- January 3, 2019
At its next meeting, the Flagler County Commission will discuss whether or not to fire County Administrator Craig Coffey, who was hired as administrator in 2007.
Commissioner Joe Mullins, speaking in his first meeting as a commissioner since he was sworn in just under two weeks ago, made a motion —also his first as commissioner— at the commission's Dec. 3 meeting to terminate Coffey. The motion died for lack of a second: Other commissioners didn't want to consider such a move without the presence of Commissioner Charlie Ericksen, who was absent.
But Mullins' proposal was followed by lengthy condemnations of Coffey's performance from not only Mullins, but County Commission Chairman Donald O'Brien and Flagler County Sheriff Rick Staly. Coffey sat silently throughout their comments, but said after the meeting that he objected to some of the comments that had been made about his performance, that some had simply not been true, and that he would compose his own response.
O'Brien, after stating that he did not feel it would be right for the commission to actually vote on Mullins' motion without Ericksen present, said that he'd already discussed his concerns with Coffey directly.
"I am very frustrated with Mr. Coffey's performance," O'Brien said. For O'Brien, "ground zero" for his frustration was Coffey's handling of the Sheriff's Operations Center building, which the county had constructed upon the bones of the former Memorial Hospital building after buying it in 2013, and which Sheriff's Office employees have said is a sick building.
"Mr. Coffey has demonstrated a lack of empathy and caring," O'Brien said. "Basically, what came across to me [from Coffey] was, those employees were faking it, they were not sick, there were no symptoms, or they were just trying to further a worker's comp claim. And I was appalled by that."
The issue had also wrecked Coffey's relationship with the Sheriff Rick Staly, O'Brien said, and Staly had told commissioners that he would only deal with them directly, not with Coffey.
Then there was the political fallout: "We’ve lost the political battle with respect to that building because the perception of the public, and I hear it every day, is that Mr. Coffey ... is trying to defend a bad decisions from years ago," O'Brien said.
Coffey also put the commission at a disadvantage when he let his deputy administrator, Sally Sherman, retire and then be rehired as a contractor at a higher rate; she was later hired back on as a regular county employee shortly after a state-mandated waiting period designed to discourage retired employees from being rehired when they are already pulling a state retirement, as Sherman is.
"She’s been a wonderful employee … but I think that Mr. Coffey put this commission in a bad position again with respect to public perception," O'Brien said.
O'Brien had also gotten complaints that calls to Coffey from prominent community members had not been returned, and he was concerned that some of Coffey's negative comments about the state Legislature in open meetings had damaged the county's relationship with its legislators. Clerk of Court Tom Bexley had also been critical of Coffey's handling of issues concerning Bexley's office.
And when the commission discussed its last budget, O'Brien said, Coffey had again put commissioners in a difficult position by presenting budget options that would have required tax increases, even though commissioners had told him ahead of time that they did not want to raise taxes.
"That, in my opinion, put me in a very frustrating negotiating position," O'Brien said. "And I don’t get the sense that that happens in other counties."
And most recently, O'Brien said, there was the handling of a proposed expansion of the Captain's BBQ restaurant at Bings Landing, which had generated community outrage.
Coffey had not scheduled the proposed changes for a workshop. He had instead placed a proposed new lease with Captain's, which would have let the restaurant build a larger location nearer the center of the county park, on the consent agenda for the very last meeting before former commissioner Nate McLaughlin, who was sympathetic to the proposal, was to be replaced by incoming commissioner Joe Mullins. The consent agenda is a bundle of generally routine business that is typically passed without discussion of individual items. Coffey, when challenged on the proposed new lease with Captain's BBQ, told commissioners that the current restaurant building is in disrepair and is not savable, but he did not present the commission with any data to support that claim. The board approved the new lease 3-2 — but, after Mullins took his seat Dec. 3, opted to reconsider the issue in a meeting Jan. 7.
"I just think there was poor communication to the public; there was misreading off the political situation,"O'Brien said.
O'Brien proposed the commission place a discussion about the possibility of firing Coffey on its agenda for Jan. 14.
Mullins, laying out his objections to Coffey's performance, echoed the issues raised by O'Brien about the handling of the Sheriff's Operations Center and Sally Sherman's rehiring.
He also objected to the placing of major expenses on the commission's consent agenda.
The handling of the Captain's BBQ proposal, he said, "was an attempt to skirt the public process and make a deal rather than meeting with all the stakeholders." Coffey, he said, had "basically ramrodded it through" the commission.
County Commissioner David Sullivan said that while he wouldn't, himself, have proposed Coffey's firing, he was willing to discuss it in light of his colleagues' comments.
Only Greg Hansen said outright that he had not seen any cause to fire Coffey — a comment that drew derision from the meeting's audience.
"Would you all please quiet?" he said to the crowd of about 100 people. "I just want to state that I think he's had problems, and he and I have sat down and discussed them, and I've seen corrections."
Sheriff Rick Staly, speaking during the meeting's public comment period, said he had seen little in the way of leadership from Coffey on the matter of the Operations Center, which has been evacuated since June.
"This building issue is a crisis, and it takes crisis leadership to solve," Staly said. "In the 13 months I have seen virtually no leadership from the administration on this crisis, unless I pushed it. What I have seen is resistance, denial, legal posturing, inappropriate and demeaning comments about my employees to county staff members."
Mullins made a motion to consider terminating Coffey's contract during the upcoming Jan. 14 meeting. It passed 4-0.