The charter question: a conversation with Steve Nobile

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May. 26, 2015

Steve Nobile has been an outspoken member of the Palm Coast City Council ever since he was elected last November. Most recently, he has advocated for reviewing the city’s charter, which is a document that determines, among other things, how the City Council is structured and the duties of the city manager. The rest of the City Council questioned him, and Nobile has appeared in the meetings to be coy about his motives for proposing a review of the charter. Why wouldn’t he just say what changes he would like to see considered? Nobile recently spoke with Palm Coast Observer Executive Editor Brian McMillan about the situation.

What made you decide to propose a charter review?

I really thought when I brought this issue up that it was a no-brainer. Fifteen years ago we put this charter together. The median age was 60-plus, and the population was about 12,500. Since then, the population has grown, and so have the demographics.

It was funny because people at the council meeting said, “People actually ask you for a charter review?” I tried to explain that they want to see things changed, and a lot of things they’ve asked to be changed will include changes to the charter.

Why doesn’t the City Council just review the charter itself?

I don’t think the council is the right venue to decide certain changes. For example, salaries of council members. I don’t want to be on a council that says (salaries) should be raised. …

What I tried to keep explaining to them is, “Don’t make this about me. I am asking for a review. I’m not asking for changes.” …

The charter regulates how the city government functions, and that should be for the people to decide, and once they’ve made that decision, the council does its function.

Why are you frustrated with how the City Council responded to your proposal?

It looks like we’re not getting a review. (The council said), “You guys are just going to have to get petition signatures.” I think that’s awful that the City Council has put that on the people, saying, “We’re not changing it. Go and do what you have to do.” It’s like saying, “Go ahead and sue me.”

It’s a common practice to do a charter review. In our situation, the city has changed dramatically in the past 15 years. It raises my eyebrows for the opposition I got. I sit back and think like these other crazies, “What are they hiding? What are they trying to prevent?”

In the current charter, the mayor position is considered “weak,” meaning the mayor only has as much influence as the other City Council members. Currently, we also have a city manager position that controls operations of city staff, based on direction from the City Council. What setup could you envision that might be more effective?

I personally would prefer a commission style, (in which) the council members have duties specific to different areas of the government function. So you’d have one person who’s responsible for fire and rescue, one for public works, one for economic development (etc.). So you divvy up the jobs of a single city manger or a single strong mayor.

And what you’d have to do in that is to increase the number of councilmen from five to seven, and then increase the salaries … to make them more involved and make it less part-time, and open up the field for more people who, if they were able to get a real stipend to help them offset their salary, we could get some younger people to participate.

In the commission structure, nothing happens via one person. What I get from a lot of my constituents is that they don’t necessarily dislike the council-manager structure, they just think the manager has too much control — that it does not require council input. Instead of changing the structure, another would be to enumerate the powers more definitively for the manager.

I’ve been asked to present something that takes the power away from the city manager. But what they don’t understand is that if it goes from the city manger to the mayor, you’re in the same boat. I want the council to have to run the show. And then that is a commission-based structure.

It’s kind of like in federal government right now. You have the Senate and the House; they come up and they pass a law, but then it’s put down to non-elected officials to actually write the regulations, and that has shown to be problemsome. We have unelected officials who are dictating how we are going to approach a strategy. (Similarly, we might) have a strategy that the City Council would like the city manger to pursue, and then he decides how he’s going to do that. In our charter, and I’m going to paraphrase, it says, “Keep your nose out of the business, councilmen. If you want to know anything, come to the manager and talk to me.” It prevents us from working directly with any directors or managers or supervisors, and anything we do has to go through the city manger.

We have a very weak council. And that’s what most people don’t like. They’re sitting back and saying, “We didn’t elect the manager.” And it’s not (current City Manager Jim) Landon. This is not about Jim. This is about that manager role. Jim does a great job at what we pile on him, but that doesn’t mean everybody agrees with how he’s approaching it.

Now that you’ve been on the City Council for six months now, how do you feel about the way the city government is set up?

City Council should be more empowered. I’ve always felt that, and I feel that even more now. For example, I might have wanted to see something on the agenda, and it didn’t make it, and (the city manager) can technically tell me no. … The council is closer to the people; we’re representative of the people.

Can you be specific about why a change like this could be worth considering?

There’s nothing wrong with what we’re doing right now. There’s no corruption, there’s no one really pushing an ideology. It just isn’t working.

For example: the economic growth in town. When you have a mayor who believes that we are or were a retirement community, and now we’re a bedroom community, and that’s what we need to stay at, how are you going to progress growth?

Last week, I’m trying to push economic growth, and I’m pushing it via the Citizens Survey, which says the citizens say we’re failing at it.

It’s because the city manager has a different idea of how he wants to do it, and we’re doing it because it’s how he has chosen. Whatever he does in that direction simply falls under that. That is too much. He has become the visionary for where the city is going to go. I don’t mean Jim, I mean him or her at the given time, and I think that’s what people are opposed to.

Whether it’s true or not, it seems the City Council could be worried that extremist views in the Ronald Reagan Republican Assembly could be pushing the review and could then push an extreme agenda.

Let’s say they’re right. Let’s say this is being pushed by the Ronald Reagan group. They are one of, but they are not the strongest. But, let’s say they’re the only group who are pushing for a charter review. Are you telling me that they should be ignored because they belong to the Ronald Reagan Republicans? … I even have phone calls from Ralph Lightfoot. He’s a big Democrat, and he’s pushing me for these things. …What if I say that about the Democrats? “Ralph Lightfoot, I’m not dealing with you because you’re a Democrat”?

Dennis McDonald may be the only person who asks for a charter review, because if you go to the streets and ask people about the charter review, they won’t know what I’m talking about. However, I brought up the charter review because the things people are saying they want to see changed, ultimately are things to the charter. So, changing how the manger functions, how the City Council functions, the number of council, salary — these are all charter amendments. So I, trying to be logical, my first mistake, I thought, “These are all charter amendments, so let’s do a charter review.”

I’m being punished for a changes that ultimately would be a change to the charter, so instead of trying to argue these points, and these are points the council shouldn’t even be deciding, let’s just do a charter review and let the people decide. And then the council can sit back and say, “This is not us — we’re letting you decide.” It’s a clean process.

Given our low voter turnout, would you trust the people to vote for charter changes that would be right for the city?

You cannot limit the function of the people because you’re afraid of the results from the people. If we’re afraid people are going to vote wrong, we might as well get rid of the vote.

What’s the next step? Is the charter review idea dead?

My next proposal: Do a charter review and allow the council to have the final say on each item. So in other words, if someone were willing to come up with something excessively radical, the council can decide not to put it on the ballot.

If they want to put the onus on the people, then, if it is permissible, we must lower the percentage of signatures, so that it is a reasonable number of signatures; 25% is wrong. It’s in the charter, and the charter is not in line with the Florida statute, so that has to be changed either way. …

I think we’re on the cusp of growing again, not like we did in the mid-2000s, but we’re going to start growing again, and I want to get ahead of this. I want the council, the charter, the city to be more in line with what’s coming than with what’s been. When we switch from a median age from 66 to 43, from 1999 to 2012, that’s a dramatic change. So the city, there might be things that we need to change, but we need to add. The big thing is that raising the salary of the council members so that younger people can participate. This council of retirees is just not representative of the community.