For as long as it’s existed, Palm Coast government has employed the same lobbying firm: Pennington, Moore, Wilkinson, Bell & Dunbar, which has had numerous clients in the region. That reign is over. The Palm Coast City Council last week voted 3-2 to replace it with Southern Strategy Group for $45,000. The lobbying firm is one of Tallahassee’s most powerful.
Southern Strategy is Mayor Milissa Holland’s former employer, though that never entered into the 10-minute discussion preceding the vote last week, the culmination of discussions through meetings going back to September, when the council sifted through four firms and heard presentations from three of them, including Southern Strategy.
Holland worked for Southern Strategy as a lobbyist after her 2012 bid for a State House seat (working there less than two years, from mid-2013 to 2015) and has maintained “many” contacts there that she says should “absolutely” help the new relationship with the city, and the city’s goals. In an interview today she said there was no mention of her former ties to the firm “because I’ve not had any financial involvement with them for a few years,” and that “when I was running for mayor I had no working relationship with them whatsoever.” There was no requirement for her to recuse herself from the vote since there is no relationship between her and the company.
“I’m obviously very familiar with the entity, they bid on government contracts all the time, this was no different,” Holland said. “I don’t know if I flat out said that I was with them or not but I do know that I stipulated that the kind of firm we needed at this time was one that had offices situated throughout Florida.”
Another key reason to drop the old firm: partisanship matters. Doug Bell, the former lobbyist, has long ties to Democrats in the state at a time when Democrats’ influence has waned to the point of near-irrelevance. Southern Strategy is oriented more toward the Republican ascendancy. “The partisanship plays a role, as far as conversations that go on with legislators,” Holland said. “I felt Doug and his father had a long history of strong Democratic presence in Tallahassee and were very effective under those administrations. I just felt that, him being with a smaller boutique firm, there were some challenges as far as bringing home appropriations for us as well as policy discussions.”
Ironically, Steven Nobile, whose Republican credentials are more pronounced than others’ on the council (which has no Democrats), was in favor of keeping the previous firm because of its familiarity with Palm Coast and city staff. “All three of them are very competent and companies that are going to serve us probably well,” he said, explaining why he’d stick with the existing one.
The city council chose to take a more hands-on approach this time in hiring its next lobbyists, likely an indication of Holland’s style and hope for a change. City Manager Jim Landon claimed it was “unusual,” as he put it to the council–a word he’s used when describing something done differently than the way he’s preferred it done over the years–“because usually the staff is the selection committee and then they bring that forth to you, but with your direction you felt like this was a firm that was tied directly into your relationship with our representatives and senators and it would be a good idea for you to be part of that selection process.” (He was speaking before the vote so had no way to know what “firm” would be chosen.)
At one point Holland referred to one bid for $25,000, to which she said, “I would rather pay nothing for that service because that is really going to be the end result.” (An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to the current contract as costing $25,000. The city has been paying $45,00 for its lobbyist for several years.) The appropriations system has changed, requiring legislators to put their requests in the form of individual bills that must go through the approval process, from committee to floor, rather than through the more veiled earmarks of the past, thus putting more of a premium on lobbying legislators bill by bill. For the process to work to a local government’s advantage, Holland argued that a big lobbying firm was necessary. She stressed that the city is already “behind the eight ball” since legislative committees had already started (they’re in full swing today, for instance), with fewer that 15 percent of bills filed passing by session’s end. She got no disagreement on that score.
Among the priorities for the city: getting state dollars for its utilities capital projects—which it has repeatedly failed to do in recent years, though Flagler Beach has been more successful on that score—getting money to widen the northern portion of Old Kings Road, a project that’s been lingering since before the housing bust a decade ago, and preserving home rule. (The Legislature has been encroaching on home rule, or local autonomy in governing, by “pre-empting” various areas of government, which means forbidding local government from regulating certain sectors if the state already regulates them, such as gun regulation and medical marijuana.)
The city had issued a request for proposal and short-listed four firms, which the council cut down to three: Southern Strategy Group, Gray Robinson, and Metz, Husband & Daughton, P.A. The three presented to the council at a workshop in late September. But as is usually the case with lobbyists, prognostications of a successful session tend more toward crystal-balling than promise-making. It comes down to relationships, who has whose ear, who in the leadership has had closer ties to which firm, a measure of luck, and so on. Lobbying is closer to gambling than science, its expenses often outrunning its benefits. And no matter how successful a lobbying effort—if that’s what helped land an appropriation: legislators prefer to think it’s their work, not that of lobbyists, that sealed the deal—there’s always the threat of a veto, as has been the case for Palm Coast.
Metz, Husband and Daughton drew poor marks for being entirely based in Tallahassee and conceding a “down side”: that the firm is not always geographically close to its clients, but that its lobbyists travel extensively (and have worked with Sen. Travis Hutson and Rep. Paul Renner, Flagler’s representatives.)
Gray Robinson’s firm includes Dean Cannon, who was Speaker of the Florida House from 2010 to 2012, though Chris Carmody, who would have represented Palm Coast, presented to the council. Cannon was not there, but Carmody used the Canon card to get leverage with the council. His firm also represents Volusia County, which may have concerned some council members in terms of competing for next-door dollars.
Southern Strategy Group presented last, and drew questions from Council member Heidi Shipley, who’d been silent until then: she was concerned about the size of the firm and whether it could pay attention to a smaller client such as Palm Coast, though Matt Brockelman assured her (without evidence) that clients are treated equally.
Shipley had been concerned about the way Southern Strategy had stamped the Palm Coast logo on its response to the request for proposal, lending the impression that it somehow had Palm Coast’s endorsement. (Holland in today’s interview said it’s common practice in government contracting, and that other lobbying firms did likewise. The RFP documents were not available for public examination on the city’s website, alongside other agenda items related to the lobbying issue.) Brockelman noted that one of the firm’s lobbyists worked on Renner’s campaign, and that Hutson is “a friend.” But answers to Holland’s questions about securing some of the $30 million needed to widen Old Kings Road or protecting home rule were no less general or non-committal than those of previous firms.
“I believe strongly we need to send to them a very strong advocacy group that will give us the ability to have our voices heard,” Holland said before the vote last week.