A year and a half ago Don Kewley was one of four finalists for the job of Palm Coast city manager, along with Beau Falgout, the interim manager at the time, Matt Morton and Robin Hayes. They’d been short-listed from a pool of 56 applicants. Morton got the job by one council vote over Falgout, who resigned seven months later without another job lined up, one of innumerable resignations or firings that followed Morton’s arrival following predecessor Jim Landon’s 11-year tenure.
Kewley wasn’t exactly out of the running, at least for a city job. There’d been maneuverings in the background, with Council member Nick Klufas pushing to have Kewley hired as the city’s Chief Innovation Officer so he could take over management of the city’s FiberNet. That’s the network of broadband fiber across the city’s main arteries, serving a few businesses and governments but not residential neighborhoods. It’s fallen short of a potential the city hasn’t stopped touting for over a decade. Kewley’s command of IT and FiberNet questions was evident in his interviews for city manager with council members, his command of other issues much less so.
Klufas’s role in pushing Kewley was unusual. Council members aren’t supposed to meddle in administrative matters. But the push became public. The week after the council voted to hire Morton, Klufas made the pitch for Kewley, who was then an IT director in Ashland, Ore.: “Exactly what Mr. Kewley has done in Ashland, Oregon, is where the City of Palm Coast is today when he came on board there,” Klufas said at a council meeting, “and he was able to provide direct results and very clear data that enumerated out his successes and the enormity of the impact that it had on its community.” Klufas’s usual allies, Mayor Milissa Holland and Council member Bob Cuff, reined him in. “We have absolutely no business identifying an individual” for hire by the administration, Cuff told Klufas. But the message was sent.
When Morton hired Kewley, he was mordant about it: “I told Beau, I said this is a Pyrrhic win, I’m really excited, he’s the guy, but it’s Pyrrhic because I knew it carried some baggage.” Clearly, the hire hadn’t entirely been Morton’s idea. Just as clearly in subsequent months, the relationship between Kewley and Morton didn’t quite click.
On Aug. 26, a Thursday, Kewley wrote Morton that he was resigning. He did not offer an explanation, and said he appreciated “the opportunity to work for the City of Palm Coast and serve the citizens of this great community.”
Morton said in an interview today that he had intended to have a conversation with Kewley that Friday to inform him that the separate department Kewley was leading was being shut down, and FiberNet being folded back under Doug Aikins’s IT department. Morton said Kewley never lived up to his billing, producing no business plan, developing no private-public partnership to extend FiberNet to residences, sowing confusion with contractors and taking on what Morton called “a victim mentality about seven months ago,” when Kewley supposedly began fearing for his job.
In remarkably harsh words for an individual who’s just resigned–and who was his own hire–Morton said “Don was such a spectacular failure, I think he was a fraud, candidly”–a fraud neither the consultant that the city hired to cull through the city manager applicants a year and a half ago nor the city council itself detected when short-listing and interviewing him. Before Palm Coast, he had spent just over two years developing a FiberNet-like network in Ashland, but sought the Palm Coast job, he said at the time, because he wasn;t feeling appreciated in Oregon.
Asked how the Kewley hire reflected on Morton’s own judgment, Morton said: “It absolutely does, I’m not going to escape that. I brought the guy in through the SGR process, he was vetted and evaluated,” he said, referring to Texas-based Strategic Government Resources, the consultancy the city hired last year. As time went on, Morton said, Kewley did not rise to “the level of executive he claimed to be.”
Kewley did not respond to a message on his cell, a text or an email. But in comments to the News-Journal’s Frank Fernandez, who first reported on the resignation, Kewley attributed Morton’s decision to Kewley not being on board with the city’s association with Salesforce platform. The city in the past two years had focused public attention on Palm Coast Connect, a $100,000-a-year online customer service system. The backbone to the system was initially developed at no cost by Coastal Cloud, the company that employs Holland, a connection that’s drawn scrutiny and criticism by former city employees and the public, in part spurring the candidacy of one of the mayoral candidates against Holland–Michael Schottey, himself a Morton hire whose tenure ended between a resignation and an impending firing six months in. Schottey did not make it past the primary.
“I don’t feel like I did anything wrong,” Kewley told the News-Journal, saying he’d been tipped off about his impending firing. “I was working in the best interests of the city, but because I didn’t wear a Salesforce banner on my back I was forced out.” The comment echoes that of other former employees who have resigned or been fired.
Morton says Salesforce had nothing to do with Kewley’s job. “It’s been 10 months of false allegations and allegations and credibility questions, every time I turn around, ‘corruption,’ and on and on,” Morton said. “This was not a retaliatory dismissal, there is no corruption happening, there’s no conspiracy, just because a small number of people continue to rattle the fences.” He was also explaining why he took another unusual step–countering criticism about the Kewley firing on Facebook, on a local resident’s page. (The city’s own personnel policy prohibits employees “from conducting official City business through social media, unless specifically authorized by the City Manager.” An earlier version of this story noted that Morton being the city manager, he he was essentially granting himself permission to respond. In fact, the social media policy does not apply to the manager, the mayor and members of the council and members of city boards.)
“I shouldn’t have done that,” Morton said today when asked about the posts before defending them as fighting misinformation. A communications director might have discouraged or stopped him from making the postings, but the city hasn’t had one since Schottey left, leaving the responsibilities to an interim.
That’s about to change. The city is hiring Brad West, the USTA Florida’s digital media coordinator, to the position (termed Communications Officer). The hire is somewhat of a surprise: West is frequently engaged in city issues, at times as a critic and times as a defender–a piece he wrote subsequent to his original application for the position and after he’d been passed over for Schottey, one of the people implicitly criticized in that piece for making some unsubstantiated accusations. Morton did not reopen the application process for the hire, returning to the batch of original applicants and picking West out.
West today acknowledged his past involvements in city issues in an interview today. “It brings a unique perspective in my opinion because I have lived here, I have had some experiences, I can bring that personal perspective to the things that we may be doing, and things we’re communicating out. I do appreciate and understand that that changes things for me personally.”
He said his decision to take the job was difficult, since he likes the job he’s doing now–and is fully aware of the fractious nature of certain public-sector jobs these days, not least of them at a city that’s seen its share of turmoil–but he’s been commuting to Orlando for three years and is looking to work closer to home in a city that’s mattered to him and his family for years. “My goal is to improve communications with the residents here not only to keep them informed, but help make it easier to get information that’s important to them,” he said.
He’s previously worked in retail for 23 years, 17 of those years in management (Strawberries Music and Video, Circuit City, Barnes and Noble), as a store or operations manager. He starts Oct. 5.
“We can look at Brad’s history with the city, he’s not some superfan,” Morton said. “I need someone who can honestly analyze things and tell us and the community what we’re doing right and tell us and the community what we’re doing wrong.”