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Palm Coast Thursday, Jan. 31, 2019 7 months ago

As budget talks begin, Donald O'Brien on power, books, 'faking'

Flagler County's commission chairman subscribes to Ronald Reagan's philosophy: Trust, but verify.
by: Brian McMillan Executive Editor

Every elected official reacts a little differently when irate constituents chew them out. Flagler County Commission Chairman Donald O’Brien has learned to “never react immediately,” he said. “Never. I always read, reread, let it sit in, think, analyze, before I respond. Always, always.”

When I sat with him on Jan. 25, O’Brien told me he is a trusting person, but he follows Ronald Reagan’s advice: Trust, but verify.

He reads three books every month: a biography, a novel and a self-improvement book. He is currently reading, for the fifth time, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” by Stephen R. Covey.

His goal is to see things from others’ points of view, whether that means his customers at Hayward Brown Insurance or other members of the community who express their concerns about government issues. By doing so, he believes he can by the guide to help them achieve their goals and be “the hero,” an idea he learned from another book, by Donald Miller.

The following interview transcript has been edited for length and clarity.


Q. Jim Landon was recently fired as Palm Coast city manager. Craig Coffey recently resigned under pressure as Flagler County administrator. Did they get too powerful?

A. Yes. I think because they were entrenched for so long that thy sometimes felt that they could do an end-run around their respective elected officials and dictate what they wanted and control the agenda.


Q. What are you looking for in the next county administrator? Is there a course correction necessary?

A. I’m looking for someone that functions more as a CEO and not a project manager. I think you need to leave that to staff. With Craig, there was way too much micromanagement of things, events and issues, for my liking. You need to have someone who invests authority and responsibility in their department managers or direct reports. I didn’t see enough of that, and I’m seeing it first hand, now that he’s gone for a week and a half.

I would hope to have someone that is more future-focused. Because of the micromanagement side of it, we were caught up in the thick of things, not focused on the strategic side of things, and how does this all link together five to 15 years from now. I didn’t see a lot of that. I saw just putting out fires. We would put it out and move onto the next fire, and I don’t think that’s a good way to lead a large organization.


Q. Why not just demolish the Sheriff’s Operations Center now?

A. I’m not saying we might not get there, but I’ve said all along, we owe it to all constituents to have all the data in front of us, and we don’t have it yet. We still are waiting for the final reports from testing. Until then, I don’t see how we can get to a decision point. I’m not afraid to say that we have to completely scrap the building and move onto a new site, but I’m not quite there yet.


Q. Should the county hire an outside person to manage the Sheriff’s Operations Center project? If so, what would that project manager do that a staff member couldn’t?

A. The Operations Center touches so many areas: facilities, legal, human resources. Having an independent third-party manger that is not encumbered with other responsibilities is the way to go. I don’t know whether it needs to be on a consultant basis or someone on staff for six months or a year, but I think we need to move fast and do that. I plan on talking with my fellow commissioners in public about it and see if we can get to an agreement on that.

I also don’t want to encumber an interim administrator with that responsibility, given all the other things we have to do. It can be all encompassing.

And they won’t have skin in the game the way Craig did. He was involved in the decision to buy the old hospital and remodel it in the first place, so I think that affected his view of the whole thing.


Q. Craig Coffey said he believed that some of the employees had health problems, and he believed some didn’t. Are you concerned that some might have filed for workers' compensation out of solidarity rather than because of an actual illness?

A. Some people have alleged that, and some people have said that they felt there might have been some add-on claims. That’s not for me to judge. I’m not a scientist or a doctor, and I’m not the employee. I trust people, and I take them at their word. I wouldn’t want to be the one say, “You’re faking.” It’s not for me to say.

I’m not saying Craig didn’t care for the employees, because I think he did. He could have handled things better, from where I sit.


Q. What can be done today to avoid tax increases in the budget this year?

A. I think the message is getting through to staff. We need to start at a better place. That was another issue I had with Mr. Coffey. I felt that he didn’t hear the message from me and other commissioners. We started in a hole.

The budget process is elongated. I had my first “budget philosophy” meeting with staff this week, and I think the other commissioners did as well. If you know that, generally, we want to see the budget be flat, you can’t come to us with $6 million to $9 million of additional spending and then expect the commissioners to pare it down. You should come to us with a flat budget, and if we want to add, that’s fine. The flavor of the other people I serve with is flat spending.


Q. How are the dynamics on the board? Do you feel there is a sense of cooperation?

A. I actually do. I know people might not think that, but I’ve spent a lot of time with my fellow commissioners at training classes and public meetings. And I respect every one of them. I think they all have the community’s best interest at heart.

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