The Flagler Tiger Bay Club on Wednesday evening hosted a rare covid-era, in-person political forum in the first of two such evenings ahead of the Nov. 3 election. Wednesday’s panels included the five candidates for two County Commission seats and the two candidates for Flagler County Sheriff. There was no audience at the Government Services Building’s meeting room, lending the proceedings a rather funereal feel that the candidates’ insistent humorlessness did not help.
“This is not a debate,” Howard Holley, who emceed the forum, said, starting it off. “Candidates cannot ask questions of each other or direct comments to their opponents. The purpose of this forum is to help our neighbors, our friends, our fellow Flagler voters to make an informed choice before they cast their vote.”
But the restrictive and genteel format made it difficult for the forum to be more than brief infomercials for each candidate, since each got to make statements that went unchallenged either by their opponent or opponents, or by those asking the questions. (Holley merely introduced the panels and provided the required station identification at the top of the hour: the forum was broadcast live on WNZF and webcast by the county and on Facebook.) Different questions were posed to different candidates even within the same round, so a voter could not gauge or contrast a candidate’s answers with those of his or her opponent’s.
Each panel was limited to barely 20 minutes, with questions posed by Democratic, Republican and independent members of the Tiger Bay club. The questioners, all eminently courteous, were Teldra Jones, vice president of the Democratic Women’s Club of Flagler County, Gary Walsh, an independent and founding member of Flagler’s Tiger Bay, Walker Douglas, a member of the Young Executives, and Gail Wadsworth, the former Republican Clerk of Court.
First up were Republican Andy Dance and Democrat Corinne Hermle, who are vying to replace two-term County Commissioner Charlie Ericksen, who has opted not to run again. Dance is ending 12 years on the school board halfway through his fourth term. (His first term was just two years as he was completing the term of a board member who’d died in office.) Hermle , an environmental consultant with the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, ran for the Palm Coast City Council two years ago, polling third in a three-way race eventually won by Eddie Branquinho.
“This is a whole new animal, and I am eager to state my case to be Flagler County commissioner,” Dance said of the new role he’s aspiring to. He outlined his Flagler pedigree and his aims–smart growth, a better business climate, and protecting the environment. Hermle spoke of her candidacy as giving voters a choice, because voters “deserve the option to have a board with a variety of viewpoints and voices” that will discuss growth management, how tax dollars are spent, long-range planning and the type of “community we want to have 10, 15, 20, 30 years from now.”
Dance and Hermle have the same disposition, which will serve either of them well on the increasingly impulsive commission: analytical, non-ideological, wonkily governance-oriented and drama-free. So it was no surprise when Hemle said “I have a lot of similarities with Andy” when answering a question on priorities, as both answered questions in different words but trending to the same aims. But in a subtle dig at Dance’s mention of Flagler getting its share of the 300,000 people a year who move into the state, Hermle noted the stresses development and the environment itself are placing on natural resources, such as the increasing salinity of the aquifer (caused in part by over-exploitation, in part by rising seas).
“So as we continue to add people to this county, as we continue to build houses and all that,” Hermle said, “these are problems that are going to hit us years from now. We’re either going to have to work on major infrastructure improvements that deal with the declining water quality of our surface water bodies, and other projects to deal with the problems we’re having with our local aquifer.” She spoke more generally of making Flagler County “a maker space, that we could get artisans and other small inventors and other small businesses here, that we can give them the tools to help them branch out.” A variation of the same words is used by almost every candidate running for every county and municipal office in every election.
Dance then got a question better asked if he’d been running again for the school board member, not a county commissioner–what would “confront” the significant rise in school costs from covid-related matters, and the influx of new students. Those aren’t matters the county can address, let alone divert its own funds for. “We don’t want to cross lines,” Dance said, speaking of respecting each agency’s “lanes” (a term quickly made popular by the new school superintendent, Cathy Mittelstadt). He noted the fear of coming cuts for all agencies, then turned the question to his advantage: “There’s a good history of inter-local cooperation with the school district between the county and the school district. I think it’s a benefit to have a former school board member on the county commission to help facilitate that conversation and add some expertise to those discussions.”
Hermle was asked what she’d do to make up the loss in tourism-tax revenue, and what she’d do to account for budget reductions, though that tax only feeds into the tourism department, not the county’s operational coffers.
The three panelists for the other County Commission seat sat on the right side of Holley, awaiting their turn: Incumbent Republican Donald O’Brien, and Paul Anderson and Denise Calderwood, both of whom are running as independents, or candidates with no party affiliation. Anderson made a point of stressing that the “independent” label is a misnomer, as opposed to NPA–though, in effect, his NPA label is also just as much of a misnomer: “I’m a registered Republican, have been a registered Republican since I was able to vote,” he said. In effect, adopting the NPA label while remaining a Republican (it’s entirely legal) allowed him to skip a primary fight against O’Brien, a fight he was unlikely to win, and appear on the ballot as having no affiliation with the GOP, in a county where independents form a quarter of the registered electorate.
“Be that as it may, the fact that I am a Republican doesn’t make a difference about how I think that we should be governed as a county,” he said. He sees “our political class in this county cater to people that don’t even live here. And I think that needs to change. I witnessed on Monday a situation where the residents of Flagler County did not receive standing about a development that was going on right in their backyard. I think that’s a travesty. I think our residents have a voice, they need to have a voice.”
Anderson’s claim was misleadingly incomplete: he was referring to Monday’s County Commission hearing on The Gardens development where residents opposing the development were not given legal standing. But it sounds more dire than it was: “This is for the organization to participate as a party whereby it has the same time allocation as the applicant. It does not otherwise affect its ability to participate,” County Attorney Al Hadeed explained. All those residents who wanted to address the commission did so. “Regardless of party status, any individual is permitted to offer whatever comments or input they desired. Also, Mr. Tanner was given status as a representative of an organization under the rules of the Commission.” (John Tanner is the opponents’ attorney.) The opponents’ testimonies appear to have swayed the commission to table the issue until mid-October.
Calderwood, echoing Anderson’s opening statement, spoke of the need to restore “decorum” to the County Commission (where Joe Mullins called fellow-commissioners names during a meeting earlier this month, and where two of his allies on the commission, including O’Brien, refused to censure him). Calderwood, who’s run for a commission seat several times, described herself as a “lifelong candidate” who’s had her name “everywhere in Flagler County, just not as a county commissioner, and I would love for the citizens to actually take me seriously, and we can hold people accountable.”
But Calderwood, too, was asked a question better directed at a school board member: whether school resource officers were necessary. “When I was a school resource officer the kids were allowed to have guns in their cars,” she said. “They’re doing an excellent job. What I think should change is, a little bit more officer friendly, which I was at the time, some people still call me Deputy Denise, when they see me 25 years later.” She was also asked about development in the county, saying Town Center in Palm Coast should be the entire county’s “pride and joy,” not just Palm Coast’s.
But, characteristically for Calderwood, she chided Douglas, an executive with Douglas Development–the developer of apartment complexes in Town center–for building apartments that are too costly for local renters. “The rates that you have are not affordable. The average social security check is $774, the disability check is $774, those apartment complexes that are here, the average rate is $1,200 a month, and you have to have $3,000 cost to move in, so those families are still remaining homeless.”
O’Brien played up his record as a first-term incumbent, saying he was part of the commission that enacted recovery initiatives after Hurricanes Matthew and Irma, and that he never voted for a property tax rate increase in his four years. (O’Brien is accurate: he was in dissent in the 3-2 votes in September 2018 that raised the property tax rate. He has approved flat rates, which nevertheless raised taxes–just not tax rates–for remaining above roll-back.) Wadsworth, prefacing her question with the fact that O’Brien did not vote to censure Mullins, asked him how he’d bring back decorum. He said the commission was “on the right path.” He added: “I just want to clarify. I was very specific in my comments, but I specifically did not vote for a resolution of censure because I felt that it was a document that had no weight of law and no penal effect whatsoever. But I felt that my words and my comments were, you know, just as strong as a resolution would have been and got the job done in terms of communicating how I felt.”
The final panel featured incumbent Republican Sheriff Rick Staly and Democrat Larry Jones, the retired sergeant who spent his career at the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office, and who challenged Staly in a losing cause four years ago–when Staly hadn’t yet established himself as one of the more popular, least scandal-ridden sheriffs in a quarter century: he’s the first incumbent sheriff not to face a primary challenge in at least that time span. The two sat as the other forum participants’ only audience in the first two thirds of the evening, but on different sides of the chamber, the ocean of empty seats between them reflecting a divide their segment would only accentuate.
Jones spoke of the need to invest in youths today “to keep them here in Flagler County so they can make a difference for us. So my pledge is, to make a better Flagler County, we have to keep the kids here in Flagler County instead of putting them in jail.” Staly, sounding like Reagan’s “Morning in America” ad but for law enforcement, ran on his record–crime down 47 percent since he took office, “the lowest crime rate since 1995.” He said he restored pride in the agency, making it a recommended place to work, and that there was more of it to do. Later, he noted a 40 percent drop in use-of-force incidents on his watch. (The agency’s annual use-of-force analyses are here.)
Asked what he’d do in the wake of that 47 percent drop, Jones said he would continue the sheriff’s progress and open the jail to entrepreneurs to speak with inmates and help line up jobs for them. He said he’d have ministers speak with inmates to redirect them from crime.
A questioner asked Staly what steps he’d taken to “positively affect race relations in our community.” He said a lot was done, though it can still improve. He said local marches protesting the death of George Floyd were peaceful. “My deputies and I were out there with the marchers, we handed out water, made sure they could cross the street safely.” He described an internship program with Bethune Cookman University and promoting Blacks in the agency. “We’re making up for many, many years for lack of communication and interaction with the minority community,” he said. Staly called the current wave of police brutality “absolutely atrocious for what we’re seeing across the country,” terming it “criminal, and where I’ve seen it occur the most is in agencies that have not modernized, have not been accredited, have not followed good practices in policing.”
Jones, answering a question about bridging gaps between law enforcement and the community, he said he wants deputies to engage, make contact with all homeless individuals, contact their families “to see what we can do to help them out.” He added, “community is crying out, and it’s crying out saying, the only time we see law enforcement is when they’re here to arrest someone, and it shouldn’t be that way. We should be able to stand by and see Officer Friendly coming down and say hey, officer Friendly, how are you doing? And be able to communicate with him. But at this point we can’t do that because they are afraid. They are afraid of law enforcement at this point. So we’ve got to get back involved in that gap and get community involved with law enforcement.” Jones’s assessment echoes a sentiment often heard in many places around the country, but not so much in Flagler–not in any systematic, documented way that would suggest that “the community is crying out.”
There was no handshaking between any of the candidates after the forum: covid saved them from those graces, though there were no elbow bumps, either. They awkwardly bunched up together after the cameras shut off so Tiger Bay’s Danielle Anderson and a reporter could shoot a few pictures.
The second and final night of Tiger Bay’s forum is scheduled for 6 this evening, featuring the candidates for Palm Coast Mayor and City Council seats. Most candidates are expected to participate.
Watch Wednesday’s full forum below.