questions, you find answers,” she said, citing the short, three-day timeline to get questions answered on her own city’s budget. She’d copied Whitson on some, but not all, of her queries. “Reaching out to a city manager in the position that we’re in should be acceptable,” she said (she meant Alvin Jackson, the Bunnell city manager, not Whitson).
Johnston said she’d asked Bunnell about cost of living adjustments planned there.
“That wasn’t the only question you asked, Ms. Mayor,” Whitson said.
“Enlighten me,” she replied, stretching out the vowels.
“I received calls from all my colleagues about various questions that you asked having to do with finance directors, IT operations and many other things,” he said. “Those weren’t put in writing. I didn’t know what to tell my colleagues. I was totally caught off guard about questions. I’d be more than happy to sit with you if you had questions so that I was kind of in the loop and understood what it was you were wanting to know.”
“Well, if you were concerned, you could have reached out to me, William, directly, instead of having that conversation up here on the dais, thank you,” Johnston said, her arms folded.
It was a strange exchange, placing the mayor in a subordinate position either to the commission or, even more inappropriately, to the city manager. It was as if she were required to, like a city employee, go through channels before speaking with officials outside of Flagler Beach. She is not. Elected officials on their individual boards are free to operate autonomously, speak with whom they choose, discuss or research what issues they want, as long as they do not do so in the name of the commission. Johnston may have either come close to that line or crossed it when she applied for a Tourist Development Council grant earlier this month, as much out of frustration–and anger–over the city manager’s failure to do so as to send a message. She said she cleared the approach with City Attorney Drew Smith, though the application was on behalf of the city. But the commission hadn’t approved it.
Had there been an issue with the mayor, or any member of the commission, freelancing research needs outside Flagler Beach, Smith would be the first point of contact for any other commissioner to check whether that entailed any improprieties–not other commissioners (as a former mayor pointedly noted). The mayor isn’t a ward of the commission, though her youth and gender may not have been entirely divorced from her elders’ presumptions. Smith wasn’t at the budget meeting Wednesday. He wasn’t asked about the freelancing Thursday.
But Johnston wasn’t doing anything that, for example, former Palm Coast Mayor Milissa Holland used to do, that current Mayor David Alfin does, that some county commissioners do–putting their vast contacts countywide to work for their own edification and perspective, and going to the source to get their questions answered.
Mealy, who has historically been the commission’s busiest and most curious commissioner–her meeting preparation is obsessive, her attendance at other governments’ meetings more frequent than that of any of her colleagues–added to the “concerns of what the role of the mayor in Flagler Beach is,” pledging to go into more detail at Thursday evening’s meeting.
“Suzy this is not a direct comment about you as a person, but what the role of the mayor in Flagler Beach is, and you’re overstepping,” Mealy said. “You came very close to breaking laws the other night, the last meeting, about the role of different staff members, and I’d really like to finish this conversation tomorrow night,” meaning Thursday night. In fact, Mealy did not do so, as the tenor of Thursday’s meeting went from tense to forgiving, for now.
She may have been convinced to stand down after another former mayor, Linda Provencher, came to the defense of Johnston at Thursday’s meeting–and gently noted that the commission’s growing dysfunction may be the problem.
“I was a little upset at the very beginning of the meeting when a couple of you started going after our mayor,” said Provencher, who stepped down in March 2021 after 15 years’ on the commission, either as a commissioner or as the city’s longest-serving mayor. “The reason being is our mayor, she’s new. She’s excited. She wants to find out all the facts. And did she overstep? I don’t know. That’s a question for the city attorney. Not for us. If she did, then he needs to tell her but I hate to see that we’re going to sit up there and fight and point fingers and say you did this and you did that when you guys all have worked together so well. Let’s get back on track.”
Regarding Whitson, she said: “I think you’ve given him direction. If there’s not communication with the people on that council, there’s nothing we can do for you,” she told Whitson. “So I think everybody knows what they need. Let’s move forward and be positive. And maybe instead of having these retreats for the staff, you guys need to have one because the staff is great. They work great together. So let’s work together.”
Provencher wasn’t wearing a blue helmet, but her words ended up having the same effect as a peacekeeping force of one, almost perceptibly shifting the tenor of the meeting away from conflict and back to the language of second chances, benefits of the doubt and, in her word, resets.
By meeting’s end Thursday–it lasted six hours–Mealy was hanging fire, Bryan was acknowledging that “we’ve had our humps and bumps and difficulties and said some things that we probably wish we’d taken back,” Cooley, who’s been itching to fire Whitson for weeks but counted the number of times the word “reset” was invoked (six), said he would himself reset, and even Scott Spradley, the local attorney who’s maintained contact with all involved even as he’s criticized Whitson’s management, was congratulating the panel.
“I just want to come in how this meeting is coming to an end,” Spradley said, with the meeting’s last word. “Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve had an opportunity to speak with each of you individually, and talk about issues solutions and I’m pleased to say I met with Mr. Whitson a couple of times. We chatted and we expressed our views. I thought it was very productive.” He commended the more systematic and transparent approach the manager and commission pledged to take with those 72 ongoing projects Whitson feels entombed by as a “marvelous way to get things done,” and thanked the commission for “ending all of this on a positive note.”