Politics is Like Theater

The actors want the crowd to leave thinking they got their money’s worth. But are they?

Palm Coast, Florida – February 18, 2009 – Anyone sitting in on yesterday’s Palm Coast City Council meeting would have been impressed with the way issues were dealt with. No controversy, no raised voices, well orchestrated presentations, and results seemingly acceptable to all. Every vote was unanimous. But politics is like theater. The actors want the crowd to leave thinking they got their money’s worth, so the event is usually well choreographed. Transparency is more opaque than you think. I am troubled by the handling of three issues at Tuesday’s council meeting.

SeaGate and Ryan’s Landing

Nearly two years ago, Palm Coast’s brand new city manager orchestrated the mauling of Palm Coast’s most successful home-grown builder/developer, SeaGate Homes. Jim Landon, apparently trying to "make his mark" early, convinced the city council to turn down Ryan’s Landing, a SeaGate planned community because the developer would not agree to a last minute demand by Landon to pay $90,000 to construct a park on 5 acres SeaGate had already agreed to donate to the city. SeaGate sued.
SeaGate prevailed at each court ruling. In the end, to avoid a trial, the city negotiated a settlement that was approved by the council Tuesday. The agreement includes a plan for Ryan’s Landing nearly identical to the original, minus the active park. The city will be responsible for developing a passive park on the donated site. The only real change is that the project will now be built to "green" standards (meaning environmentally friendly). This is not a concession by SeaGate. It’s what forward thinking builders are doing anyway. And the city has agreed to promote the green aspects of the project on its own website.
SeaGate president Robert Gazzoli applauded the city’s cooperative efforts. Of course he would have to. He will need council’s approval for future projects and doesn’t want to burn any bridges. And the city took credit for the "green" initiative. Smiling faces all around. But in the end, it’s essentially the same project the council turned down two years ago. One council member likened it to the Korean War which started and ended at the same location years, lives and dollars later.
How much money did the city spend on legal fees plus staff expenses between the original negative vote and Tuesday’s settlement? To SeaGate’s credit, they did not cave in. They fought, but at what cost? As a resident and tax-paying voter, was I well served by the city’s actions? I don’t think so.

Audited Annual Financial Report and Excess  Building Dept. Fees

Palm Coast’s outside auditing firm presented its Comprehensive Annual Financial Report for Fiscal Year 2008 for the council’s acceptance. One item would have gone unmentioned but for an inquiry from Councilman Frank Meeker. He enquired about the approximately $6 million plus ($7 million with interest) of excess building department fees collected between 2000 and 2006. No such amount was to be found among the several pages of financial minutia. The 2006 audit states that the revenues from the building department “were not closely monitored" and recommended “the City closely monitor revenues and cost related to this function going forward and implement a policy regarding any unspent revenues.”
The 2008 financials were deemed by the auditor to be in compliance. But the previously reported $6 million had shrunk to barely $2 million and was buried under the innocuous heading "Invested Capital for Enabling Legislation." When queried, the auditor’s comment was "no audited financial report ever mentioned the $6 million figure."
I sit on the government affairs committee of the Flagler Home Builders Association where numerous discussions of the excess building department fees took place. I’ve also written on several occasions about the $6 million surplus. The excess building fees amounted to an overcharge to builders (and hence their customers) of about $200 per new home. I’d like to know where it went. I’d like a full accounting.

City Parking Ordinance

Towards the end of each council meeting, the public is invited to comment, such comments to be limited to three minutes each. As a resident of Grand Haven, I knew that several Grand Haven residents would be present to object to the sheriff’s sudden rigid enforcement of the city parking ordinance, which prohibits on-street parking 24-hours a day. The enforcement was triggered by a complaint by one of our own neighbors, but that’s another story. Grand Haven has curbed streets with the average driveway accommodating only two cars. Visitors, delivery persons, repairmen, and city meter readers must park on the street, which is in violation of the strict interpretation of the parking code.
Several dozen Grand Haven residents were on hand. Before the public input commenced, city manager Landon preempted the discussion by stating that he understood the problem, had communicated it to the sheriff’s department and had a resolution. Using the principal of "common sense," the sheriff’s deputies would only write tickets during the day if parked cars disrupted traffic or would impede emergency vehicles.
The Grand Haven residents, including myself, were pleased with the outcome. But the process troubled me. Prior to the meeting, I had talked with two council members, alerting them of the impending parking issue. Both were totally unaware of it. The council is responsible for passing the code and for setting policy as it relates to the code. It is the city manager’s duty to follow council’s direction. What happened Tuesday showed a city manager negotiating directly with a county constitutional officer’s department to set policy regarding a code which, however flawed, was enacted by a duly elected council. I find such a usurpation of authority disturbing.
3 replies
  1. Mary E. Settles
    Mary E. Settles says:


    I am also a resident of Grand Haven and unfortunately, my brother parked in front of my house last Wednesday while he traveled with us in our car for the day. When we returned around 6:00 p.m., he found a $25.00 parking ticket on his car much to our surprise and dismay. Do we have any chance of fighting this ticket since they seem to have changed the hours of forbidding street parking? My street has very little traffic on it and is only around 7 houses long.

  2. George Meegan
    George Meegan says:

    Where’s the money parked?

    The auditor stating they never saw the 6 million needs to be check against past budgets. The parking was taken by the sheriff as he has authority. The code people don’t need to be handling traffic, as they pay the sheriff to insure the safety of the roadways. I have not problem with that. Code people should not be in the traffic business. The Uncurbed sections allow the vehicles to be partialy off the pavement and that allows emergency vehicles room. The curbed sections, are a problem in narrow roadways,and perhaps in the future will require wider pavement.Signage for parking on one side only may solve the problem. Landon is in many cases is following driections from those that hired him. He would be out of a job if he did not. The form of government that has a strong mayor would be better for Palm Coast, as then we would elect the boss and not have to put up with problems that a manager (puppet) creates.

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