Last Updated: Oct. 20, 5:55 p.m.
Leann Pennington is a Republican candidate for Flagler County Commission, District 4, facing Independent Jane Gentile-Youd in the Nov. 8 general election. Pennington defeated first-term incumbent Commissioner Joe Mullins in the Aug. 23 primary with 69 percent of the vote.
The following interview with Pennington originally published ahead of the primary. It has been updated with a question about her campaign contributions. See Question 14.
All registered Flagler County voters may cast a ballot in the race, regardless of party affiliation or residency location.
Two seats were up this year on the County Commission. In District 2, Republican Greg Hansen won reelection in an open primary, defeating Janet McDonald and Denise Calderwood. Pennington defeated incumbent Joe Mullins in the Republican primary, and now faces the independent Gentile-Youd.
Flagler County Commission members serve four years. They’re paid $59,637 a year, a salary set by the state, not by the local commission.
FlaglerLive submitted identical questions to all candidates, with the understanding that additional questions might be tailored to candidates individually and some follow-up questions may be asked, with all exchanges on the record. The Live Interview’s aim is to elicit as much candor and transparency as possible. We have asked candidates to refrain from making campaign speeches or make lists of accomplishments. We have also asked candidates to reasonably document any claim or accusation. Answers are lightly edited for clarity, relevance and, where possible, accuracy. If a candidate does not answer a question or appears to be evading a question, that’s noted.
But it’s ultimately up to the reader to judge the quality and sincerity of a candidate’s answers.
|To vote: see a sample ballot here. Early voting is between October 24 and November 5 from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. at four sites in the county, listed here. You may vote early at any of the four sites regardless of your precinct location. To vote by mail, request your mail-in ballot here. Because of the Legislature's new law, restricting voting convenience, drop boxes are available, but only to a limited degree. The ballot drop box at the Elections Office will be monitored by a staff member beginning 60 days prior to the election, through Election Day. This drop box will no longer be available after office hours or on weekends, except during the early voting period. Other drop boxes will be available at early voting locations, but only during the days of early voting, and only during voting hours. Mail ballots must be received in the Elections Office by 7 p.m. on Election Day in order to be counted. If returning your ballot by mail, please allow at least ten days for delivery. A postmark does not extend this deadline. You may track your ballot here. All other election-procedure related inquiries can be answered at the Elections Office's website.|
The Questions in Summary: Quick Links
- Method and philosophy
- Critical issues
- Needs and wants
- School concurrency
- Environmental protection
- Heidi Petito
- Public transportation
- Sheriff’s budget
- Background check
- Campaign donations and judgment
Place and Date of Birth: Jacksonville, Florida – October 1977.
Current job: Chief Fraud Strategist.
Party Affiliation: Republican.
Net Worth: See the financial disclosure form here.
Resume: Not provided.
Website and Social Media: www.PenningtonforFlagler.com
1. What makes you qualified to be a county commissioner? If you’re an incumbent, what examples illustrate how you yourself, as opposed to the board collectively, made a difference in enacting your vision in your previous years on the board? If you’re a challenger, what have you done to prepare, so that you’re ready from day one?
I’ve been in the banking industry for nearly twenty years in transactional due diligence management, financial fraud investigations and strategy roles. My career has taught me how to assess risk, calculate return on investment, identify regulatory issues and develop strategy to avoid reputational and financial harm.
I have a great amount of respect for others. I believe that all people deserve to be listened to, have their concerns addressed and that elected officials are entrusted to be good stewards of our tax dollars and their actions must always reflect that.
Served on the City of Palm Coast’s 2021 Redistricting Board.
Attended/viewed 2018-2022 County Commission and Tourist Development Council meetings online.
Attended a virtual Robert’s Rule of Order course.
Why do you consider yourself qualified to replace an incumbent–in this case, Joe Mullins?
I have an extensive background in due diligence and investigation. I am prepared to review in depth, the matters coming before the Commission, and am willing to spend an extensive amount of time ensuring that my decisions are rooted in fact based analysis and not driven by special interests.
Flagler County Commission
Jane Gentile-Youd (NPA)
Leann Pennington (R)
Palm Coast City Council
Alan Lowe, District 2
Theresa Carli Pontieri, District 2
Fernando Melendez, District 4
Cathy Heighter, District 4
Flagler County Voters Will Vote on Whether to Retain 11 Judges
Will Furry Chooses Sleaze. Again.
2. Tell us who you are as a person—what human qualities and shortcomings you’ll bring (or have brought) to the board, what your temperament is like: if you’re an incumbent, what do you consider may have been a mistake or a misjudgment on your part in your official capacity—something you’d do over, differently–in your last term? If you’re a challenger, apply the question to your work or civic involvement in recent years. Who do you admire most in office today among elected officials in Flagler County—the person you’d consider a model of leadership? Who in the world at large (beyond Flagler), and among the living, do you consider a role model of political or intellectual leadership?
I consider myself to be mostly of a phlegmatic temperament. In any environment I work in, I attempt to foster healthy, working relationships where we can collaborate and create meaningful dialogue with each other to ensure that we are doing what’s fair, what’s right and what’s best for the situation at hand. My career in financial crime investigation has taught me to always build a solid, legal case in which complete transparency was lent to the situation and a just and right outcome is provided as the resolution.
As for shortcomings, I tend to have too much empathy which can lead to leniency in situations where it wasn’t warranted. I’m also guilty of attempting to find the good in everyone, including those who have been a disappointment to others.
Regarding civic involvement in recent years, I was heavily involved in the fight against the development of the Matanzas Woods Golf Course. During the process, I was very cautious and skeptical regarding the intentions of the city staff and government officials. I regret assuming upfront, that they wouldn’t be allies in our fight.
Flagler County Commissioner Andy Dance, for his repeated attempts to create constructive conversations on the dais, to ensure the decisions made are the correct ones. Tim Kennedy, Volunteer, Save our Allies coalition, for his strategic planning that led to the extraction of nearly 12,000 Afghans during the recent U.S. military withdrawal.
Can you give us an example of a mistake or misjudgment more directly related to the way you work–a decision you made, an action you took–and what you may have learned from it?
I provided a civic misjudgment specifically, because I have rather enjoyed my career and can’t really think of any mistakes or misjudgments regarding it. I have been blessed with great mentors along the way.
3. How do you describe your governing method and philosophy: how do you (or will you) prepare for each council meeting and workshop, what is your analytical method, issue by issue, and what drives your decision-making? What role do politics, ideology or immovable principles have in your decision-making approach?
My governing approach would be to conduct a significant amount of research on each agenda item prior to the meetings, go into the neighborhoods impacted by agenda matters and view all proposed projects in person (if applicable). I would also solicit feedback from residents and third parties who are considered experts in their fields on matters that are outside of my wheelhouse. I would also encourage dialogue on the dais among Commissioners to ensure the public feels confident about the decisions being made.
Furthermore, I’ve made a promise to be involved in my district by committing to weekly meetings with residents so they can bring their concerns forward and I can work with our County Administrator to ensure they are being addressed. I will always have the resident’s best interests at heart, and I will ensure they are listened to while on the dais.
I believe firmly that our government was created with a limited and expressed amount of power as defined in the state and federal Constitutions. I do not appreciate anyone who attempts to abuse their authority given to them by the people they are elected by to represent. Therefore, I will only enter into a decision by ensuring that I am within my authority to do so, and that it is in the best interest of the residents of Flagler County, our tax dollars and our quality of life.
We need to have a serious discussion about the way we approach our growth. We should consider bringing back the long-range planning board, so that we can adopt a vision for our community and develop a strategic plan for how we handle future growth.
I feel the current County Commission hasn’t considered the residents’ concerns regarding the overwhelming amount of residential growth occurring. Our commission should advocate for new development to be more compatible with the abutting, existing neighborhoods, as well as preserve the look and feel of a more nature friendly community by leaving a percentage of existing trees and greenspace. I am also concerned about the narrow setbacks being prescribed in the newer communities. I feel this potential hazard should be researched further before implementation in future projects.
Finally, the County needs to ensure that our rural community continues to participate in agricultural land preservation and help them to preserve our working farms and acreage. I consider the preservation of local farming to be a top priority in my tenure.
Almost every elected official we’ve had has promised higher paying jobs and a friendlier business atmosphere at our local government level. However, while we find ourselves in a period of tremendous residential housing growth, the expansion of business development seems to be lacking despite rooftop numbers being added. While I am pleased to see our healthcare industry expand; we also need a more diversified field of employment opportunities.
I would like to see our commissioners become more proactive in developing a robust commercial business incentive program. This program may provide inducements such as tax and fee abatements and infrastructure enhancements to targeted industries that will provide job creation, capital investments and industry that improves citizen services and community quality. All residents of Flagler could benefit from smart, planned, commercial growth. Our children deserve to have options that include staying after graduation and creating a career in Flagler while our senior population can benefit from Flagler retaining our young, top talent to work within the community. Also, we all benefit by having a diversified tax base that isn’t mostly derived from residential property taxes.
Your reference to inducements and infrastructure enhancements to targeted industries recalls the ill-fated approach the county took with economic development, and with a series of incentive packages to companies that did not pan out, finally leading to the county’s decision to scrap the model and scale back its economic development office, whose expenses neared $500,000 a year. Are you wanting to return to that model?
In no way would I suggest spending $500,000 on a model that doesn’t perform and has been proven not to be successful. A great amount of the commercial space in our county is located in the cities of Palm Coast and Bunnell; however, to an outside company who doesn’t realize that we have many government bodies under the county seat, the Flagler County government and their ED website is their starting point in the search for relocation information. I would suggest we look to building a liaison role who will work with the other local municipalities to build out a proactive model to attract business and be available to host potential companies who are interested in multiple locations in our area. I also think its critical that we build out our economic development website to reflect more in-depth information about our community, inducements and opp
5. Candidates and commissioners hear the phrase “needs, not wants” from many constituents, usually as a criticism of some specific proposal to spend money on a project the speaker considers a “want.” Please give two or three examples of what you consider “needs” and how you would address them as a commissioner, and two or three examples of “wants” that you believe are important enough to justify the required spending.
Infrastructure improvements- study impact fees to ensure they are covering the true costs of implementation and determine if we can expedite improvements identified.
Improvement of drainage issues in the West.
Expansion of our social services programs with an emphasis on adding to our senior services.
Community interlocal participation for Belle Terre Swim and Racquet Club – We are a community that values our recreational opportunities. We are limited in public facilities that offer services like aquatics. We should participate with other local governments in preserving this center in our community.
Acquisition of more environmentally sensitive/historic lands.
Public/private partnership to develop and promote a more robust arts, cultural and historical presence within the community.
6. Commissioners like to say they won’t raise taxes or will keep taxes, or at least tax rates, flat. How do you define a tax increase—as keeping the rate the same or as exceeding the rollback rate? Adopting your definition of an increase, are you against property tax increases? What three specific line items would you cut from this year’s proposed budget to keep the property tax where you’d want it?
Exceeding the rollback rate is a tax increase.
Yes, I am against property tax increases and would prefer the burden be placed on the county departments to review their line items and take a zero-based budget approach to how they operate.
I’d prefer each department produce a certain percentage of reduction to ensure that we are not increasing property taxes. However, I do think we need to discuss the county attorney’s budget. I would like to recommend a workshop to see how we can reduce legal fees in the future.
Now that the county has had budget workshops and presented a plan that relies not on the rolled-back rate, but on keeping a tax rate closer to its current level–with perhaps a symbolic reduction, as in past years, so commissioners can claim (deceptively) that they reduced taxes–would you still recommend rollback? The question is asked not only in light of Administrator Heidi Petito’s plan to catch up on past needs, but on your own ambitious proposals stated above.
My “ambitious” proposals stated could be funded outside of existing taxpayers pockets. We need to drive commercial growth so they can participate in financing these needs. We also need to discuss impact fees and determine if they are a sufficient amount given the amount of growth and current cost of goods and services.
7. The County Commission has signaled some readiness to scrap the school-concurrency standard that has prevailed for many years—the requirement that development proceed only when there is sufficient capacity in schools to seat students. The commission also appears ready to change the timing on when developers pay impact fees: not up front (as the school district prefers, for planning purposes), but more in a pay-as-you-go approach. Where do you stand on school concurrency, and were you supportive of the commission rolling back the district’s initial ask for a doubling of school impact fees?
I do not support the Commission’s readiness to scrap the school-concurrency plan. I’m disappointed that our Commission proposed it.
I support collecting school impact fees upfront. Impacts fees are a one-time fee on new construction to offset the costs of accommodating new residents who add to our population. It is not common for a county to collect school impact fees on a pay as you go approach. This approach only benefits a developer and not our children or the community. Funds are needed upfront to plan and build new schools.
I am not supportive of the commission rolling back the district’s ask for the doubling of those fees. We’ve unfortunately waited too long to increase the school impact fee. However, even at the doubled amount, the fee is in line with surrounding counties and needed due to recent, higher costs associated with building schools.
Our local government sends a poor message as to how we value our children. Our kids stand on dark street corners, in the grass, with no bus stops to attend over-crowded schools that contain classrooms in portables. At some point, we need to stand up for our children and move past this impact fee debacle and fund new schools.
8. Evaluate the county’s long-term plan to save its beaches. It signed on to a $100 million beach renourishment plan for just 2.6 miles of beach just in Flagler Beach. The cost is expected to increase by the tens of millions of dollars, with half that cost over the next four or five decades the county’s responsibility. It is now demonstrably certain that sea levels are rising, and Flagler’s revenue sources for additional beach protection are tapped out. How do you propose to pay for the next repairs should a hurricane like Matthew or even a strong storm with damaging surges strike during your tenure? How is beach protection not a losing battle?
Beach renourishment is a necessary component of any county that contains a coastline. Many of our neighboring counties have coastal management teams that provide risk assessments to ensure that they are proactively planning and implementing to be prepared for any storm surges where erosion is probable. We need to consider staffing solely for this matter, so that we can develop a long-term plan to protect the coastline. Perhaps in doing so, we could develop another strategy that isn’t so costly.
As for funding, we will need to offset costs from several sources, including state funding, various grants and tourism taxes; however, I think long term, committing to a $100 million deal without knowing where we will get the funds from in the future, is interesting and warrants further discussion by future commissions.
I’m pleased that we have an established Environmentally Sensitive Land Fund. Also, the Land Acquisition Committee has done a tremendous job prioritizing and securing precious Flagler County lands.
I don’t consider Flagler County to be “succeeding” in environmental protection or preservation in the following areas:
Preservation of trees: A modification to the Comprehensive Code should be considered to preserve more of the existing trees and greenspace within the new developments.
Dune/shoreline preservation: Hurricane Matthew occurred in 2016, in which part of our A1A was destroyed, and yet we still have no long-term plan for protecting our shoreline.
Historical preservation: Our county could be more supportive of our efforts to preserve our history. The county should be proactively identifying historical areas and implementing a review process to make certain that we are protecting these areas, requiring development to take them into consideration when building, and creating tourism centered around them.
Water Pollution- The Florida DEP’s Watershed Evaluation shows that the TMDL for Haw Creek is significantly impaired. Governor DeSantis has made clean water a top priority for Florida. Flagler needs a more proactive commitment to keeping our waterways clean.
You note that “we still have no long-term plan for protecting our shoreline”–a surprising statement considering the multiple efforts, executed and planned, to protect the shoreline, starting with the rebuilding of dunes after Matthew and Irma, then the pending U.S. Army Corps of Engineers project in Flagler Beach, and the county’s own extension of that plan down to the Volusia county line, and further north from the 2.6 miles of the Corps’ project. The original, post-hurricane dunes project was fully funded. The first phase of the U.S. Army Corps project is fully funded. Setting aside the obvious financial burdens ahead for remaining work to be done, how can it be said that there’s no long-term plan?
I would suggest that our county proactively dedicate resources to creating plans to address our shoreline that lie outside of the need or advisement of the U.S. Government. (this is not a novel idea, there are proactive approaches and remedies outside of renourishment that we could be implementing in our community) These plans should also allow the local taxpayers to have a say in how it’s funded down the road.
I would like to reserve passing judgement on Mrs. Petito’s performance until I am involved with her in an official capacity.
Are you suggesting that, despite the familiarity you described with board business, only board members are qualified to have an opinion about the county’s chief executive?
I am suggesting that, any opinion I have at this time, might change after discussing personally, with Mrs. Petitio her role and any challenges she has that are driven by the Commission.
11. With the county’s population exceeding 120,000, where do you stand on the county and its three major cities devising a collaborative public, surface, fixed-route transportation system that goes beyond the county’s current limited operation? How would such a system be paid for?
The current FCPT operation has been a wonderful resource within the community. I would be open to expanding it to include a fixed route system, provided that we continue to offer the door-to-door service that has serviced many elderly and disabled persons in the community. Such transportation systems should be funded by a mix of state, federal grants and passenger fare.
12. The sheriff’s budget plus the capital budget have risen rapidly, with the continuing addition of deputies, the new operations center, and other substantial capital additions such as a new mobile command center and a boat. The budget proposal requests another expansion this year. In light of persistently low crime rates, where do you place the point at which expansions in budgets and ranks outweigh the benefits, or become more burdensome on the county’s overall budget than necessary? Is there such a thing as overfunding police?
It is always possible to overfund a government operation of any kind. As to the “persistently low crime rates”, they are perhaps an indicator that the addition of deputies and their presence in our community works to ward off crime. Sheriff Staly recently stated that crime is down 52 percent since he came into office; however, we are starting to see a rise of fentanyl in the community as well as an increase in violent crime, including murder. I would suspect that most of the community appreciates our local Government’s commitment to using our tax dollars to ensure that we remain safe. However, I am open to exploring the idea of a one-time impact fee assessed to new development to offset the costs of adding new policing services. This idea was recently mentioned by the Palm Coast City Council and is one that holds merit and should be investigated further.
Regarding the expansion in budget, the Sheriff has made a solid argument as to the need for additional funding. Our starting pay for an officer is roughly $43,000 a year, while surrounding counties start at $50,000. While we could argue that those counties have significantly more crime and thus a need for higher pay, the reality is Flagler is losing deputies to those counties because it’s difficult to remain competitive as an employer, in these tough economic times, in which everyone is seeking additional income.
As to the capital additions, unfortunately, we are currently a county without a proper operations center for our officers and due to prolonged planning, we are now tasked with building one amid extreme inflation. Regardless of the reasons why we find ourselves in this predicament, we must establish these resources which are necessary to have a proper police force in place. Going forward, we can evaluate this budget and opportunities to fund it as mentioned above.
13. Have you ever been charged with a felony or a misdemeanor anywhere in Flagler, Florida or the United States (other than a speeding ticket), or faced a civil action other than a divorce, but including bankruptcies, or faced any investigative or disciplinary action through a professional board such as the bar or a medical board? If so, please explain, including cases where charges or claims did not lead to conviction or disciplinary action.
You said you’ve never been charged with a misdemeanor. In fact, in 2000, you were charged in St. Johns County with a second degree misdemeanor for driving on a suspended or revoked license, you pleaded no contest, and adjudication was withheld. Why had your license been suspended or revoked (is it still?) and why did you withhold that information in your answer?
I didn’t realize that was a misdemeanor. It’s been so long and it was traffic for failing to pay a fine for speeding in a timely manner. I thought your question said speeding ticket and it was for that technically. I got pulled over for speeding. It was suspended for failure to pay a fine for speeding. If you go look you will see the clerk got the check a day after it was sue but that’s back when you couldn’t pay online. So, I got pulled over for speeding and wasn’t aware and procedurally there was nothing they could do but give me the ticket and charge me because I got pulled over. I actually forgot about it and it was for speeding. Not revoked, suspended.
Note: Pennington opponents have been circulating a false allegation that she was evicted. An eviction notice was filed and dismissed within two days in 2007, as a result of the Penningtons withholding rent payment, on counsel’s advice, because the landlord failed to carry out required repairs.
14. You have knowingly accepted $2,000 in political contributions from Chris Herrera and Michael Goodman (Goodman’s contribution coming by way of his LLC, Honkey-Tonk Woman), even though Herrera and Goodman as co-owners of Captains BBQ are in litigation against the county. How is accepting those contributions appropriate since, if elected, you will be making strategic decisions regarding that lawsuit, presumably to protect the interests of the county–and taxpayers–rather than those of the business suing the county? Looking beyond the particulars of the case, how does accepting such contributions not raise questions about your judgment?
During the primary, I accepted campaign donations from many Flagler County residents who felt that a change was necessary in the district four seat. At no time, did any of these residents ask for favors in exchange for these donations, they simply wanted competent representation and were confident that I was the better candidate and had our community’s best interests in mind. Per the clerk of court records, the lawsuit referenced above is set for a jury trial where it appears the decisions will be made regarding the matter by the residents of Flagler County. However, should this issue come before the Commission, my allegiance is to the taxpayers of Flagler and whatever is in the best interest of our county. I am focused on serving the public, not any special interests.
Regarding judgment: My current opponent accepted donations from a developer out of Miami Lakes. Previous candidates and elected officials have accepted donations from many in the community that eventually have had business in front of a local governing board. There is a process for full transparency by an elected official, including disclosure of any financial relationships and recusal from voting, if necessary. I know my own judgment well enough to know that this, and any other contribution I received, would not influence it. I will always have the residents’ best interests at heart and my vote and comments will reflect that.
Originally published on July 25, 2022.