Flagler Beach City Manager William Whitson is giving fireworks producer Ryan Allen until June 9–24 days before the July 4 show off the pier–to provide proof of insurance and sign the $24,000 contract for what Allen said would be a “spectacular” display.
The city manager is providing Ryan the generous leeway despite inexplicable delays and fitful communication from Allen and mounting frustration from some commissioners–some of it more behind the scenes–and from the chairman of the former July 4 committee the commission had appointed last year to.
“We said we would do Fourth of July, if it can be done safely,” Commissioner Eric Cooley said at Thursday’s commission meeting. “This is the guide to have it done safely. This is what everyone agreed on, including us. I have no idea where this stands because we have yet to have a discussion about it. And we’re about a month out.”
By “guide,” Cooley was referring to the July 4 committee’s recommendation that fireworks go ahead, only if sufficient public safety is in place. (An earlier version of this article incorrectly transcribed the word for “guide” as “guy.) He said the same lacking information applies to public safety at this point. “We don’t know if we have all the pieces for safety because chief hasn’t rounded it up yet,” Cooley said, referring to Police Chief Matt Doughney. “The request just went out a little while ago. So we’re a month out. I’m getting concerned. So we had a bad scenario happen.” He was referring to the fireworks fiasco, when the city discovered that it was too late booking Santore in late April for the show, so it had to scramble to find a replacement producer.
“I’m worried that we’re making bad decisions behind the bad scenario that happened or by inaction, we’re still making bad decisions,” Cooley said. “We have tons of bases that we have not covered nor have we even talked about. And these are huge, major issues. They’re not little small things. Some are more important than others. But we spent all this time building the plan. I have zero confidence that the plan is being followed at this point in the game. I have zero confidence that it can be followed because of how the chips are falling.”
Scott Spradley, the Flagler Beach attorney who chaired the July 4 ad hoc committee–which completed its work in January–enumerated to commissioners earlier in the meeting the timeline of unresponsiveness on Allen’s part then recommended to “either put him on the clock and have this thing done immediately, to have a half big fireworks show, or just cancel it.”
The pyrotechnics operator with a modest operation who pledged to provide Flagler Beach’s Independence Day celebration with a “spectacular” show on July 4,
Allen had told the Flagler Beach City Commission he was prepared to do a “spectacular” show in a personal appearance at a special meeting of the commission on May 9, and the commission itself voted unanimously to approve the contract on May 12. The contract was sent to Ryan on May 16, after Ryan walked back his initial pledge to provide a show in line with those produced by Fireworks by Santore since 2011. Ryan said unless the city was prepared to pay up to $60,000, his show will be smaller, and fireworks will not fly as high. The commission decided to stick with that lower-orbit plan. But there’s been no launch since.
“Is this wise to continue down the road blindly?” Cooley asked his colleagues.
“It was our job to approve it. It’s staff’s job to” execute it, Commissioner Jane Mealy said.
“It’s our job to know it’s being done,” Cooley said.
“My staff is all over it,” Whitson told commissioners, seeking to reassure them. “The only thing that’s not tied down is the fireworks.” Otherwise, he said, “all the gears are moving.” There was talk of Whitson presenting all that has been done at the next meeting, or sending a memo, or meeting with commissioners to update them. It’s not clear which of those approaches will be taken. Cooley said he didn’t mind which, but he didn’t want to be blindsided again. “The thing is, is we’ve had stuff catch us off guard on this. I just want to know that that we’re all reading off the same sheet of music,” he said.
The was no question who Cooley was referring to: Whitson. And if there was, Commission Chairman Ken Bryan removed it with sharp candor: “We did direct him to do this,” Bryan said of the city manager. “He falls on his face, we’re going to chew his ass up. I mean, excuse me, but I mean, that’s where we are. I’m going to be realistic about it.”
“I’ve already kind of got a taste of that already, and it ain’t got to July 4,” Whitson said, alluding to behind-the-scenes tensions.
“But we as the decision makers also need to make sure that if we do an event, that it is done in a way that it was not detrimental, safe for the citizens and things like that,” Cooley said. “We’re the end-all responsibility for that.” In other words: if there are screwups, it’s the commissioners who’ll be paying the political price (assuming they have not already).
Commission Attorney advised commissioners to put the discussion item as a report on the agenda–not to leave it to backroom discussions. “That way if you were to do that, then you could, if there were concerns, you have the ability to discuss it, but you’d also have the ability to take action,” Smith said, “and that way it would be public in common to hear what’s going on, and that gives you the ability to take action if after seeing that report there’s still some level of discomfort, whatever it might be.”
Whitson said he had 115 percent confidence in the reports of the police and fire chiefs (those reports in the last two weeks, included in the commissioners’ agenda packet, contain no information about July 4.) As for Allen, Whitson–who in some regards resembles former Palm Coast City Manager Jim Landon, who loathed being challenged–yet again downplayed concerns about the fireworks contract, making them out to seem contemptible: “Let’s beat this horse some more,” Whitson said.
“I talked to the guy several times,” Whitson continued, “and he says he’s going to have the contract to me as soon as he gets through the firework shows that he already has.” Allen has a show in Palatka on Saturday and one in Green Cove Springs on Monday. But even Whitson hedged. “Am I feeling 100 percent confident that everything’s great? You’re asking me to endorse a contractor I have no experience in working with. I’m just like you. But, he keeps telling me: all right, he’s going to get it done. So I have to give him grace to get it done as soon as he can next week after these shows are over with.”
“If it’s not signed by June 9, and it’s on the agenda, then you can do something,” the city attorney said, paraphrasing a commissioner.
“Sure. Yep. That stops the bleeding if that’s the choice you want to make. That’s fine,” Whitson said.