As the Palm Coast City Council was discussing Mayor David Alfin’s proposed quadrupling of his and city council members’ salaries, to $46,470 and $44,670, two weeks ago, Council member Nick Klufas was confused. He had reason to be. He thought the salary increase was not the council’s decision, but that of voters, who would approve or reject it on the ballot in November. Alfin and the city attorney corrected him.
They’re right. The city charter since its inception in 1999 has given the council the power to award itself whatever salary it chooses, with one exception for the founding council. But the charter’s language until 2018 had been confusing enough to create ambiguities, by the city’s own official admission–or a “loophole,” as one resident complained to the council in 2003–leaving even council members thinking that salaries could only be changed by charter, with voters’ approval.
The discussion two weeks ago, and residents’ outrage at the proposal, was itself a replica of the controversy that has shadowed every attempt by the council, successful or not, to increase council members’ and the mayor’s salary going back to the earliest years of the city. After initially setting them in 2000, the council has successfully increased salaries just twice–including a 400 percent increase in 2007–and failed once, in 2016.
The last time the council changed the charter, with voters’ approval in 2018, may have complicated matters even as it sought to clarify them, if by omission.
At the time, the charter included the original language giving the council the power to change salaries by ordinance, without voter approval: “The Council members and Mayor shall receive compensation as established by ordinance.” That’s clear enough. But the charter also included wording that created ambiguities: “The Mayor of the City of Palm Coast, Florida shall receive the annual salary of $11,400.00… Each member of the City Council of the City of Palm Coast, Florida not serving as Mayor, shall receive the annual salary of $9,600.00.”
Those provisions, buttressed with the stony word “shall,” gave reasonable readers of the charter the sense that the charter itself would have to be changed to change those figures: yes, the council could vote itself a raise, but that decision would have to then go before the voters for ratification. In other words, it would be just like when the Legislature approves an amendment to the Florida Constitution. It can approve it–but only for inclusion on the next November ballot, for voter ratification.
The council was well aware of the confusion–and legal liability, if only by inference. So in 2018, under the guise of cleaning up a lot of language in the charter, it removed the two clauses that explicitly stated council members’ salaries. But it did so without voters’ knowledge, even though the council at the time had had a specific discussion about that portion of the charter needing clarification.
In fact, an initial draft of one of the charter amendments that was to go before voters was titled “CHARTER AMENDMENT TO UPDATE OUTDATED AND TO CLARIFY AMBIGUOUS CHARTER PROVISIONS.” And its wording was intended clearly to let voters know that salary increases would be set by the council regardless. The question posed to voters at referendum was to be: “Shall the Charter be amended to delete obsolete sections, to replace the current legal boundary description with a general boundary statement, to establish Council salaries by resolution, and to revise requirements for consistency with state laws.” (See the proposed language as presented to the council at a February 2018 workshop here.)
That exact language made it to the ballot as Amendment 1–minus six key words: “to establish Council salaries by resolution.” (See the ballot as voters saw it, here.) What 80 percent of Palm Coast voters approved was boilerplate language that had omitted the one clause that would have settled the ambiguity for good.
Instead, it did exactly what Klufas himself warned fellow-council members in 2018 when they were discussing the language of that very amendment: “So one concern I had was, no context around ‘to establish Council salaries by resolution.'” he said during a workshop back then. “I know how that is going to be portrayed by people who are reading that: they’re trying to slip something in there so that they can give themselves as much money as they want.” Klufas, back then, just as was the case two weeks ago, was under the impression that salaries could only be changed by charter.
“What’s in the charter is the established scale of salaries,” Steven Nobile, one of the council members at the time, said. (Klufas is the only current member of the council who was on the council in 2018, when his fellow council members were Bob Cuff, Nobile, Heidi Shipley and Mayor Milissa Holland.)
“Perhaps we put the timeframe that we’re not allowed to modify our council salaries,” Klufas said. That was also in there, Nobile said–to the extent that salaries established by ordinance don’t kick in until after the next-scheduled election (so in effect some of the sitting council members who are not up for election are giving themselves a raise).
Jim Landon, the city manager at the time, then said the clauses specifying council salaries should be junked: “It actually falls under the ‘out of date,’ because the issue is the charter has today the original salaries, they have been amended at least once,” he said, incorrectly: the charter, as published in 2018 (see a copy, uploaded in 2011, here). “So that figure is no longer relevant in the charter and and that’s what Marilyn’s suggestion is, anything that’s not relevant or not just out of date, it should be deleted.” Marilyn Crotty was the consultant the city hired to shepherd the council and the community through proposed charter revisions. But it is notable that charter language was changed after the salary increase in 2007, without voter approval, to update those salary figures.
“You just leave the salary out all together because you’re not changing or proposing to change how salaries are established,” Landon said.
“I think it’s pretty direct and to revise requirements for consistency with state laws,” Holland said. “I’m thinking from a citizens perspective, even myself, I would walk into the voting booth and go, I don’t even know what they’re asking except for revised to be consistent with state law.” Holland was precisely right: the amendment would enable the removal of language, ostensibly to clarify the section about salaries. But by also removing the “establish Council salaries by resolution” portion of the proposed charter amendment, it erased the council’s chance to explicitly gain voters’ approval for that part of the charter.
Put another way: the section on salaries in the charter up until 2018 was problematic because, read in its entirety, it was contradictory. By simply asking voters “to remove outdated portions of the Charter,” which was the final language of the question posed on the ballot, the council ended up excluding the portion of the charter it wanted most to clarify. The deception was not malicious and appeared not even to have been intended. But the effect was no less deceptive.
And that’s what led to Klufas saying rather adamantly what he said at the meeting two weeks ago as speaker after speaker was lambasting the salary increase proposal: “Mr. Mayor, can you preempt some of this by explaining that the raise would actually be on the ballot, and that we’re just voting on an ordinance that would bring verbiage forward that would allow us to vote on actually getting it on the next ballot, before we have a bunch of speakers just kind of reiterating the facts that aren’t true.” He then made it even more explicit: “It’s in our city charter. The vote that occurred I guess last business meeting was actually just to get the verbiage for an ordinance to bring in front of city council for us to have another vote that would potentially get it onto the ballot. But since it’s an amendment to the city charter, that has to be brought before the electorate as whole, which would be everyone at the ballot box in 2022. So there wasn’t actually a confirmation of a vote that we were going to give ourselves a raise. That would still absolutely have to come before the entire elected body during the next official election.”
Absolutely: Klufas wasn’t remembering 2018 wrong. He was merely misinterpreting, as voters would misinterpret, the very discussion he had taken part in, because he thought what he and his colleagues had agreed to was to remove “establish Council salaries by resolution” from the charter.
It took the city attorney–who was not representing the city in 2018–several tries to correct Klufas: “I want to clarify what I said–that it is going to be an ordinance that comes before the city council,” and only an ordinance, the attorney said. Still, it prompted Klufas to wonder what was going on: he had not realized the explicit salary set out in the charter had been removed, “because when we did a charter review, back in 2018, I’m pretty sure that–” Klufas tried to say, before Alfin interrupted him. “I’m also just conveying this to the public so they understand where I’m coming from to there’s no deception on my part here,” Klufas said.
But that charter amendment in 2018 had had that very effect–on a sitting council member. As several audience members indicated two weeks ago, it had had a similar effect on voters, too, essentially undermining the legitimacy of the council’s authority to set its own salaries–and now undermining Alfin’s proposal.
The charter review in 2018 had been a priority of Nobile’s and Shipley’s, but they were thwarted at almost every turn by a council majority that wasn’t interested in ideas Nobile and Shipley favored, like expanding the council’s membership or, ironically, as Shipley wanted, raising salaries substantially. Shipley and Nobile had also sought to have a charter review committee of citizens appointed. The council and Landon thwarted that, too. But one of the amendments that did make it to voters, and was approved, calls for the establishment of an advisory committee in future reviews.
Alfin at the end of a meeting the evening of March 1 unexpectedly proposed that council salaries should be raised 365 percent–from $9,600 to $44,670 a year for council members, and from $11,400 to $46,470. The council voted 3-1, with Council member Eddie Branquinho in dissent, to move forward with the proposal, which means having the attorney draft a resolution that will come before the council for two public hearings and votes in coming weeks.
When Palm Coast was established in 1999, council members and the mayor had no salaries. The charter at the time (see the original charter here) included the same language in the charter today, about the council’s authority to “receive compensation as established by ordinance,” kicking in only following the next election, but also included an exception: the founding council could give itself a salary of up to $1,200 per year, and up to $1,800 for the mayor.
That language also created confusion, implying that the council would be limited to a salary range in future years.
In April 2003, the council voted 3-2 to increase salaries 400 percent, to $6,000 for council members and $7,500 for the mayor. Then-Mayor Jim canfield was opposed to the increase. “Legally, this council can raise the salary,” Canfield was quoted as saying in a News-Journal report at the time. “Morally, I don’t think we should raise the salary.” Jack Nugent, a resident addressing the council, argued that the council was maneuvering around the charter, as he, too, was under the impression a salary change could only occur by charter. He accused the council of profiting from a loophole, to the displeasure of Jon Netts, a council member at the time. Netts voted for the increase, and would vote for another one four years later. Another council member in the 2003 vote, Tom Lawrence, who’d been appointed to a vacated seat, made the argument Alfin is making today: that higher salaries were necessary to attract higher-caliber candidates. Like Alfin, Lawrence produced no evidence of salary and effect.
The council voted in March 2007 to increase council members’ pay from $6,000 to $9,600 and from $7,500 to $11,400 for the mayor. It was the last time the council successfully raised salaries. In inflation-adjusted dollars, the council members’ salary today is equivalent to $7,000 ($8,331 for the mayor) in 2007 dollars. Put another way, if the salary had kept up with inflation, it would have to be $13,136 for council members and $15,600 for the mayor.
In 2015, then-Council member Heidi Shipley called for council members to have the same health benefits as city employees, along with piggy-backing on equivalent raises awarded city employees. Shipley also proposed raising salaries to half the median household income in the city. Steven Nobile called for a 324 percent pay increase. He proposed that council salaries should be in proportion to the salary county commissioners were making at the time, discounted for the population difference–in other words, 80 percent of the commissioners’ salary, since Palm Coast had 80 percent of the county’s population. At that time, that worked out to a council member’s salary of $40,700. (You can hear that discussion here.)
The council had a few discussions over the months, when Nobile was proposing to put the question to referendum. In 2016 the council voted for a token raise of $228 (a year) on first reading, then on second reading the proposal died.
The council will consider Alfin’s proposal for the first time next Tuesday, April 5, potentially casting a vote on the first of two readings of the ordinance to enact raises after November. The proposal will not go before voters.