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Palm Coast Thursday, Mar. 12, 2020 4 months ago

After the Palm Coast Connect showdown

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Mayor says she would have welcomed an exploration of alternatives in 2018, and she doesn't believe that staff will be afraid to speak up in the future.
by: Brian McMillan Executive Editor

Mayor Milissa Holland and I spoke for two hours on March 6, reflecting on what led to such an extraordinary City Council meeting a few days earlier, and where we go from here. In the March 3 council meeting, Holland and Coastal Cloud cofounder Tim Hale spoke at length to defend themselves and set the record straight after Cindi Lane’s criticism. By way of context for the Q+A below, I’d like to share my thoughts on a staff procedure, a contract question, and a concern for the future.

One issue that Hale and Holland had with Lane’s editorial is Lane’s claim that the city had been exploring 311 (customer relations software) solutions up until the city entered into an agreement with Coastal Cloud in 2018. Holland said it wasn’t true. If it had been, why hadn’t staff shared its research of alternatives with the City Council? 

My research since March 3 has shown that Lane was right: Staff had been evaluating other options. End-of-year reports show that a team had been formed to evaluate options, and, as late as May 2018, Lane had been gathering emails from 20 municipalities to learn about their experiences with various 311 solutions. 

Holland’s solution to this procedure problem is for staff to share options earlier in the process and involve City Council sooner as it works on the city’s priorities. I agree.

A contract question I have not been able to answer is when, exactly, was Coastal Cloud selected to provide the service and not just a prototype? An agreement was signed in 2018, but it only says Coastal Cloud will assist in evaluating 311 solutions. Lane said staff was confused by this, so I spoke with IT Director Doug Akins on March 10, to get his perspective. He agreed with Lane on that point. He said staff’s impression in 2018 was that Palm Coast Connect would be one option considered — not the only option. In my understanding, no document exists that could be considered a contract for Coastal Cloud to provide the service.

Another concern remains: With Holland and Hale’s dramatic reaction against Lane’s criticism, will city staff members ever feel comfortable expressing concerns that might challenge Holland or Coastal Cloud in the future?

This matter is central to the whole issue. I started taking a closer look into the city’s relationship with Coastal Cloud not because Lane or former City Manager Jim Landon contacted me; it started because I got an anonymous tip in 2019 that people at City Hall were fearful for their jobs. I then contacted Lane and Landon.

The fear is not an isolated concern; I’ve heard others express the same, and City Councilman Jack Howell said on “Free For All Friday” last month that he had heard of staff members being fearful as well.

I propose that the city take a hard look at this. An outside consultant might be necessary to conduct interviews.

See below for Holland’s perspective.

 

A file photo of Mayor Milissa Holland from June 2018, two months before the city entered into its agreement with Coastal Cloud.

You said on March 3 you hadn’t found evidence that city staff was working on alternative 311 solutions. But, there are progress reports dating back to 2016 and 2017 showing that a team had been created just for that purpose, and Lane was a key member of that team. She was researching 311 solutions at least as late as May 2018. Does that change any of your thinking?

Holland: I would absolutely have liked to have seen the other solutions that staff had been evaluating — at least had the understanding that there was an evaluation taking place.

 

How would you describe the ideal process for staff to present research and recommendations to fulfill the City Council's objectives?

Holland: One of the items that had always frustrated me with the prior administration was that when things went on the agenda, it was already solved in the administration’s mind, rather than giving the council options where we could make decisions and give clear direction back to our administration.

We have strategic planning sessions every year, where resident survey data helps us determine the best course, and we communicate that to our administration to be addressed. It’s up to the administrator to put action items on the agenda to ensure that those objectives are moving forward.

Fiber is a great example. We had a goal, adopted by the City Council, of creating an actual fiber business plan, and that plan then was put out to bid, and I believe Magellan was selected to consult with the city to develop a business strategy and a gap analysis of where the areas that we need to focus on to utilize our fiber network. They gave the recommended report, Vice Mayor Nick Klufas recommended we bring someone in-house to manage that process and evaluate it, and then we put out for a (request for proposals, or RFP), to select a vendor to perform the services outlined in the Magellan plan.

That was a natural process that I think worked very well. That was produced out of a goal, from the council, and it was budgeted for, in direct correlation to our priorities.

 

Should the city have put out a request for solutions, or RFS, to see if there were other companies interested in providing a 311 for the city, before the city set the relationship in stone with Coastal Cloud in November 2018 by purchasing Salesfore licenses?

Holland: I think that would have been a valuable process, had I known that there were other initiatives that they were looking at internally. I would have welcomed that process.

Going though an evaluative process is not something I ever would be opposed to, in any environment.

 

Your tone on March 3 was aggressive and critical against Cindi Lane and Jim Landon. Is this going to discourage city staff members from raising concerns in the future?

Holland: That has not been the reaction at City Hall. City Manager Matt Morton is very open. He takes time to go visit Public Works and speak to employees there. He has dinner with firefighters. You always see him around, so I think he’s tried to instill a level of trust and openness that I think will provide an environment that people will feel they can go to him. And I think that’s a good thing.

I also think, I hope, that I don’t fault or blame anyone for bringing concerns forward that they may have. That (the raising of concerns) absolutely has not been the thing that’s upsetting to me.

We do have several avenues offered in our city that you can (express concerns), and if anything, this has fostered a greater opportunity to do that. And Matt has emphasized that to his employees, and even when he was going through this whole “investigative” process, he was trying to get to the bottom of everything, and he went to painstaking levels to ensure he wasn’t missing anything as well.

So I think this was a good learning opportunity for many of us. And I certainly have taken it seriously, and I have certainly thought about it for many, many hours.

I value the members of our staff that work in this environment every single day and know what solution that they think would be appropriate and helpful in the process.

 

You have been frustrated by the social media comments swirling around this issue. What did you mean when you said, “We are better than this”?

Holland: We have to rise above that. We need to stand up and say, “Listen, we’re going to debate this and talk about the facts, that’s it.” The second we have people going on there, saying disparaging things and personal attacks — that is counterproductive to what we’re trying to accomplish, and I find it very disturbing, and there’s not accountability.

Brian McMillan has been editor of the Palm Coast Observer since it began in 2010. He was named the Journalist of the Year for weekly newspapers in North America by the Local Media Association in 2012. He lives in Palm Coast with his wife and five children. Email...

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