Florida’s enthusiasm for disenfranchising voters is an authoritarian’s theme park. The state is dallying in an on-again-off-again hate affair with early voting. It regularly conjures up fantastic tales of voter fraud that never happened. It treats ex-felons like ex-citizens forever robbed of their voting rights. And outdoing even bogus democracies like Iraq, it treats voter registration organizers like enemies of state, regulating them more rigorously than guns. So it’s natural that the Legislature is always on the hunt for new ways to treat the ballot box with less respect than for chamber pots.
You wouldn’t think our own Flagler County Commission would be giving the Legislature new ideas on how to behave like a banana republic. But it has. The commission approved a list of seven legislative priorities this year. One of them is a direct affront to voters, and a yet another example of how clumsy and contemptuous of public input the county can be when it comes to economic development. And how tone-deaf.
State law allows county and city governments to give companies tax breaks to encourage economic development. For those tax breaks to be in place, the law requires that county and city voters approve the allowance once every 10 years. Consider that again: only once every 10 years, voters get to have a say in their local governments’ authority to use their tax dollars to subsidize private companies’ operations. It so happens that 63 percent of Palm Coast voters and 60 percent of county voters approved just such a referendum almost nine years ago. The vote is due again in 2014 if the subsidies are to go on.
Now the county wants to take that right away from voters. The county commission would replace voters’ say with a supermajority vote of the county commission. Yes, the kind of supermajority vote that last year gave us that sales surtax that the county knew would never pass muster at the ballot box, thanks to the commission’s lousy selling job. The surtax that will pay for a new jail the county doesn’t need (the usual scare tactics aside), and that will pay for that boondoggle of a hospital in Bunnell that the county wants to reconstruct as a sheriff’s headquarters and whatever else its illusions of grandeur fancy. That surtax.
Voters have no direct say in economic development except through that decennial referendum. But the county is getting so greedy with public dollars, and so presumptuous of its authority, that it thinks it’s time to shove voters aside and let the five county commissioners—or the nine-member economic development council—make decisions for them. County Administrator Craig Coffey went so far as calling voter involvement in this “a mistake” before using his trademark sophistry to make it seem as if voter involvement was actually a costly inconvenience to voters, or that the county somehow is handcuffed when it must ask voters permission to use taxpayer dollars once every ten years.
The question is: why is Flagler County so scared of voter involvement, given overwhelming support the last time around? It’s a simple answer, really. Since then, the county’s involvement in economic development has been more reckless than responsible. The convenient narrative is that it couldn’t control the Great Recession’s housing bust. Rubbish. There’s a reason Flagler County became the poster child of depression after 2006, with the state’s highest unemployment clobbering us until now. City and county governments turned into the drunken sailors of development, abetting rather than tempering a growth craze they knew would crash, since it was unsustainable. But our elected representatives’ foresight was every developer’s hostage. Permits, variances, waivers and amendments to planning regulations flew unimpeded. Flagler overbuilt, and it finally crashed deeper than most places in America. You’ve been paying the price.
Government’s direct involvement in economic development, never a good idea, was worse. The bad old days of Enterprise Flagler, that private-public partnership between companies and local governments, are over. But we should recall that group’s attempts at passing its own ill-fated property tax increase in 2010—so ill-fated that the proposal made it to a printed ballot that year, but wasn’t counted. At least Enterprise Flagler was still willing to take its issue to voters.
Not so the commission. Its own sorry record at the Flagler County Airport is a cautionary trail of shame. One gift after another to private companies ended in failure and left taxpayers holding the bag. That pitiful, hurried deal with the charter school that skipped town in January is only the latest embarrassment. Palm Coast didn’t do much better with its promises-to-nowhere deal with Palm Coast Data, though at least taxpayers didn’t lose a cent on that one, other than what would have been a fine building for city hall. (Palm Coast, incidentally, isn’t being as thick as the county on this one: it has no plan to forego voters’ involvement. But nor has Palm Coast been as quick on the draw with promises of tax subsidies since being burned by Palm Coast Data.)
Things are improving in the county, thanks mostly to a mending economy, and thanks to the arrival of Helga van Eckert, the county’s economic development director. She’s racked up several big wins, one of them at the airport. But you can’t blame voters for being skeptical.
Nor should you further disrespect them by looting their right to the ballot box, let alone faking the loot as a favor. The truth is that Flagler County government doesn’t want you to have a voice at the ballot because its trust in itself is shakier than its trust in voters. The county knows its record doesn’t compel rewards. Just as it couldn’t pass a sales tax referendum last year, it would have a tough time convincing voters that it can be trusted with economic development.
Its solution—disenfranchise voters—proves its mendacity.
But if county government thinks it’s doing a good job on economic development with taxpayer dollars, it should have no problem winning voters’ endorsement, due in 2014. Make a case for recent wins. Make us believe they’ll stick. Convince us that you’re worth trusting with half a million dollars a year on top of tax breaks for companies. Not to mention convincing prospective companies that you’re the sort of government that trusts its voters, and is therefore worth trusting in turn. But silencing voters—and crying all the way to legislative mommas—shouldn’t be an option.
Unless this county commission is sending a message that won’t be lost on potential companies: screw voters and let’s go back to bad business as usual.
Pierre Tristam is FlaglerLive’s editor. Reach him by email here. A version of this commentary was broadcast on WNZF and syndicated by ContextFlorida.
tom jack says
Again Mr. Tristam, a rare agreement between you and I. Good article full of insight and truth.
BIG JOHN says
Mr. Tristam, what can we do to reign in our local leaders? If they won’t even let us vote, what else can we do? Are there no honest citizens left in Flagler County who could take over and run things? I am new to Palm Coast so I don’t know the lay of the land. It sure does appear to be slanted in a questionable direction, to say the least.
Florida Native. says
Screw this commission. They need to go whenever the Palm Coast city commission goes. Remember to vote.
Ben Dover says
They really over step their authority while thumbing their nose at the public.
Those of you who voted these people in and all the other nimrods running this (use to be) great country should be held for treason..
Voters of Flagler County do your research at election time and vote these under performing individuals out of office. You have Nate McLaughlin who has proven he cannot balance a budget, look into his past bankruptcies, Revels who is a realtor and construction owner, yet buys a building (old hospital) for twice its value in disrepair. If we allow these people back in office we have no one to blame but ourselves, politicians need to remember who they work for and get off their high horses and represent WE THE PEOPLE
What else is new, they all have their own agenda, they could care less what 60% of the county thinks, and why not, nobody turns out to vote anyway!
Dennis McDonald says
How is this any different than Fall 2012 when We the taxpayers got the half cent sales tax run down our throats by the Commission with Revels leading the charge.
In defense of the plan to strip us of our ability to Vote this October, Barbara Revels spoke of how “if the Commissioners could just explain the issues better ” then we would understand. Sounds like Nancy Pelosi to me !
The 2013 Fall surprise was a THIRTEEN PERCENT increase in our Taxes. Are we starting to see a pattern ?
The good news is that there is an ELECTION, my favorite political activity Revels most disdained,in only twelve short months.
The good citizens of Flagler have the opportunity to change from… Four to ” Charlie ” to….. ?
Till next November “lead on Barbara”
So if the state law “requires that county and city voters approve the allowance every 10 years”, explain to us how the county commissioners will be able to cut the voters out of the loop.
Changing the law is part of their legislative priorities for this year.
This economic development is obviously not effective. Maybe if they have voters involved in multiple levels they might find success. Like, start economic development here with your residents that are wanting to create a better quality of life. Development from the inside out. That would attract businesses and everyone’s involved.
Todd Gann says
Mr. Tristam, I must say this is a very insightful article, to say the least. I submit to you, this is just a micrcosm of arrogance displayed on a daily basis in this country. In order for there to be a government for the people, by the people, we the people must get involved on a local level. Those of us who have lived here in Flagler county for any length of time have seen and suffered the consequences of arrogant politicians. It saddens and angers me that any elected official would want to suppress the voice of its people. This is a very imperialistic approach and these people should be recalled and replaced!
We suffer the consequences of our apathy. If we want change we have to;
1st run for office (Revels run unopposed her second term).
2nd the electorate needs to get out and vote in midterm and local elections too.
In 2014 the House and Senate seats are up for grabs again. Whoever didn’t like the shut down, get informed, get rid of the obstructionist and vote them out!
Only then we may start creating needed jobs, otherwise will continuo stuck in this financial hole.
McDonald seems to forget that he was part of the RR group that planned and encouraged certain races be closed, depriving hundreds and hundreds of voters from voting in those races. Anyone that does that has no right ro condemn anyone on the County Commission for doing something similar, except that the economical developement issue would not be a political race but a yes or no vote on a referendum.
Some people speak with forked tongue.
Steve Wolfe says
Mr. Tristam, I concur with much of what you have written. It Is necessary for citizens to be vigilant with regards to the activities of government, locally and nationally, then respond appropriately at the ballot box. What puzzles me is that the position you have taken sounds curiously similar to the positions of the Tea Party, which tends to distrust large, unresponsive, burdensome, and arrogant government. The Tea Party actually does something about it. This month’s Federal shutdown, which everyone seems to hold in contempt even though most were relatively unaffected, was such an exercise.
Steve Wolfe says–Here’s the difference between the Tea Party positions and Mr. Tristam’s: The Tea Party only represents the interests of a small (and small-minded) group of people who don’t mind seeing other people suffer in pursuit of their own agendas. They just like to make their positions appear acceptable (even commendable) to themselves and everybody else by wrapping themselves up in the Constitution, apple pie and The American Flag. If they weren’t such hypocrites, they would still be offensive but perhaps not quite as much.
Steve Wolfe says
Thank you, A.S.F. I already know well how Mr. Tristam differs from the Tea Party, but I must confess utter ignorance about the motives of all the individual members of the Tea Party. I appreciate your lesson about them. Based on your assessment of them, I shall certainly avoid all contact, lest I become radicalized like Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin, or (heaven forbid) George Washington. I would hate to be thought of as someone who thinks that it is worth much to preserve and protect the Constitution, honor the sacrifice of veterans, keep government honest, affordable, and accountable, or take my duty and my rights as an American citizen seriously. I’m going to just start attacking people I disagree with from now on. Then people will really like my comments.
Let me add to Mr. Tristam’s amen chorus. Government rarely makes good decisions regarding economic development (more like crony-enterprise). County Commissioners should act as responsible citizens and resist spending the tax-payers hard-earned dollars.