Flagler Beach City Manager Larry Newsom was back for his first meeting since the mayor asked him to leave one after he tangled verbally, audibly and intimidatingly with a constituent six weeks ago. It was a special meeting Monday evening, set to discuss Newsom’s behavior and future. And it was back on Zoom after a pair of tumultuous in-person meetings.
Rookie Flagler Beach City Commissioner Deborah Phillips was blunt with Newsom: “I know it wasn’t your finest hour at the last month’s commission meeting,” she told him. “But residents, no matter how much they frustrate you, need to be treated with respect. In addition to the meeting, a resident asked me in person to share an unpleasant exchange he had with you at a First Friday event as well. He felt you were trying to provoke an unpleasant exchange by cursing at him and his wife. So my intention is not to terminate your employment at this time, but I would like to see a formal warning written and kept on file during your tenure.”
Other than his own self-flagellations, it was the roughest language Newsom would hear Monday evening. Other commissioners were critical but not nearly as one-sided or publicly humiliating of the 56 year old, as each softened the blows with the perspective of Newsom’s four years as manager–four very successful years that Bryan, elected to the commission with Phillips, called “stellar.”
“Let me keep it simple: I should have kept my mouth shut, and no matter what happened with the public, my job is still to make sure that I look at the betterment of Flagler Beach,” Newsom told commissioners. It was a significant change in tone from previous statements when he defended his actions and his words at the June meeting, saying he’ll always stand up for his staff–or himself. He had no objection to a letter in his file or to being placed on probation. “I can promise you one thing with you listening and everybody else listening,” Newsom said, “it’s not going to happen again. It’s not.”
He also made this explicit: “I am asking for a second chance, I am asking to be put on task. And I’m asking for the board to understand that, and if I’ve embarrassed the board, for that, I apologize, because I really had no intention of embarrassing this board.” He said he’d done a good job of making the board look good over the years, though “it’s amazing how it only takes a couple of months for me to screw things up, and I did.”
While Phillips got the commission to agree to drafting a letter, she did not get agreement to have the letter placed in Newsom’s file, other than from one other commissioner (Belhumeur). Rather, City Attorney Drew Smith will write the letter, summarizing the discussion that took place Monday, and submit it to commissioners for review at their next meeting. Only then they’ll decide whether the letter should end up in Newsom’s file or not. Some commissioners thought the letter redundant, not only because Newsom’s next evaluation can serve the same purpose, but because Monday’s special meeting made the point.
“I think that Larry recognizes that his actions were unprofessional and uncalled for,” Bryan said. “But I also would like to point out that we’re all not without error, without mistakes, and we all make mistakes. I think that it’s also incumbent on the commission to ensure as we have done now that the situations that occurred during that particular meeting don’t occur again, in order to provoke or encourage anyone to act in any unprofessional manner. But I know that Mr. Newsom–I’ve talked to him and he said he admits he should have been a little bit more professional, and I think he’s very sincere about that.”
“I’m done groveling, unless I need to any more,” he said, answering Commission Chairman Jane Mealy when she asked him if he was done. He later said that overall he’d rubbed only a few people the wrong way since taking the job in January 2016, apologizing again, as he would again and again over the 50-minute duration of the combined workshop and special meeting.
“I’m sure Larry’s learned from each of those episodes,” Belhumeur said, citing two recent “interventions” provoked by Newsom’s behavior. Newsom has had numerous health issues, and his drinking has been a concern for commissioners. But he’s never lost their affection (at least that of the majority) nor, for the most part, their respect and admiration for the job he’s done. On two occasions he said he wouldn’t blame his missteps on his health. “I’m going to blame it on being stupid, and I apologize for that,” he said.
“Your apology is accepted,” Belhumeur, who had been Newsom’s harshest critic until Phillips’s arrival, told him. He noted that most of the feedback from residents over the years commended Newsom as the most professional manager in the city’s history (words echoed by Mealy a few weeks ago). Phillips said she received “a lot of emails” for and against Newsom–a bit of an overstatement. After numerous requests for the emails, she provided a handful, including some by a frequent crank (two of them about the fire department, not Newsom) and two from Paul Harrington, the former commission candidate and a critic of Newsom, though Harrington’s criticism was mild compared to Phillips’s.
One email in Phillips’s batch, from Mary Louk, was sent to the whole commission for reading at Monday’s meeting–in support of Newsom. “I do believe it is time for a restart, again on both sides,” Louk said. “I do not believe that we can put this all at Larry’s feet when others are argumentative, attacking and confrontational. They too share in getting us to this point. There should be standards and expectation on how Larry and his staff are talked to and treated if we expect them to always treat others with respect. That goes both ways.” Another public comment was more critical, calling for the apology and explanation.
Commissioner Eric Cooley wasn’t interested in zooming Golgotha. “When we hired you we hired an executive, four years ago, and we also hired a human,” he said. “To think that we can go past four years without any type of hiccup I think is unrealistic. I think this type of thing, just like any relationship that you have, is going to have ups and downs and things come up. This is just part of the job. This is a standard employee management. You’ve got a great track record. This doesn’t wash any of that away.” He continued: “As far as notes to file or anything like that goes, my opinion on that is, it’s not necessary, and I’ll tell you why, because this entire process is documented and is public record. There’s no need to add anything additional.” He proposed that Newsom, being an executive, could come up with his own improvement plan, and execute it. “This is a one-time conversation is probably the most blunt way of stating this particular issue.” Cooley nevertheless voted with the majority to consider the letter Smith will write.
Mayor Linda Provencher said any specific concerns could be covered in Newsom’s coming evaluation, the timing of which is to be discussed later. The mayor then proffered a defense of the manager, particularly of the motives that tend to get him in trouble. “Larry has been great for this city. I also appreciate how he looks after our employees,” Provencher said, “because let’s face it: our employees shouldn’t be yelled at by residents. They shouldn’t be yelled at when their water bill goes up, they shouldn’t be yelled up when their garbage isn’t picked up, and I know they appreciate it when he stands up for them, because the buck stops with him. So rather than yelling at our employees and supervisors, Larry will try and make things right for anybody. But I do appreciate that–if you want to yell at me, it’s part of the $8,000 I get paid a year, but to yell at a city employee, I will never accept that, and I am glad that he stands up for them.”