You have to feel for Flagler County’s commissioners. They’ve all, with Milissa Holland’s exception, been out of the dating scene for years, even decades, and Holland herself has been spoken for going on a year now. But here they all were, speed-dating their way through 15 men all morning, swapping them out every nine minutes or so to the sound of knuckles on their doors without a break in between and, cruelly, not even time built into the schedule to allow for breather or a trip top the rest room.
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There wasn’t much chance for love at first sight because the commissioners knew most of the men and already had a good idea who they were going to have a relationship with as they move toward filling the eight seats on the county’s latest attempt at recasting an old idea: an all-volunteer economic development council to help commissioners move Flagler out of its unemployment rut and, beyond that, diversify its tax base. The council would oversee an operation with a budget of $400,000 a year, more than half it it going to salaries, leaving very little to do much with. (One candidate thought the operation would have a $6.3 million annual budget.)
At least two commissioners thought they were going to be interviewing the candidates one by one but as a commission: that was the impression left by the administration after last week’s meeting, when County Administrator Craig Coffey referred to the exercise as a version of speed dating. But he had something else in mind: the commissioners each holed up either in their individual offices (Holland, Nate McLaughlin and Alan Peterson have one in the county’s administration building) or in a conference room, where they met with the candidates one-on-one.
The meetings were not closed to the public, exactly: Every commissioner was immediately welcoming to a reporter, though Coffey was heard telling a woman who wanted to sit in on the meetings that she could not. When someone pointed out to him that commissioners were accepting sit-ins, he amended himself to say it was up to the commissioners, though clearly the woman had gotten the message that the meetings were closed. County Commissioner George Hanns, who wasn’t thrilled about doing the mass interviews to start with, lamented the impression that the meetings might look like closed-door sessions.
Not that the interviews would have been the most fascinating way for anyone to spend two and a half hours, even for the commissioners, who already had shortlists dancing in their heads.
Still, aside from the speed-dating feature of it all, two things stood out from today’s interviews. First, all 15 candidates were men, all but one were white, all were on the sunset side of middle age. There are 35 candidates in all (36 by some counts), and commissioners will have another round of face-to-face interviews on Thursday, but just six women applied in all, though the person chairing the council will almost certainly be Commissioner Barbara Revels.
Second, the blackballing of the county’s economic development initiative by the traditional business establishment continues. The old hands at Enterprise Flagler such as the Lubis, the Chiumentos, the Pages, the Ottatis were nowhere in sight, an enduring reaction to what the Enterprise Flagler establishment took as an insult when the county pulled its funding out of the public private economic development organization—though Palm Coast had done likewise before the county did—without giving Enterprise Flagler the extra chance to prove itself. A Barr was nevertheless among the applicants—Mike Barr, son of Art, who once headed Enterprise Flagler. And Lea Stokes, who chairs the board at the Flagler County Chamber of Commerce, is also among the candidates—with glowing recommendations from Gary Lubi Michael Chiumento and David Ottati.
“Do you think we’re going to be able to get them engaged again in this process?” Revels asked John Walsh, the Palm Coast Observer publisher, at the tail end of his interview.
“I do,” Walsh said. “I’m concerned of the candidates that you’re interviewing today and Thursday is void of the old guard.”
“You’re concerned that it’s void?” Revels asked, perplexed.
“I hope that that’s not in protest,” Walsh continued. “Because if it is, we’ve got a bigger job for buy-in than I’m anticipating.”
“It’s going to be work to include and bring them back in play,” Revels said.
On the other hand, the absence of the old guard means that, after initially straining to gain public interest in its own council, the county has drawn a large number of applicants who have never before served on that sort of council, and whose names have not generally been associated with the usual influence peddlers. Peterson. Commissioners were looking for new blood. They got it, and they got willing candidates from a notoriously underrepresented business sector in the county: agriculture.
Kurt Allen, for example, is the voice president and general manager of the Georgia Aquarium’s Marineland Dolphin Adventure. Sam Bertha owns Sam Bertha Farms in Bunnell, Wanda Clegg runs Clegg Sod Farm in Bunnell, Jerry Tilton of runs Tilton Brothers Sod, and Walton Cowart owns Cowart Ranch in Bunnell. Greg Federline ran the computer side of the Census Bureau’s local operations for the decennial census. Paul Manning was a venture capitalist and apparent diplomat (he lists John Mica, the Republican congressman, and Dan Parham, the chairman of the Democratic Executive Committee, as references), Joe Newman and John Birney are financial advisers. Jim Ulsamer, the former business executive who chairs the public library board, was drawn to apply from his witnessing of the nearly half dozen economic development summits earlier this year. And so on.
There are a few politicos or emerging politicos, too: Bob Alex, who ran for county commission, Bill McGuire, who’s running for Palm Coast City Council, Doug Courtney, who’s run for a number of offices. (A complete list of the applicants appears below.)
Each commissioner had a distinct style of interviewing. Nate McLaughlin solicited questions as equally as he posed them, starting off with a question about each candidate’s vision for the board. Herb Whitacker questioned right back: “Do you have a strategy yet?” he asked. “It’s hard to establish a mission if the county doesn’t know what to do.” Peterson, Holland and Revels were more systematic, asking generally the same questions, pressing the candidates for the sort of jobs they envision bringing to the county, or how they propose to support existing jobs, how they would engage the various local governments, what their top priorities would be starting off. Alone among the commissioners, Holland kept copious notes on a legal pad. Peterson wrote a few occasionally, and Revels kept a note pad at the ready, writing notes on individual applicants’ resumes. (In fairness, each commissioner was observed in action for two to three candidates, no more.)
Revels was especially pointed in questions about candidates’ conflicts of interest, whether they were in the real estate business—where they might be perceived to be going after self-serving interests—or whether they were, like Walsh, in media, both shaping and reporting a story. “I think the balance of this body is going to be so fragile, as far as the community’s view of what we do,” Revels said, “that I don’t want Realtor A sitting here who may have a conflict or any other businesses too that might have a conflict. I want it to try to get the best support possible.” Revels is herself a Realtor.
Holland zeroed in on the gender issue at one point when she’d asked one of the candidates what sort of chief executive he would look for to fill the top post of the county’s economic development office. The candidate answered by referring to the eventual executive exclusively in the masculine, prompting Holland cut him off: “Assuming it’s a man,” she said, humorously, but pointedly.
The commissioners are doing it all again on Thursday morning, but with 11 candidates. The remaining candidates did not want to appear in person, preferring instead to do phone interviews.
Sam Bertha Jr.