Palm Coast Mayor David Alfin, first elected in July 2021 to complete the term of Melissa Holland, will run for a full four-year term in an Aug. 20 primary that has drawn four other candidates so far. In 2021, Alfin won in a six-way race, taking 36 percent of the vote.
His absence from the list of declared candidates had begun to draw speculations about his intentions, though he left no doubt about those in an interview on Tuesday, as he drove back from Tallahassee, where he had formalized a request for “somewhere in the neighborhood of a third of a billion dollars” for Palm Coast. Last year Palm Coast, other cities and the county netted around $100 million in legislative appropriations, taking advantage of Rep. Paul Renner’s speakership–Renner represents Palm Coast–and Sen. Travis Hutson’s seniority. Both are in their last year, what will be Palm Coast and Flagler County’s last chance for many years to harvest as much pork from the local legislative delegation.
It was partly for that reason that Alfin delayed his announcement, which he will make at a local chamber event following his delivery of the annual State of the City Address at the Palm Coast Community Center Thursday evening. The coincidence is of course not unintentional: Alfin, whose timing can at times lack subtlety, is using the State of the City as a launching pad. He will file papers with the city clerk Thursday morning.
“I was elected to do a job and I have been struggling if you will, with keeping up with the job and thinking about dedicating time to campaigning, which is not what I was elected to do,” Alfin said as he drove back from the state capital. “So I was unwilling to file and start a campaign before I got to a certain point in my term. And the point I decided on was the session that we are now halfway through. Although I won’t wait till the end, my work is now done: I have an incredible record-breaking appropriations ask in place that will secure the financial sustainability, if the right planning is in place, for the future generations of Palm Coast and Flagler County.”
The city council will see substantial turn-over and possibly a turnover of three of its five seats if Alfin loses. Council member Nick Klufas is term-limited, and is running for a County Commission Seat. Council member Ed Danko is completing his first term but has elected to run for a County Commission seat as well, making it certain that those two seats will see new council members. The seats have so far drawn three candidates each (Kathy Austrino, Shara Brodsky and Jamaris Dornan for the District 1 seat held by Danko, and Dana Stancel, Ray Stevens and Andrew Werner for the District 3 seat held by Klufas). If the mayor’s seat turns over, that will leave Theresa Pontieri and Cathy Heighter, each at their respective two-year mark in their term, as the council’s senior members. It would be the council with the least accumulated experience or institutional memory in the city’s history.
Alfin aside, the four candidates for mayor are Peter Johnson, Alan Lowe, John McDonald and Mike Norris. Lowe has run twice for mayor–in 2020 and 2021, polling just under 27 percent each time, then for a council seat, polling 28 percent in the primary and 32 percent in the runoff in which Pontieri defeated him with 68 percent of the vote. For the others, it’s their first race.
Alfin is no longer the unknown he was in 2021. He has been more of a lightning rod in a three-year tenure that’s been significantly busier even than Holland’s first term, which had itself ramped up the city’s administrative energy from the previous years, when the council was in a far more deferential mode, looking to the administration to set the agenda. That’s no longer the case. Accelerated development–though still nothing on the scale of 2004-06–, flooding, huge financial windfalls in state appropriations, the re-writing of the city’s comprehensive plan (the city’s long-term development blueprint), a huge raise for council members and Alfin’s management of the council itself–an unruly bunch in the early goings, a calmer bunch now–have dominated that agenda.
“I believe that the bar on the mayor’s seat has been raised in terms of the number of commitments that I’ve made since I took office,” Alfin said. “I think that’s important because I’ve always said from the beginning: the mayor’s job is not in City Hall at a desk. The mayor’s job is out in the streets. And I’m pretty sure I have broken anybody else’s record for the number of events to attend, but not just to attend. That’s the place where you will find out what’s on the residents’ mind. And it’s not easy. You’ve got to hear the bad stuff with good stuff. And generally there’s more bad things than good things, but it gives you a priority list to go back to staff and and work on.”
In a press interview Alfin had let loose an unfelicitous phrase, describing a corps of recurring critics at City Council meetings and on social media as a “loudmouth minority.” The critics took the phrase to heart and turned it into their slogan, imprinting it on t-shirts some of them now wear when they address the council. “I thought that was very creative, the t-shirt,” Alfin said, conceding, however, that the phrase may not have been delivered as intended. Still: he doesn’t see the controversies as much of a negative.
“Development itself is a controversial topic,” he said. Those are the items that have brought out the standing-room-only crowds at council meetings. “If you’re not willing to stir it up and make some controversy, I’m not sure you can make progress. You can sit and and try to appease everybody. I don’t believe that’s realistic, and I don’t believe that ever gets you to a finish line.” That finish line remains more rhetorical than defined: there are no stated end points in Palm Coast’s expansion.
Asked if he felt he or the city had overshot on development on his watch, he argued the reverse: “We have seriously undershot the original ITT plan for which the current comprehensive plan was seeded from,” he said, saying the original ITT plan had called for over 200,000 residents.
Actually, when first proposed in the late 1960s and as the first houses were going up in the early 1970s, the plan was for three times that number: “By the turn of the century, according to plans of the I.T.T. Development Corporation.” The New York Times reported on Jan. 6, 1974, in an article datelined Palm Coast,” a city with a population equal to New Orleans–about 600,000–will be situated on the banks of the Matanzas.” As of January, Palm Coast’s population is just over 100,000.”
Alfin wants the ITT plan shelved for good and replaced by an original, new comprehensive plan that the city is developing now. “Let’s all decide together, what’s the best direction and what’s the best finish line forward for the future generations?” Alfin said. “That’s a big step. That’s a big deal. Very few cities will do that. Because development is controversial. And I guarantee you that my act of opening up the Comp plan will create lots of controversy, but not for the sake of controversy but for the sake of listening to the residents, allowing them a chance to engage and making them a part of the process that decides the future of a city that we love.”
That may be so, but the comprehensive plan is going from an unwavering premise: that the city will not only finish developing the more than 8,000 remaining ITT lots within its old boundaries, so-called “infill” lots, but will almost double the city’s size with an expansion westward. The doubling is not in question: Palm Coast already did that, by annexation, almost 15 years ago. The council also approved massive planned developments–Developments of Regional Impacts, or DRIs–west of U.S. 1, that have only now began to sprout in fractions, before they turn to thousands of homes. Alfin, who is working on a master’s degree in urban planning from the University of Florida, says the west side–his stated legacy–will not replicate old Palm Coast, but will be a fresh blueprint that residents will draw through the comprehensive plan process.
Is the mayor courting controversy for its own sake? “Never,” Alfin said. “But you weigh the ROI. Is this thing going to create more controversy than my return on the investment of the thing that I am promoting?” He mentioned the pay raise he muscled through the council, what amounted to the first serious controversy on his watch, raising council members’ salaries from $9,600 a year to $24,097, a 151 percent increase, and the mayor’s salary from $11,400 to $30,039 a year, a 164 percent increase. He considers it a victory. There appears to be no nexus between the higher pay and the caliber of candidates filing now as opposed to before the raises. But Alfin says it’s there.
“Look at the candidates in another two weeks,” he said, “and then you tell me, by George, you have the youngest, most diverse set of candidates throughout the school board, the county and the city that we have ever had in the history of Palm Coast. So that was my vision. That’s what I was out to conquer. And in two weeks, you’ll see the proof of it.”
But he was quick to note about the four other candidate in his own race for mayor: “Those have nothing to do with what I just said.”
Yes, there’s opposition, and that will continue, Alfin said, but he insists that the opposition remains a minority. This time he doesn’t use the word “loudmouth.” But it might as well be implied. The same people show up at the same meetings, he said. “It’s their right, I encourage it, but that is the majority of public comments that you will hear at every meeting,” Alfin said. “Do I think that this is widespread throughout the community? I do not.” The majority of people–a lot of them new arrivals in a city that’s added 2,500 to 3,000 residents a year in the past few years–are looking to maintain quality of life in the city, but “if they want additional amenities to increase the quality of life, that is going to require some additional growth. As an example, if you want higher scale retail in the area, you’re going to need the buyers to support it, and on and on and on,” Alfin said.
Three years ago Alfin had no experience as an elected official. His first goal at the time was to restore decorum to the council’s proceedings. His other goal was to work with all city departments to understand the functions of the city, and to forge relationships for the city–with land owners, with elected officials in Tallahassee, with investors–to steer it in a post-ITT direction. He concedes that at times, his demeanor may rub people the wrong way. “I’ve got every fault that everybody else out there has. And it could just be an emotional expression,” he said. “When you when you are trying to exemplify leadership, there’s a pressure and there are times when I’m just not perfect. It’s just that plain and simple.”