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Palm Coast Thursday, Jul. 2, 2020 6 months ago

Palm Coast hires new investigator, who absolves City Hall, though mayor acknowledges an 'honest mistake'

Palm Coast Mayor Milissa Holland's private employment with Coastal Cloud has made some staff members uncomfortable.
by: Brian McMillan Executive Editor

Mayor Milissa Holland said it was “an honest mistake” for her to use her city email account to conduct private business in 2018 with the city of Orlando. She said it was an isolated incident and that ever since she has a track record of keeping her city and business roles separate.

The emails from Holland to the city of Orlando have become the focus of some controversy. The Palm Coast Observer requested the emails in November 2019, but the city did not provide them because City Attorney William Reischmann deemed them “personal in nature” and not public records, by law.

An internal investigation, conducted by Palm Coast Compliance Manager Jay Maher without City Manager Matt Morton’s knowledge, found that the city had withheld the emails inappropriately. Morton questioned the validity of that internal investigation, and he hired a third party, Jeffrey E. Mandel, to look at Maher’s process and his findings.

On June 29, 2020, the city received Mandel's report, which said the city had been correct to withhold the emails after all. Moreover, the city’s in-house internal investigation process was called into question as a result, with reforms suggested.

Maher, the leader of the city’s in-house investigation, recently told the Daytona Beach News-Journal that the city management is trying to cover up its own misdeeds.

“I was the head of ethics investigations until they discovered that I had so many investigations related to their misconduct,” Maher said.

(Read the News-Journal story here. Read FlaglerLive's commentary here.)

Holland said she supports Morton’s goal to reform the city’s internal investigation process, and she welcomes the scrutiny of her emails.

“These are things that are uncomfortable, but I’m OK if it gets us to a better place for the community and the city as an organization,” she said.


Marketing email

Holland was elected mayor in 2016, and, in the summer of 2017, she was hired as the director of business development for Coastal Cloud. At the time she was hired, Coastal Cloud was also working with city staff to explore possibilities for partnerships.

In October 2017, an email was sent to City Councilmen Nick Klufas and Bob Cuff, as well as many elected officials throughout Florida (including Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer). It was a form letter, essentially, sent by the marketing team at Coastal Cloud in an effort to find leads for working with cities. The company wanted to expand its offerings of government software solutions.

The email, sent from Holland’s Coastal Cloud email account, begins this way: “Allow me to introduce myself as Mayor Milissa Holland of Palm Coast, Florida.”

She then explains how, during Hurricane Irma just a month before, all city departments were impacted, and how difficult it was to perform the post-hurricane response in a coordinated fashion. But, she offers a better way.

“I’ve recently reviewed a demo of a 311 solution that allows every citizen request to be logged, followed-up and reported without needing to pick up a phone — all you need is an internet connection or a smartphone,” the email says.

She then describes how Coastal Cloud can provide this service, and she invites the elected officials to participate in a webinar “to discuss this solution.” The email is signed by Milissa Holland, mayor of Palm Coast, and director of state and local solutions for Coastal Cloud.

This email, Holland said in a July 2, 2020, interview, was not written by her. It was written by the Coastal Cloud marketing department based on their interviews with her. She did not authorize it being sent out to elected officials, and, in fact, she said, she didn’t even know it existed until more than two years after it had been sent, when the Palm Coast Observer requested the email in November 2019.

She said Coastal Cloud used to have its marketing done out of a Kentucky office, and now it’s done in-house in Palm Coast to make sure the messaging is handled correctly.

Holland said she is friends with many elected officials in other municipalities — including Orland, Ormond Beach and Volusia County — but she never uses her office as mayor to gain access or influence to favor Coastal Cloud.

“I’ve never reached out to them about my role at Coastal Cloud,” she said. “I keep those lines very clearly separated.”


Lunch, then emails

Two weeks after that marketing email was sent on Oct. 24, 2017, Holland emailed Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer on Nov. 6, 2017, asking if they could have lunch to discuss her recent trip to California.

At lunch, they discussed a wide range of initiatives in both cities, she said. Toward the end of the lunch, “I said, ‘I’m working hard,’ and we just opened up a conversation,” she recalled. Her work with Coastal Cloud came up. “It was so brief,” she recalled, “and he said, ‘I’d like to hear more about that part. Send something to my CIO.’”

On Feb. 1, 2018, Holland emailed officials in the city of Orlando. Using her email account, she wrote:

"Along with being Mayor, I am also the Director of Business Development for Coastal Cloud, a company that is Headquartered in my City. ... We are a Platinum level Salesforce Consulting partner. … Wanted to reach out to you to set up a call to discuss what we do from a technology perspective and our services …”

Former city employee Michael Schottey said this email is evidence that Holland is using her public office for private gain. Schottey is now running for mayor, against Holland.

But Holland said it was “an honest mistake" that she has since corrected. After finding the right person using her city email account, she later sent many emails using her Coastal Cloud email address. For example, Holland wrote again to Dyer on May 21, 2018, inviting him to visit her booth at the Florida City and County Management Conference, using her email, not her email.

“I have no problem admitting when I make a human error,” Holland said on July 2, 2020. “I’m a human being, and it was certainly a mistake on my part, but there was no intention behind it, other than I was responding to a conversation I had with Orlando. There’s nothing else to it.”

The whole situation has to be taken in context of her 3.5 years as mayor, she said.

“There’s no pattern of behavior or conduct," she said. "The independent investigator [Mendel] clearly stated that I had no involvement with withholding any of the emails from the public. … I think that certainly speaks to a lot of the allegations that have been floating around by my political opponents — that there’s just no truth to any of that.”

Several months after Holland's emails to Orlando in February 2018, the city of Palm Coast engaged with Coastal Cloud to work toward building Palm Coast Connect, in August 2018. Holland did not participate in public votes that led to that relationship, to maintain her distance and independence. The City Council voted unanimously to engage with Coastal Cloud. Reischmann said there was no legal problem, considering no money would be paid to Coastal Cloud.


Palm Coast Connect

Holland said Coastal Cloud had its own team to work with the city.

“I had no involvement,” she said. “I had no involvement in working with staff. That was the (Coastal Cloud) team that was assembled by the project manager at Coastal Cloud.”

But her role with Coastal Cloud made some city staff members feel uncomfortable.

The first to share her feelings publicly was Cindi Lane, the former communications manager. She said Holland did put pressure on staff to make Palm Coast Connect succeed. Several staff members resigned under pressure.

Lane wrote in a recent email to the Palm Coast Observer: “All of this has come at a high cost to so many — the employees including myself and many of my colleagues and friends whose careers and lives were disrupted and the citizens of Palm Coast who have paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in software licenses and salaries to support the project. Not to mention the cost to Palm Coasters in the loss of talent and related policy decisions that harm the city’s future.”

She called on both Holland and Morton to resign.

“City Council members should take a long hard look in the mirror and stop this runaway train,” she said.

Holland, however, defended her actions, saying that she has been careful to do her job as mayor, and let staff members do their respective jobs.

“I’ve sent thousands of emails as mayor of the city of Palm Coast, and there’s clearly no pattern of this kind of behavior or conduct in all of the investigations that have occurred,” she said.

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