Eighteen hours. That’s about how long the “reset” from growing friction and dysfunction lasted on the Flagler Beach City Commission, after last night’s commitment by the commissioners and the mayor to return to cohesion and collaboration.
By late afternoon today, during the second budget workshop of the week and the panel’s fourth meeting of the week, Mayor Suzie Johnston was in tears, a fractured majority of the commission was opting for an additional workshop to lawyer questions about the mayor and commissioners’ proper roles, Commissioner Eric Cooley was pledging not to attend–and to go shopping for IT services at the county, in opposition to the same majority’s decision to go in another direction.
This time, City Manager William Whitson, who’d been the lightning rod of the commission’s crack-up so far, had little do do with it. It had all started over the budget’s information technology item. The commission was in the last third of its daylong budget workshop, going over every major item, or “module,” in a thick budget book, item by item.
IT, as always, is its own riddle. The city has been contracting with county government for services since 2015, at $50,000 a year–a relative pittance, and a cost that hasn’t changed since. That’s over: the county informed Whitson last year that it wished to end the relationship “due to the city not covering its full share of expenses,” according to an email County Administrator Heidi Petito sent Johnston.
Whitson’s budget request is now for $110,000. That started a three-headed debate among the six commissioners and the mayor: should the services be in house? with a contractor? With the county again? Johnston and Cooley are for exploring another relationship with the county. Commissioner Mealy is disenchanted with contractors. She is leaning toward an in-house approach. Commission Chairman Ken Bryan and Commissioner James Sherman favored the contractor approach. Whitson had issued a request for proposal already, to which the county did not respond.
At this point in workshop discussion, the issue appeared to be whether the manager would be granted the requested amount or not–not the specifics of how it would be spent. But Flagler Beach commissioners are agronomists of weed: they like to get into them. So they did, with the debate eventually focusing not on what information Johnston had gathered from the county, but why.
It lasted an hour. Then Commissioner Phillips, who is more tactical than voluble, intervened, much as she had Thursday when she put Whitson on a 90-day probation period. “It should not take one hour to get through one module,” Phillips said. “And I’m going to make a comment regarding our roles. I think we all know what our roles are, but I think some of us are overstepping our roles. Mayor, you are, in my opinion, and you know that you are, a weak mayor, not a strong mayor. You have a strong personality. I respect you. I think you’re extremely smart and I love your follow-through. But budget time is for this group of people,” she pointed to her commissioner colleagues, “with your obviously additional comments. So I just want to put this behind us. You might disagree with me. But I just want to start moving on with these modules.”
Phillips had lost Johnston at “weak mayor.”
Phillips isn’t wrong: she was using the correct terminology, which other commissioners should have been familiar with. There are strong-mayor and weak-mayor forms of municipal governments. In strong-mayor forms of governments, the mayor fills the role of the chief executive, or city manager, appointing and firing department heads, drafting and proposing budgets and so on. All of Flagler County’s municipalities have weak mayors, but Flagler Beach’s is the weakest: unlike in Bunnell and Palm Coast, the Flagler Beach mayor doesn’t even have a vote. Only veto power. By “weak,” of course, Phillips neither intended nor meant to suggest that Johnston was a weak person or a weak personality in any way, Johnston being neither. She is, like Phillips, on the stronger side.
But Johnston didn’t take the reference as intended–nor did Cooley, who happens to be Johnston’s relationship partner, and whose defensive instincts immediately flared–exposing the knottiness and potentially untenable conflicts of a couple serving on the same commission.
“What do you mean a weak mayor?” Johnston asked.
“Is her opinion not as valid as anybody else’s?” Cooley asked. “What are you saying?”
“It’s a term,” Phillips said, trying to explain.
“What is the purpose of using that?” Cooley talked over her, prompting Bryan to gavel.
“You have some valid points but in my opinion you’re overstepping at times,” Phillips told the mayor.
Johnston insisted she was within her lanes, and had contacted Drew Smith, the city attorney, about it. “There is legal and not legal and it’s a very black and white line,” she said. “It’s not a gray area of opinions. And I stayed within those. If you want me to be a chair warmer, I’m sorry, I’m not going to be. So I’m going to be the mayor that the residents voted for, and bringing the opinions and the information to the budget should be what everyone in this dais wants. So I’ll leave it at that and we can move on.”
But commissioners’ concerns were not misplaced: the city had issued a request for proposal. It could not then ignore those and have sidebar negotiations with another entity. That would lead to bid protests or costly litigation.
Moving on is only a pair of words these days on the commission. Bryan said he, too spoke to Smith, and that it was time for a workshop that would have Smith explaining the commissioners’ and the mayor’s roles. He needed the commission’s consensus.
“Y’all have already bashed me in public now for two separate meetings,” Johnston then said, her voice first breaking, then her tears welling up. “I already have a meeting with the city manager, and the attorney–I’m sorry I’m getting emotional. But I’m just doing the best job as a mayor. And I’m getting all the information for all of you as you because you live in the city. And I did it on Wednesday, before I was already publicly humiliated by you and Jane.” She said a workshop wasn’t needed.
“I think it’s also important for the public that we serve to know what our roles are,” Bryan said. “I mean, that’s what I did and I wasn’t bashing you. Wasn’t bashing anyone. I never bash anyone.”
When Phillips echoed the same words and said she just thought “some of us are going out of our lanes,” Cooley again jumped in: “We all worry about people going outside the lanes. I’m going to tell you right now, I’m going to county and I’m going to get the straight answer on the IT because I don’t think the county’s position has been presented correctly. And guess what? Be mad, I don’t care.”
“Well, you know, Mr. Commissioner Cooley, if that’s what you want to do, that’s fine,” Bryan said, “and we’re not going to sit up here and argue about this because that’s not productive for us to do, okay, all we’re doing is trying to establish some order here.” He then made an analogy with the military and following “the rules of order,” an odd and seemingly inappropriate pulling of a nonexistent rank (or military order). Roberts’ Rules of Order, the manual local governments generally follow, does not bar elected officials from seeking out information on their own.
Bryan, Mealy and Phillips agreed to the workshop with Smith on “lanes.” Cooley and Sherman did not.
A split commission also approved going forward with the city manager’s $110,000 request for IT. But Cooley was possibly aware of an email Petito had sent Johnston, where Petito states explicitly: “If the city wanted to update the current agreement, I am sure we would be amenable to continuing to provide services.” But the bill would double, to “approximately $100,000,” Petito said, “however you would have access to all of our IT staff.”
Johnston had referred to that email, and those figures, during the workshop, but a majority of the commission was uninterested, the city’s RFT having made that moot.
“They did not bid,” Penny Overstreet, the city clerk, told the commission, referring to the county. “The bid package is closed and our code of ordinance has parameters of how bid packages are put out, anything over the $20,000. It was put out. It had a time period. They did not respond. I did not send it to them directly. But it’s public information. It was on the website. It was on Demand Star, it was in the newspaper. They were aware of it. They knew I was putting out bid packages because I had them review parts of it for security items I did not want to put in there.”
“I don’t like that we keep going to outside organizations to do internal things,” Mealy had said, “and I know you said we would take six local people to do the job. You still haven’t convinced me.” She recalled how it had taken three days for the county to fix her email, when it was down. She added: “I was not happy with the county service from day one, and I know most staff if not all staff were not happy, so now we’re going to go to another outside company whom we don’t have any relationship with, we did have some relationship with the county, and I’m not convinced the service is going to be any better.”
“Three days for email down is not acceptable, I agree with you,” Overstreet said, but an outside provider would give the city the ability, or leverage, to knock down the price, by contract. “The county has given us a gift for several years. We’ve only paid them $50,000 a year,” Overstreet continued. “That’s for everything. That’s for when they had to redo the police programs and the fire programs, that was te installations, the server change overs, that’s all included in that, and when we go to someone else, that’s not going to be part of it. Their rate is going to be based on so many hours per month, anything over that you pay extra, anything extra installation, you’re going to pay extra. That is common everywhere. we’ve had a nice gift. But that gift is over.”
So is the rest.
Martin Reed says
It appears that this commission is at a crossroads! You either make a major attempt to work together or face a disgrace from your constituents. We are counting on you all to serve us…this is much bigger than you! I also feel that several of you seem to be intimidated by a mayor that cares and is willing to live her beliefs.
You should embrace her passions
Nothing to do with her personally and her abilities. She needs to understand her role. If she wanted to be a Commissioner she should have run for that position. Oops her boyfriend was running!
Flagler Beach Voter says
Everyone needs to read our city charter. It’s the mayor’s job to sit there and not say a word. She obviously hasn’t read her job description. Time for her to take her wa wa self home until she can man up and do her job correctly.
Please see this comment’s gross inaccuracies, and violation of our policy, addressed below.
tom dooley says
Ha-Ha-Ha sorry mayor you really showed your immaturity today.You bit off more than you can chew in this position. Your name cannot help you now. You and your boyfriend need to resign or at least one of you. Y’all are both an embarrassment to this city. If you have a problem communicating with the city manager go to his house or city hall. How hard is that? Oh that’s right you can’t do that; you need email,cell phone ,text,etc.? The city manger and the city doesn’t need your immaturity. You have no powers that you apparently thought you had; veto power is all. Ever heard that song by Janis Joplin? It’s called “Cry Baby”. good tune sorry I had to waste it on you. You and your boyfriend’s personal vendetta needs to end. Grow up or resign now!
Pearl James says
Seems like you have the vendetta. This comment looks to be a personal attack. Are you a Flagler Beach resident?
Rick Belhumeur says
I did it all the time. I couldn’t add up all the times I’ve spoken to Flagler County staff. I always took advantage of asking questions when I wondered if I was being told the whole story. You’ve all heard “trust, but verify”? I asked Al Hadeed so many questions, he would call me before I had a chance to ask the question. I will take this opportunity to thank them all again!
They should accept the $100k a year deal from the county. That’s a fixed cost; they will not get that anywhere else, especially from someone that is willing to be accountable for every aspect of I.T., like the County evidently is.
That’s the salary alone for one competent IT person. Surly they are not so technically illiterate that they can’t do a simple job search for a network administrator. It would take a bout 5 minutes of Googling to find out they are still getting a bargain.
As for email being down for three days, my guess is that there is probably more to the story. If resorting to Gmail or Yahoo is good enough for high profile Federal Gov., (i.e. Secretary Clinton), if should be good enough for a Flagler Beach Commissioner for three days.
This is like a daytime TV soap opera. Suzie the Mayor and Commissioner Cooley are either blinded by love or ignorance. They want to conduct their own deals, investigations and whatever else. Now there’s gonna be a workshop on the role of the commission, which is obviously needed. Maybe just play Schoolhouse Rock on VHS.
Ken Bryan, Mealy and the other lady Commissioner get it….thankfully.
What happens when that workshop reveals that commissioners and mayors alike have the ability to directly gather information on any number of issues in their own capacity? Looks like the only ones who have any solutions are the mayor and her “boyfriend.” Everyone else offered zero ideas other than looking around. How long do they plan to look around before they realize communications to run a city costs 100’s of thousands of dollars? I don’t care what they do in their personal lives, I care how they vote to spend our tax dollars. Anything else is just being a busybody.
Let’s see what the city attorney says. I highly doubt it’s ok for the crying Mayor to complete her own applications to the county for grants, contact the other city managers or county administrator on official city business. If not illegal, unethical. Getting public info is one thing. Operating as the agent for the entire city with other jurisdictions is something completely different, Karen. Didn’t you hear any of what the Tourism Director said last week?
This is just another example of the mayor going rogue again. She has no clue about policies or procedures and especially what her role is as a “ceremonial mayor.” She just sits there and holds her breath like a child and cries with her crocodile tears. Her actions are embarrassment to the city. It is so obvious she and her commissioner boyfriend are playing right into the hands of the people who think they can do no wrong. If she can’t take constructive criticism , maybe it is time for one of them to resign.
Thank you Mayor for keeping Flagler Beach in constant unnecessary turmoil.
You say another example, what is the first? Is gathering information and presenting it to the commission for consideration “going rouge?” That is what happened here, in case you didn’t read the article. One could argue that Commissioner Phillips caused unnecessary disruption by being so dramatic and prickly. That was quite an inappropriate way to address a member of the body.
You say another example, what is the first? Is gathering information and presenting it to the commission for consideration “going rogue?” That is what happened here, in case you didn’t read the article. One could argue that Commissioner Phillips caused unnecessary disruption by being so dramatic and prickly. That was quite an inappropriate way to address a member of the body. Do you have and opinion on the IT budget item or just insults for these two people?
The whole situation with the Mayor and Commissioner Cooley being in a relationship is dicey at best. These two think they are above the law. Bryan, Mealy and Phillips need to continue to act as the check and balance to Suzie and Colley. She may cry about it, and he may get upset about it, but those two are damaging the reputation of the city more and more with each passing day.
The Commissioners seem to be concerned about other people ‘going out of their lanes’ without noting that the reason for the moving ‘out of lanes’ appears to be that the Commissioners (among others) aren’t doing their jobs – and SOMEONE has to get the work done.
I get the impression that ‘moving out of lanes’ is an euphemism for ‘You’re making us look bad by doing what WE should be doing’.
p.s. is Palm Coast Government behavior contagious?
I Just Love Flagler Beach says
So, 4 of the 5 commissioners voted on the “dumpster pad” without receiving the proper information.
Somebody dropped the ball on the 4th of July fireworks.
And, somebody dropped the ball on a pretty sizeable grant.
And people commenting here think this is the mayor’s fault?
And, it’s Eric Cooley’s fault? Why, because he was the lone commissioner to speak out?
Ocean Sea Horse 123 says
Actually, I Just love Flagler Beach. It passed 3-2. FlaglerLive can verify this information as well. Be careful of your misinformation.
It was a 3-2 vote.
Keep it Up says
Way to go Mayor. Again you look out for the best interest of is residents. Our taxes are going up yet the City Manager wants to hide information. You are truly a peoples Mayor.
The Commission needs to stay in their lane. You took an oath for the residents. This is where the Mayor again showed that she gets the job done.
The rising costs are out of control and only 2 Commissioners and a Mayor have the correct way of thinking. The City Manager, Jane, Ken, and Debbie will rubber stamp anything.
Jane Gentile-Youd says
On a very positive note y’all: At least the Flagler Beach Commissioners and the Mayor have real feelings about ALL issues facing the city, not like our Flagler County Board of Commissioners who just go ‘ding dong’ and vote yes yes yes to everything put in front of them – with very , yes very few exceptions. They never bring up issues not on the Agenda ( except for Mullins – you know “the one who rns the county” )
We have two commissioners, Dave Sullivan and Andy Dance, who posture and ask questions but in the end they , like the others, press the ‘ding dong yes yes bell 98 percent of the time. !
As far as Commissioner Cooley and Mayor Johnston thinking alike and being a team- no kidding -if they didn’t they wouldn’t be talked about like they live in Peyton Place, not Flagler Beach.! Their hearts are in the right place; NOTHING should be more important to their constituents ( in my opinion) . It is a forgotten fact that in our ‘democracy’ no elected official is required to take a college course -or any course to be a public official. All that is required is that you are an American Citizen and can sign your name ( an ‘X ‘is still ok I think). I hope Flagler Beach sorts out their issues and I am sure they will; in the meantime Mayor Johnston’s tears prove that she has passion in her soul about the city she serves which is ( in my opinion) lacking in 90 percent of all the other elected officials in our county ( and I am being very generous giving 10% credit to the few who have any feelings about those whom they serve).
Don’t le them get you down Mayor Suzie; yes you might stumble a little but you are strong enough and smart enough to overcome your um hmmm absolutely ‘ horrible, unforgiveable mistakes’….. .. Long live beautiful Flagler Beach – the true pearl of all of Flagler County. You’ll all get through
Oddly relieved to read that it’s not just Palm Coast leadership that’s in chaos.
Regarding the comment above by Flagler Beach Voter and other suggestions about the mayor’s exclusively ceremonial role: Misogyny aside, which violated this comment section’s charter, which the commenter appears not to have read, the commenter is mis-characterizing the Flagler Beach city charter, which nowhere states or can be interpreted to suggest that the mayor’s job is to “sit there and not say a word.” To the contrary.
The mayor “shall have the right to take part in discussion but may not vote.” The voting proscription is the only difference between the mayor’s role and that of commissioners. If anything, the charter vests the mayor with more responsibilities, not fewer, than those of commissioners. Among commission members, only the mayor may call a special meeting unilaterally. For commissioners to do so, two commissioners’ requests are required. Much is being made of her “ceremonial” role. It is accurately referred as such, but not exclusive of her other responsibilities, as the charter makes clear: “the Mayor shall be recognized as head of the City government for all ceremonial purposes, by the governor for purposes of military law, for services of process, execution of contracts, deeds and other documents and as the City official designated to represent the City in all agreements with other governmental entities but shall have no administrative duties except as required to carry out the responsibilities herein.” The limitation on administrative duties applies to all commissioners.
It is the mayor’s name that appears in signature at the foot of all documents, not commissioners’. As such, it gives the mayor, if anything, more reason, not less, to ensure that all discussions that result in such documents are properly vetted. The chair of the commission, by set rules require by, but not set ou in, the charter, runs the meetings–no more, no less. Traditionally, the chair of the commission has wielded more authority, at least in appearance, if not in procedure. But a strict construction of the charter doesn’t support that role beyond chairing meetings, especially since the charter spells out that the “Chairman of the Commission shall serve as Vice-Mayor in the absence or disability of the Mayor,” giving the chair authority to sign, call special meetings, etc, but also underscoring the subordinate role of the chair. The veto is an additional power only the mayor wields. All told, any suggestion that the mayor is to be a mascot is unsupported by the charter. The charter’s full segment on the mayor’s role appears below:
Please do not use this site to spread disinformation.
Thank you for answering what really happened here.
All the rules of order are in place to tour points raised. Mis-management 101.
Projects increased over 100% since City Mgr took over….so at no point during City Managers tenure was this discussed, key items were going to be missed? This group needs to have an all emcompassing , ‘dashboard/ measurements’ review package to taxpayers…people are trying but complexity seems to have most very challenged.
Wish everyone the best of luck…
Flagler Local says
There is no crying in politics…Mayor, show them the strong, outspoken, intelligent, women that you are. Harm no one but take no sh*t. If the rest of the commission had half the brain that you do we would be in good standing. Never let them see you cry. You got this. We believe in you.
This whole deal is laughable. Perhaps not to those directly involved but…..your making an embarrassing mess.
How about you folks check your ego’s at the door! I do like the mayor, I only wish she were smart enough to actually listen to Jane.
I am really quite sad or disillusioned that a person who actually ran for mayor does not understand the two forms of “mayorship”. No need for tears. This is just uneducated or uninformed people thinking they can play at governing. For gosh sake if you’re going to run for office at least understand the office.
Yeah, but she is not the only one that is in over their head. I have hope that she may learn.