The six candidates addressed questions on economic development, public safety and divisions on the City Council.
All six candidates for mayor of Palm Coast took part in two mayoral forums held on July 13 and July 19, telling voters about how they hope to spur economic development, maintain resident safety and help repair the divided City Council.
The July 13 forum, organized by the local networking group Leads into the Future, was held at the Carrabba's Italian Grill in Palm Coast, with a small audience attending and more viewing the livestream on Facebook.
More people turned out at the July 19 forum, organized by the Daytona Beach News-Journal and held at the Buddy Taylor Middle School auditorium.
In both forums, candidates spoke of the rancor on current City Council, which has repeatedly split 2-2 and whose acting mayor, Councilman Eddie Branquinho, makes frequent use of his gavel to keep fellow council members from interrupting one another.
Answering a question at the Leads into the Future forum about whether they feel the city is running well, candidates pointed to those divisions.
Cornelia Manfre touted her background as a negotiator. Later, responding to a question about partisanship at the July 19 forum, Manfre said she'd like to keep things nonpartisan. "If you call 911 and a deputy shows up at your door to help you, do you ask them what their party affiliation is? I don't think so. That is how I want to be able to run City Council," she said.
(Although the mayoral race is nonpartisan, Manfre and candidate Doug Courtney are Democrats, while the other four candidates are Republicans. The four current council members are all Republicans.)
Candidate Alan Lowe called the council "fractured" and said the city's swale issues aren't being attended to.
"I believe that I can negotiate with both sides … and bring us back to a respectful city that people don’t laugh at, because that’s what’s happening out there," he said at the July 13 event.
Candidate David Alfin said the city attorney is acting as a referee between the two competing sides on the council dais.
Much could be improved, Alfin said, if the city finds a suitable longterm city manager. (One of the city's two chiefs of staff, Denise Bevan, is serving as interim City Manager. Former City Manager Matt Morton resigned in May.)
Courtney called the city "a little bit shaggy around the edges" and echoed Alfin's comments about the importance of selecting the right city manager.
"We have to put somebody in charge that can take care of things on a day-to-day basis," Courtney said at the July 13 forum.
Kathy Austrino said she would "bring harmony" to the City Council. Carol Mother Elizabeth Bacha, a nun who occasionally punctuated her comments by breaking into song, mentioned that a sitting council member is under federal investigation. (Councilman Victor Barbosa is under investigation for allegations that he’s a fugitive wanted for kidnapping, extortion and other charges in Costa Rica.)
She said that as a nurse, she'd had to undergo background checks.
Asked how they'd work with fire departments, the Sheriff's Office and neighboring cities to improve safety, candidates emphasized the importance of supporting first responders.
Flagler County Sheriff Rick Staly has asked the city for a funding increase to support 10 new deputy positions, a request some candidates spoke to while answering.
Candidate Doug Courtney asked whether it still makes sense for Palm Coast to contract out its law enforcement services to the county Sheriff's Office.
"That was beneficial 20 years ago when we were starting the city and everything, but now we’re much, much bigger and we might want to start looking at other things," Courtney said.
Bacha emphasized the importance of staffing for public safety jobs.
Lowe said the city needs to budget for law enforcement to keep up with the city's rising population, saying that with more people comes more crime.
"We need to stay ahead of this tidal wave," he said.
Alfin, Austrino and Bacha said at the July 19 forum that they were supportive of the sheriff’s request for funding to add more deputies.
Cornelia Manfre, who is married to former Flagler County Sheriff Jim Manfre, said the number of deputies needs to keep pace with the population, but questioned whether the FCSO needs as many deputies as it has requested, given that crime has decreased considerably.
A few questions at the July 19 forum addressed city operational issues, including the city's recent struggles with garbage hauling contractor Waste Pro over missed pickups.
Alfin said part of the issue is a small number of residents not positioning their trash properly, leading to a backlog. Noting that Waste Pro has said it's had trouble finding employees, he raised the possibility of starting a training program at the local technical college.
Courtney said Palm Coast could consider splitting the city's pickup routes between Waste Pro and some other contractor.
"That way, if we have a running problem with one, we can obviously try to look over and see what the other can do to help," Courtney said.
Lowe mentioned the possibility of bringing in the city of Bunnell's hauler, and suggested that rather than simply fining Waste Pro, as Palm Coast has done in the past, the city compel the company to use the fine money to increase workers' pay.
"The issue is labor. The issue is pay. The issue is having enough people to run the trucks to do it," Lowe said.
Alfin said he opposed the idea of breaking the routes apart.
"There is strength in numbers, and there is power and leverage in size," Alfin said. "... I think as a city, we command a better performance if we are more important to the vendor."
Manfre suggested the city speak to its haulers about whether greater automation would be possible, so that staffing would be less critical.
Answering a question about balancing economic development and quality of life, Alfin said during the July 19 forum that the MedNexus project — a partnership between the city, the University of North Florida and other institutions for a health care profession training facility in Town Center — will help the economy.
"The first students to go through the training program ... will begin classes in August," he said "... From this dream, I believe we can build an economic success for the city of Palm Coast."
Austrino said the city needs jobs and businesses now and needs to support its current economic development department.
Bacha said she'd place a moratorium on development until the city reviews its infrastructure to prevent a Surfside-type collapse.
Manfre said that good, sustainable growth requires infrastructure, and that the city needs to review its infrastructure. Lowe said the city needs employers and should avoid, or at least look closely at, proposals to rezone commercial properties to residential.
Courtney suggested that the city revisit its comprehensive plan.
"What we have to do is review that, and make sure once it's reviewed that we stick with it to ensure the quality of life and continued economic development," he said.