New leaders Matt Morton and Jerry Cameron may resolve our historical 'failure to communicate.'
By James Manfre
“What we got here is a failure to communicate.”
The oft-quoted line from the Paul Newman movie “Cool Hand Luke” has been the basis for the relationship between the city of Palm Coast and Flagler County government administrations for the past 20 years. But something has changed.
Since the ITT Corp. first set its prodigious resources behind a large-scale residential community here, the competing visions of Flagler’s future have been the source of constant friction between Flagler County government and, first, ITT; then its successor, the Palm Coast Service District; and, finally, its successor, the city of Palm Coast.
The competing visions have resulted in numerous skirmishes, from water and sewer infrastructure to fire and ambulance services to road and bridge maintenance. These are the scars left over from when the city incorporated in 2000 and the county turned over land, roads, buildings and personnel to the responsibility of the city. It was not an easy period for either side, and it did not help that the county political structure, which was generally from the rural areas of the county, was vehemently against participating in what they saw as a northern takeover of their spheres of power.
As the first sheriff to have to navigate this new dynamic in 2001, I saw firsthand the struggles between the two competing governments and its real-life consequences for residents and taxpayers.
The most concrete example was how to pay for and coordinate fire, ambulance, emergency management, law enforcement operations and communications. Fortunately, law enforcement issues for the most part were resolved by the city agreement to contract for law enforcement services with the Sheriff’s Office. The negotiations between my office and the city were professional and efficient and have resulted in 20 years of mutually productive relationships over three sheriffs that have saved the taxpayers 10s of millions of dollars. Unfortunately, the other three areas have been a constant source of infighting and disagreements.
This has clearly been experienced during natural disasters such as forest fires, hurricanes and tornadoes and have exposed the poor working relationships between the city and county in emergency operations and the fire departments. This has caused the Sheriff’s Office, during my two terms, to act as a referee between the two at critical moments when life-and-death decisions were being made. The worst of these situations — and I could point out many — was during Hurricane Matthew, when Gov. Rick Scott called me directly to work out preparations for the storm before and after the hurricane swept through our county because of the poor coordination of the county’s emergency management operations with all of the cities, the state and the Sheriff’s Office.
I will not belabor the negative effects of this long-running dispute between the county and city. We have all had a front row seat to the threatened lawsuits and vitriol that has gone on over the years. It is a shame particularly because lives have been put in danger and taxpayers have had to foot the bill for both sides when settling these public disagreements.
However, the dark clouds have recently disappeared with the hiring of the new county administrator, Jerry Cameron, and the new city manager, Matt Morton.
They both seem to genuinely get it that it is their duty and responsibility to communicate, plan and operate in a coordinated fashion. This will assist in both entities' ability to keep taxes lower, prepare for future natural emergencies and plan for future growth, which is coming like a freight train.
This new relationship was brought home to me last week when I attended a Flagler County Commission meeting, and, as I was rising to speak on an issue, I spotted the county administrator and city manager sitting next to each other. I stated on the record before my official remarks that it was heartwarming to see the two next to each other without the necessity of a deputy sheriff between them, as would have been required under previous administrations.
All of Flagler residents should hope for this continued commitment to good relationships between the two largest governments. It bodes well for all of our futures.
James Manfre is an attorney in Palm Coast. He is a former sheriff of Flagler County.