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Palm Coast Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2019 2 months ago

Flagler County Commission votes 3-2 to accept County Administrator Craig Coffey's offer to resign

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Craig Coffey has been the county administrator since 2007.
by: Jonathan Simmons News Editor

Updated: 6:30 p.m. Jan. 9:

The Flagler County Commission voted 3-2 the evening of Jan. 9 to accept an amendment to County Administrator Craig Coffey's contract that will allow him to resign, effective end of day Friday, Jan. 11, with his severance package. Coffey agreed that he would submit his resignation on Jan. 10.

Coffey has been the Flagler County administrator since 2007.

The commission made its decision during a special County Commission meeting Coffey called Jan. 8 for the evening of Jan. 9. Despite the short notice — about 25 hours' worth — about 80 members of the public showed up, with some Coffey opponents wearing black T-shirts that said #ClearAsCoffey.

County Administrator Craig Coffey speaks with audience members shortly before the Jan. 9 special meeting. (Photo by Jonathan Simmons)

"I understand these positions are basically a journey through time, and I have nothing but positive things to say and feel about our wonderful county," Coffey said at the meeting. "I have the greatest respect for our county staff and the many things we've been able to accomplish, whether that's been working through disasters, millions of dollars of capital projects and all the other adventures we've gone through. What I’ve put before you is a way to part ways on a positive note for everyone."

The short-notice Jan. 9 meeting replaced a discussion about Coffey's contract that had initially been scheduled for the regular County Commission meeting that will be held on Jan. 14. Two commissioners — Commission Chairman Donald O'Brien and Commissioner Joe Mullins — had aired a number of complaints during a Dec. 3 meeting about Coffey's decisions, and the board had opted for Jan. 14 to hold a vote on whether to retain Coffey or fire him.

Since the Dec. 3 discussion, several local unions — made up of teachers, Sheriff's Office employees and county firefighters — held votes of no confidence in Coffey.

On Jan. 3, Coffey said he was considering offering to resign if the commission would agree to let him receive his full severance. 

Coffey explained at the Jan. 9 special meeting that the proposed amendment to his contract had three parts: It would guarantee that, when he resigns, he would receive his full severance of 20 weeks' pay and benefits; it included a mutual nondisparagement clause; and it required that the county continue to provide liability coverage to Coffey for his actions as administrator.

Commissioners made it clear early on in the meeting that they were willing to accept Coffey's resignation: The sticking point was when, exactly, he would actually leave. Commissioners Greg Hansen and Charlie Ericksen wanted a transition period. The other three commissioners did not.

"It would seem to me that we should keep Mr. Coffey for a maximum of six months," Hansen said. "We’ve got about 35 major projects in the air, and we have to manage those. And without his leadership, I think the taxpayer will pay, because it's going to cost us a lot of money things are going to fall through the cracks. I think we need somebody looking over that."

He added that he believed the county should start the search for Coffey's replacement immediately, and make the transition once it finds someone.

"I just think that we're cutting our nose off to spite our face if he leaves right now," Hansen said. "There's just too much going on in the county. There's too many taxpayer dollars at risk."

Ericksen said he believed a four- to six-month transition period would be best, particularly since Deputy County Administrator Sally Sherman is also resigning, effective at the end of the month.

Commissioner David Sullivan said he would support Coffey's contract amendment. It does not include a transition period, but includes an offer by Coffey to be available to answer county staff questions for at least 60 days to assist in the transition.

"There are a million reasons not to do this; there are a million reasons to do this," Sullivan said. "But this is Mr. Coffey's decision to come forward with this amendment, and therefore I will support that amendment as drafted."

Mullins didn't think a transition was necessary.

"Managers leave counties all the time," Mullins said. "I actually think we will be fine. ... My business experience in the past I've had, it's not good to have somebody that's going out the door to stay longer. ... I believe we can move forward in a very positive way here in the future."

O'Brien thought that the county's department heads could keep the county functioning in Coffey's absence.

"I am going to take Mr. Coffey at his word that he gave us in December that he has assembled an A-team: That these folks are good, strong department managers, and they can run their departments as we go through an interim phase here and identity a replacement for Mr. Coffey," O'Brien said. "I think, again, once a decision is made that we need to move on and we need together started as soon as possible on a new vision and a new direction for this county going forward."

A handful of audience members spoke in support of Coffey, and about an equal number said it was time for him to leave. Some audience members said they favored a transition period, citing the planned departure of Sherman and county Human Resources Director Joe Mayer, who has also announced that he is resigning as of the end of the month.

The first audience member to address the board was former county commissioner George Hanns, who'd served as a Flagler County commissioner for 24 years.

"Craig Coffey never took sides. He never played politics," Hanns said. "The fact of the matter is, he does a good job; he's done a good job. You guys have a hard decision. I know where you're coming from. It's just the idea that even in Washington, they have transition periods, you know, where a president is elected in December and he doesn't take office until January. ... I do appreciate [Coffey's] service and his being stuck in certain situations where he was blamed for so many different things. God, if we had it all to do over again, it would probably would be a little different with the hospital and different things like that. But these things happen, and I have ultimate respect for him and the assistant administrator."

Several other speakers thanked Coffey for his work. 

Much of the recent criticism of Coffey has centered on the Flagler County Sheriff's Operations Center. The county bought the building, previously a hospital, in 2013, and rebuilt it as the Operations Center. More than 30 FCSO employees reported symptoms they thought were related to the structure, calling it a sick building. Coffey expressed skepticism that the building itself was the cause of their symptoms. That generated pushback from FCSO employees who felt he wasn't taking them seriously. Testing conducted on the building Jan. 3 and Jan. 4 revealed problems including water under the carpets and what appeared to be bat guano inside the walls.

A Coastal Florida Police Benevolent Association representative said at the Jan. 9 meeting that the Coastal Florida PBA supports Coffey's proposed contract amendment and resignation. 

So did Sheriff Rick Staly. 

"I know the discussion tonight is about the future of one person: the county administrator," Staly said at the meeting. "But I am most concerned about the future of dozens of hardworking Sheriff's Office employees whose health has been adversely affected. Their health has been hurt by a building that we now know should never have been built like it was. ... This building is a crisis, and it takes crisis leadership to solve it. No one in the current County Commission is responsible for this mess. Neither am I: I was not the sheriff when the old hospital was purchased; I was not the sheriff when it was remodeled or opened for use. But it is now our responsibility  to lead and find a solution. It starts with tough decisions. It starts with your decision tonight. I believe Mr. Coffey has provided you a very fair resolution to this part of it."

Commissioners Mullins, Sullivan and O'Brien voted in favor of accepting Coffey's proposed contract amendment. Hansen and Ericksen voted against.

After the vote and the conclusion of the meeting, Coffey spoke and joked with colleagues and some audience members, answered reporters' questions and shook hands with the sheriff, who told him he wished him the best. 

"I think it went as well as it could," Coffey said. "I appreciated the decorum of some of the folks and Commissioner Mullins and the PBA. And I think it is what it is, and it’s time for a new chapter, for the county and for me."

 

 

ORIGINAL STORY:

County Administrator Craig Coffey is offering the possibility of his  resignation — subject to certain conditions — if the County Commission confirms that it wants him out.

Coffey has been the county’s administrator since 2007.

Coffey, the afternoon of Jan. 8, scheduled a special meeting of the County Commission for the evening of Jan. 9 regarding his contract. He confirmed the morning of Jan. 9 that he will be offering the board an amendment to his contract that would let him resign by Jan. 11 and retain the 20-week severance that he would receive if he were to be fired. The proposed amendment also includes a non-disparagement clause that would bar county commissioners and employees from making disparaging comments about Coffey, and Coffey from making disparaging comments about them.

“I’m under personal attack by a couple commissioners, so I’m putting forth a proposal for the entire board,” he said. “We have three other commissioners. I think the majority of the board do not want me to go anywhere. ... If there is a separation, I’d rather it occur in a positive manner for everybody involved.”

But Coffey also said resignations by two high-level staff members — his deputy administrator, Sally Sherman, and county Human Services Director Joe Mayer — had given him pause when it came to his own plans. 

Both employees have offered resignations effective Jan. 31. 

Mayer has spoken in the past about retiring, Coffey told reporters the morning of Jan. 9. And Coffey had expected that Sherman might resign, but didn’t think it would be so soon, he said. 

“These resignations and the continued attacks by Commissioner [Joe] Mullins give me pause, as without these other key individuals to transition the county government many problems may arise,” Coffey wrote in an email to commissioners the morning of Jan. 9. “This presents a new dilemma for you as commissioners and the professional responsibility I feel as your administrator. More for consideration tonight as you contemplate these issues.”

The two commissioners who have been vocally critical of Coffey are Joe Mullins and Donald O’Brien. 

Mullins, who took his seat on the commissioner in December, had campaigned on a promise to oust Coffey — and during his first meeting as a commissioner, he made a motion to fire Coffey.

At the same meeting, O’Brien laid out a list of concerns he’s had with Coffey’s handling of county issues — matters at the Sheriff’s Operations Center, which the county remade from the former Memorial Hospital building and which FCSO employees say is a sick building; the circumstances surrounding the retirement and rehiring of Deputy County Administrator Sally Sherman; and Coffey’s handling of a controversial proposal to relocate Captains’s BBQ within the county-owned Bings Landing park.

Commissioner David Sullivan, at the same meeting, said he wouldn’t have proposed Coffey’s firing himself, but was willing to discuss the issue. Commissioner Greg Hansen said he’d also had some issues with Coffey but thought Coffey had addressed them; and Commissioner Charlie Ericksen was absent for the board meeting.

The commission decided to delay any discussion of firing Coffey until a regular board meeting set for Jan. 14, so that Ericksen —the board’s longest-serving commissioner — could be there.

By setting a meeting for Jan. 9, Coffey was avoiding the Jan. 14 meeting, which he’d previously said he thought would be “counterproductive.”

If Coffey were to wait for the Jan. 14 meeting, not offer a resignation, and be fired, he would receive a severance package worth 20 weeks’ pay (his annual salary is $163,550) and benefits.

Coffey said he felt that a lot of the criticism that’s been leveled at him about county issues “is not fair, or not true.”

And, he added, “[Commissioners] don’t question my work ethic, or my honesty or my integrity.”

He did say the morning of Jan. 9 that he’d wished the Operations Center issue “would have gone differently.” As to the matter of Sherman’s rehiring, he said, “I never saw that as a mistake.”

Since the County Commission’s decision Dec. 3 to discuss the possibility of firing Coffey, three public employee unions in the county — the Coastal Florida Police Benevolent Association, the Flagler County Educators Association and the Flagler County Professional Fire Fighters Association IAFF Local 4337 — have each issued votes of no confidence  in Coffey.

Speaking the morning of Jan. 9, Coffey said he would prefer a transition plan that would give him at least 60 days on the job, but commissioners who’d at first seemed amendable to that option seemed to have changed their minds, Coffey said. 

Coffey said he has spoken with county staff members about his potential resignation. 

“As an administrator, you don’t want to be a hindrance to the welfare and the productivity of the county,” he said. “There are a lot of openings out there and I think I’m respected throughout the state. ...  Sometimes it’s better to leave; there’s a saying that says, ‘Go away but don’t go away bad.’  ... I want to leave Flagler County in the best position possible.” 

If Coffey were to stay on, he said, he thought he could remain professional with O’Brien and Mullins. But some residents, he said, will always oppose him. 

“There will be people that I can’t win back,” he said. “It’s just part of the nature of the business, and they will come up and say vile things and uncivil things.”

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