Candidates discussed affordable housing, arming teachers, the Sheriff's Operations Center building, and more.
In a forum held by the NAACP at the African American Cultural Society June 26, an audience of about 120 heard School Board candidates disagree on arming teachers; City Council candidates propose solutions to the local affordable housing shortage; and County Commission candidates debate the situation at the Sheriff’s Operations Center, which has been closed down over health concerns as more than 30 employees have fallen ill.
The event included candidates for Palm Coast City Council, Flagler County Commission, Flagler County School Board, Circuit 7 Judge and the U.S. Representative District 6 Democratic primary.
The Palm Coast City Council District 2 race pits former Palm Coast mayor Jon Netts against Jack Howell, a retired Marine colonel and founder of the Teens-In-Flight program, which provides flight training to at-risk teens and teens who have lost a parent or sibling serving in the active duty armed forces.
“Anybody can make a decision, but the best decision is usually made by decision-makers who are knowledgeable, experienced and skilled in the decision-making process,” Netts said, telling the audience about his more than 20 years of community involvement. He mentioned the reasons people select Palm Coast as a place to live, and said, “We chose Palm Coast. … I think we have an obligation to maintain the high quality of life that we have here today.”
Howell highlighted his own leadership experience. “Throughout my entire life, I’ve always been involved in accountability and responsibility,” he said. “I didn’t become a colonel of Marines by not being a leader. … I represent change.” He spoke of his service as a Marine Corps ROTC high school instructor for 13 years in inner city high schools throughout the nation. “That, to me, was combat,” he said.
Candidate John Tipton, running in the City Council District 4 race against Eddie Branquinho and Corinne Marie Hermle (who was not present for the event), focused on safety and economic concerns.
“We want to make sure that as we grow, we maintain a proper police presence and a relationship with our sheriff’s department,” he said. “Guys, we have to grow our city economically. A city that does not grow economically dies,” he said. He mentioned the recent announcement from Sea Ray that it would be closing its local plant, laying off hundreds of workers. “We want to attract good businesses here that provide career-oriented jobs so that in the event that we do lose a large employer, we have the ability to recover,” he said.
Eddie Branquinho, a retired police detective from Newark, New Jersey, said, “I don’t believe in visions without the missions. If you don’t make it your mission, you can’t complete a vision.” He referred to himself as a “two-bottle man:” “I have a bottle of honey which is very, very big, and a bottle of vinegar which is very small. I’m going to use all of my honey before I touch the vinegar, and when I touch that vinegar, be careful,” he said.
On questions about police reform and restoring the trust between the black community and police, Tipton, the only council candidate who is black, emphasized the importance of relationships and communication.
“We want to make sure the people understand that the police are working on our behalf,” he said. “As we diversify as we grow as a city … we need to ensure that our police department looks like the people that they serve.” The community also needs to have the ability to communicate concerns to the Sheriff’s Office, he said, and should be building bridges with law enforcement before any potential crisis, rather than simply responding after.
Branquinho said every department has some “bad apples,” and the agency needs to root them out. And, he said, “You cannot differentiate minorities from everybody else. Many of my partners were minorities, and some of them were my best partners.”
Howell said he believed wholeheartedly in community policing. “I want to see police officers talk to the people they serve; I want to see them get out of the car; I want to see them interact,” he said. “I want to see them provide the contact that the citizens rightly deserve. … A lot of good information is passed when you have trust.”
Law enforcement officers, he said, “have to get involved within the black community. … It can’t just happen overnight, and you have to be sincere. … You’ve got to know the people you serve, and you’ve got to understand their frustrations, you’ve got to understand their wants, you’ve got to understand their needs, in order for it to be a successful dialogue.”
Netts pointed out that Palm Coast doesn’t have its own police force; it contracts with the county Sheriff’s Office. And, he said, “If you’ve been reading the paper, our sheriff has done a pretty good job of cleaning house. Yes, as everybody’s said, there are a few bad apples in every bushel.” But the important thing, he said, is getting rid of them. “Our sheriff has done that,” he said. And if the community doesn’t think he’s doing it well enough, Netts added, the sheriff could be removed at the next election. The agency, he said, should also be encouraged “to develop a staff that mirrors the community.”
On a question about affordable housing, Branquinho thought that bringing good-paying jobs should be a priority.
“You’ve got to have the jobs,” he said. “Without jobs, the people will not even be able to afford affordable housing.”
Tipton countered, “There … actually are people with jobs here that can’t afford the housing. So, many of them are living with grandparents, they’re living with two or three or four roommates.” On affordable housing, he said, “What I’m finding is that we’re doing a lot of talking but very little doing. ... I’ve been here six years now, and the same thing is being discussed over and over and over. … We cannot continue to just talk about it.”
Netts said the city should be willing look at housing outside of the traditional 3-bedroom, 2.5-bathroom style. “Once upon a time, the American dream was a three-bedroom, two-and-a-half-bath house on a quarter acre lot,” he said. “That’s not the American dream anymore. ... We need to take a more creative approach. … We need variety in our housing.”
Howell said that housing has to be quality, “Has to be something that is going to withstand time. … We are in a housing crisis in our community, but at the same time, we don’t have the jobs. ... We’ve got to have the jobs.”
School Board candidates were asked about whether teachers should carry guns in school and about the use of technology in education.
Only one candidate, Paul Anderson, who's running for District 4, supported allowing teachers to carry firearms in the classroom. His idea differs from the state law that allows some school staff to train to become armed school marshals and then man a post in the event of a shooting.
“I do not agree that we should be restricting teachers from volunteering to have firearms in the classroom,” he said. But he thought teachers would not want to undergo the 100-plus-hour state training program, and that having them man a post isn’t the best use of armed teachers. “That’s a waste of an asset, and I would try to dissuade teachers,” he said. But, he said, “I don’t think we should be singling them out if they (want to be armed).”
His opponent, District 4 incumbent Trevor Tucker, said, “Teachers are there to teach. ... We’re doing everything possible to ensure the safety of our students.”
The district has prided itself on its use of technology and its policy of providing laptops of tablets to students, but some candidates, responding to a question about whether tech use is overshadowing the development of other skills, expressed some concern about the amount of time kids are spending in front of a screen. Incumbent District 2 board member Janet McDonald, who has a background in neurodevelopment, said too much screen time when a child is too young can adversely affect development.
Candidate John Fischer, who's challenging her for that seat, said tech is beneficial but that kids also need plenty of face time at home.
"It has to be used properly," he said of the technology.
Anderson said that the kids aren't on their laptops all the time — their time in class is structured so that they're doing other things — but that he thought the technology could be used better.
Tucker called the district-issued laptops " a wonderful tool," noting that his daughter does her homework on hers. The technology, he said, helps prepare kids as workplaces become increasingly paperless.
County Commission candidates were asked about the Sheriff’s Operations Center, which the county created from the bones of the old Memorial Hospital building and where employees have been filing worker’s compensation claims for symptoms they believe are connected to the building. Two County Commission candidates — Joe Mullins, a Republican running for District 4; and Abby Romaine, a Republican running for District 2 — were not present.
District 4 no-party-affiliation candidate Jane Gentile-Youd said she opposed the county’s purchase of the building in 2013, and said that as a real estate agent she never would have advised the county to buy a building that didn’t have electricity at the time of inspection.
“The building needs to be knocked down,” she said.
Dennis McDonald, running as an NPA candidate for District 2, said he’d opposed the purchase of the building as well, and believed it would not have occurred had he been on the board at the time. The real question right now, he said, is, “What are you going to do about the ... deputies that have been denied workman’s compensation?”
Greg Hansen, the District 2 Republican incumbent who was appointed by the governor last year after the death of his predecessor Frank Meeker, was not on the board at the time of the building’s purchase, and had also opposed it.
“The testing and the stuff we're doing is very very detailed,” he said. “And if that building’s sick … we’re going to tear it down.” He said he very much hoped that was not the case, because if it is, building a new operations center will cause taxes to go up, “and I mean really go up.”
Nate McLaughlin, the incumbent Republican District 4 commissioner who was on the board and voted for the purchase, said the county would get to the bottom of the issue, and would hopefully be able to fix the building if there’s something wrong with it.
“We had a similar situation with the old courthouse,” he said, but had been able to remediate it, “and now we have a school working out at the old courthouse.”