The Flagler Beach City Commission held its first in-person meeting since March Thursday evening. It did not go well. It had nothing to do with Covid-19, but with City Manager Larry Newsom, whose increasingly erratic, at times confrontational behavior is becoming a major concern for the commission. Commission Chairman Jane Mealy called for a special workshop on June 23 to discuss the issue. Newsom’s future with the city may hinge on it.
The latest incident involves Newsom’s brusque manner toward two constituents who’d addressed their issues to the commission in the usual public comment segment. “It was very wrong, I was very upset about it,” Mealy said. “I called one of the people that he was very rude to, to apologize.” It’s not the first time Newsom’s conduct has raised commissioners’ questions. They contended with a similar issue in April.
Halfway through the public comment segment nearer the beginning of the meeting Thursday, even as Newsom was still engaged in a confrontation with one of the constituents, Mayor Linda Provencher called for a recess, retreated to a back room with Newsom, Police Chief Matt Doughney, Fire Chief Bobby Pace and City Attorney Drew Smith, and asked Newsom to leave. He was due to leave for a week’s vacation today anyway. Mealy had earlier that day suggested to him that he should not attend the meeting, sensing he was not in the best of health.
“I was worried about his health, he seemed agitated, I said why don’t you go ahead, start your vacation now, get your health in order,” the mayor said today, recalling her conversation with Newsom. The manager, Provencher said, “seemed a bit agitated, not very patient with people. I know people can say things and do things that can agitate all of us, but we can’t respond that way.”
Fire Chief Bobby Pace was appointed interim manager today, pending Newsom’s return from vacation. Provencher said that would have taken place regardless, given the time off.
“Linda was very cordial, she said leave and take a vacation you were taking anyway,” Newsom said this afternoon, recalling the meeting in the back room. “Did I do something wrong?” he said he asked her. “She said no, you didn’t, she did say I was a little abrupt with them. Yeah, I was. I said I’m sorry Linda, if I was unprofessional, but the guy made comments from the sidebar. I have a great staff and they have no right to be mistreated, especially by a bunch of folks who come down here for three or four months.”
Mealy described herself as concerned about Newsom. “Of course I am,” she said. “We’re calling a special meeting the night of the 23rd to discuss it, it’s a workshop meeting, if Larry is back, because I want him at that meeting.” She specified that the workshop was “to discuss his behavior.”
The meeting had begun innocuously enough with an update on the dunes-rebuilding project by Al Hadeed, the county attorney, who’s been on a hunt to secure easements along the 2.6-mile stretch of beach to be renourished with colossal amounts of sand. Then began the public comment segment.
Rachel Sensenbach of 2135 South Daytona Avenue described an ongoing problem with flooding in the backyard from stormwater coming down 22nd Street. Saturday’s rains brought waters up to her house’s door and junked up the yard with runoff. The city graded the alley this week, but the property owner is looking for a permanent solution. “We’re putting up with this, it’s damaging our home and then we have all this clean-up in our yard we have to do,” Sensenbach said. She spoke in a soft tone, without hint of accusation or recrimination.
Mealy asked Newsom if he could work with the city engineer to get the situation resolved. “Yes ma’am, I’m doing everything I can,” he said, a shade short of a snap. “Just understand that we are working. You probably have about a $5 million project that’s going to take to cleanup the drainage in Flagler Beach.” Then, turning to Sensenbach, he said: “I know you and I have talked, I’ve talked to your husband, I think it was more in the background. My disappointment is I talk to you, you didn’t talk to me again, you just ran to the 7-Eleven and talked to the commissioner. But that’s beside the point. He is a commissioner and his door is always open, and we are working hard on trying to take care of drainage issues in this city.” He blamed the previous administration for not taking care of the problem.
Newsom and Sensenbach spoke back and forth some more, and when he wryly asked the woman whether she’d be ok with water from her yard going to a neighbor’s yard, a man in the audience told him he was being insulting. “You’re insulting,” Newsom retorted.
The co-owner of a new store in town was next to speak. But Newsom continued what had become a heated sidebar with the man in the audience, when audio of the meeting records Newsom asking the man if he wants to go outside. It’s not clear if all commissioners heard the exchange, though Commissioner Rick Belhumeur did. Mealy had to intervene, catching the man’s attention and implying a request for silence with a “sir. Thank you.”
“He’s asking me if I wanted to go outside,” the man tells Mealy from his seat. Newsom begins to say something but it’s not clear what.
“I’m sorry,” Mealy tells the speaker at the mic. “All right, we’re done?” she asks Newsom and the other man.”
Asked about that exchange this afternoon, Newsom said the man told him that what Newsom was saying was “ridiculous or asinine, I can’t remember exactly, but it was insulting. I’ve been pretty good in holding my temper for quite some time in working in government.” But, he said, “when I have a gentleman from the audience that makes a very insulting comment to me, I’ve been doing this for 25 years, I did tell him if you want to go outside and talk about this in more detail,” he would. “I always start off trying to be as polite as I can but on the same token Im not going to take verbal abuse.”
Audio: The Public Commend Segment
The co-owner of the store finally got to describe her issue, then several other residents spoke, including more complaints about flooding. another property owner takes the mic to speak of flooding issues. Newsom answered several commissioners’ questions.
Then came Helen Kramer, a South Flagler Avenue resident. She described problems with swales and wondered about the “purpose” of the swales. Newsom provided a brief history of the recent swales project–which has drawn recurring complaints from residents–and was affable about it, even humorous. Kramer asked a few more questions to him, and along the way dropped a bit of a broadside of her own.
Swales, a commissioner told her, will only help in rain events, not in major flooding events. In more serious events it’s time to take other measures, Newsom said. “I can tell you, I moved my vehicles,” he told Kramer.
“Well, you know, you have some personal issues, um, apparently,” Kramer tells him, before going on: “But it just seems like we spend an awful lot of money which from the other meetings I’ve attended was to stop the flooding down on Flagler.”
“Rainfall. All we’re trying to do is address rainfall,” Newsom says.
“All right,” Kramer says. He reiterates the difference between mere rain events and more diluvian downpours. He and Kramer continue to go back and forth. Mealy tries to bring back the discussion to the subject at hand. “We’re getting carried away here,” the chairman says.
But then Kramer takes it in another direction: “Just one last question. Everyone in this room has a mask on but you, sir. How do you–what is going on here?”
“I guess I left mine in the car?” Newsom says.
“I know you’ve had fragile health. Wear your mask,” she tells him. It was not a suggestion.
“How do you know I have fragile health?” Newsom says.
“Al right, all right. Larry. Stop,” Mealy says. The woman picked up a box of masks the city was making available for audience members who didn’t have one and took it to Newsom. He didn;t like that. It was then that the mayor called for a recess. The meeting was just past the hour mark. When the meeting resumed at 6:49 p.m., Newsom was gone. In the meantime, Provencher and Newsom had conferred, and Doughney, the police chief, had returned to the meeting room to gather Newsom’s belongings for him.
“All rightie, let’s give this another try,” Mealy said.
Provencher in an interview this afternoon said the special workshop would be “to discuss with Larry what happened and see where we go from here,” and to keep in mind that the commission has two new commissioners in Deborah Phillips and Ken Bryan (Bryan was absent Thursday, on a family emergency), who may have a lot of questions and need for reliable information from the administration to get up to speed.
“I hope that whatever he’s going through he can get past,” Provencher said. “He’s been a great city manager for several years. The employees like him, as far as I know the commissioners like him. I just hope whatever issue he’s got he can come back and lead again.”
This evening, Newsom was not yet aware of the June 23 workshop. He thought the next workshop was to discuss the city’s goals. He said he hadn’t had a vacation in four years.
“I’m not allowed to get sick? I’m 56 years old,” he said. “If my health is that big of an issue and the board doesn’t want to keep me on based on that, I respect their opinion, but they need to hit the rewind button and see what we’ve done since Hurricane Matthew, me and my staff.”
Regarding the exchanges with constituents, he again defended his approach. “I probably would have had the same response if I was at 110 percent. You can’t be rude to people. You can’t. Government employees don’t have to be abused,” he said.
Commissioner Belhumeur was less forgiving today. “I’m pretty fed up. We need a full-time city manager, not one who gets into confrontations with a citizen and embarrasses the entire city in a public meeting,” he said, adding later: “If the commission doesn’t hold Larry accountable, then the commission needs to be held accountable.”