The swearing-in of new City Council members is usually a festive occasion, even after bruising campaigns. But that was not the case in Palm Coast on Nov. 17, when the swearing-in of four members was followed by name-calling between a sitting councilman and one of the newcomers.
The meeting was tense from the beginning: A group called the Flagler Liberty Coalition, which last month disrupted a Flagler County Commission meeting by refusing to wear masks in the commission chambers, did the same thing at the Palm Coast City Council chambers.
As was the case in the County Commission incident, the rules of the building require masks.
Some were escorted out by a Sheriff's Office deputy after refusing to don masks when Mayor Milissa Holland told them that they were required.
Several then spoke during the meeting's public comment period, objecting to masks and expressing displeasure with the city's decision to cancel its annual Christmas tree lighting event, which will be streamed live this year without in-person attendees.
The meeting briefly returned to normalcy as the council made appointments to various city boards such as the code enforcement board, and the city clerk swore in four council members — Mayor Milissa Holland and Councilman Nick Klufas, who'd been reelected, and Councilmen Ed Danko and Victor Barbosa, who were newly elected.
Toward the end of the meeting, Danko made his first motion as a councilman — proposing that the city open the Christmas tree lighting ceremony to the public as an in-person event. The event was scheduled for the next day, Nov. 18.
The annual city Christmas tree lighting is an event to inspire and to lift spirits, Danko said.
"However, at present this is planned as a video virtual event on YouTube that excludes the public's participation," he said. "Well, I've got to be honest: That's not going to lift any spirits or inspire anybody. You'd be better off staying home watching a Hallmark movie."
He noted that the event would be outdoors.
"We can follow CDC guidelines. We can social distance outside and we can wear masks like we're doing inside," he said.
Barbosa seconded Danko's motion.
Klufas said he believed over a thousand people attended the event last year, with the crowd "jam-packed."
"I just feel it would be very difficult to maintain social distancing with our Town Center space if we had the same type of attendance," Klufas said. "I don't foresee that being possible."
Councilman Eddie Branquinho agreed.
"I think it's also irresponsible to do that," Branquinho said. "Up to now, everything is based on responsibility. We don't allow, there's one unwritten rule that we do here: We don't bring politics here," he said, knuckle-rapping the dais and turning toward Danko, who was wearing a mask that said "Trump" across the front in large letters.
"We leave politics outside," Branquinho continued. "What we do is for the safety of the people of Palm Coast. That's why were wearing these masks, and believe me, I hate it. ... I think that what we're doing is not to hurt people, is not to kill the spirit of Christmas, it's for their (safety)."
He said there are soldiers on the COVID-19 front lines fighting to save lives.
"I mentioned in the past — all we do is bitch about this freakin' mask," he said. "My son, may God rest his soul, wore it 12 hours a day in that hospital to save lives. He never bitched once. Never once, he complained. ... And when someone tells me that we could do this, that we could bring 1,000 people here, that it's no danger — sorry. Be responsible, that's all I'm asking you."
"Well, I think I am being responsible," Danko said.
"No, you're not!" Branquinho snapped.
"Yes, I am, and I don't appreciate you raising your voice to me."
"No it's my emotion. It's my emotion," Branquinho said.
"Well, keep your emotion in check," Danko said. "I brought up a motion because there's a lot of people that feel this lighting of this Christmas tree brings more to them than just safety. ... I doubt a thousand people are going to show up if we announce this today, OK? People can spread out. There's a lot of space out there, and I think this would lift spirits of our community greatly."
Holland said she knew of one large event that had been held locally, but that one was ticketed and carefully coordinated to ensure social distancing.
"Without having a count, without having any type of measured approach, I am not comfortable opening it up," she said.
Palm Coast has low case numbers because it's been following health experts' advice, she said.
"We've been able to bring our numbers so low because of that approach," she said. "It really has saved lives."
Danko asked if the event could be rescheduled, with seating and limited numbers.
City Manager Matt Morton said the city has more employees in quarantine or in the hospital with COVID-19 that at any time during the pandemic, and, last year, it took 100 people to put together the tree lighting event. Doing that again would take a month of planning, he said.
Danko withdrew his motion, saying he was doing so based on Morton's statement about city staff.
But Danko and Branquinho weren't done tangling.
Approaching the close of the meeting, Branquinho congratulated both newcomers on their win, but then turned to Danko.
"One of the things you said in your campaign, sir, is that you’re going to do away with corruption in City Hall," Branquinho said. "I’m part of City Hall. You put me under the same umbrella. The only thing that I have that I pride is my name, my family name. I had my first pair of shoes when I was 7 years old. The only thing I have is my name. Now, due to the fact that you called me corrupt, until you either apologize to me personally, right here, or find out where did I get involved in any corruption, I will refer to you as 'Councilman Corrupt.' I will not use your name."
“Eddie, I never referred to you as corrupt," Danko said.
“Excuse me, excuse me, excuse me — I’m talking.”
“No, excuse me: You’re accusing me of doing something I didn’t do," Danko said. "I never singled you out. I singled you out?
“No, but you put me under the same umbrella," Branquinho said. "Until the day you apologize to me personally right here or prove that I’m corrupt, because I was part of City Hall —"
“I. Never. Called. You. Corrupt. Eddie,” Danko said.
“ — You will be called 'Councilman Corrupt,' by me.”
“You’ll be called 'Councilman Full of Crap' as far as I’m concerned," Danko said.
The arguing continued until Reischmann intervened, noting that the council has rules of debate and decorum — including that council members who want to speak should seek the permission of the mayor, and then be allowed to finish speaking without interruption.
“I would request that the council members abide by those,” he said.
Branquinho reiterated what he’d said earlier.
“The only thing I have is my name too," Danko replied, "so I don’t appreciate you abusing it, number one. But if you want to call me Councilman Corrupt, you can do it until the sun comes up on the Santa Monica Boulevard for all I care: I will refer to you as Councilman Full of Crap, OK? … I never singled you out, and for you to single me out is obnoxious and outrageous. So, Councilman Full of Crap, knock yourself out.”
“Thank you very much.”
“Well, you are welcome, Councilman Full of Crap.”
Speaking after the meeting, Holland said she believed the council will be able to come together and get things done — although she'd spoken after the meeting with the city attorney, who'd confirmed that the council is required to conduct itself with civility. The seating arrangement at the dais, where Barbosa and Danko are currently seated next to one another, may also change.
"Everyone is coming off a very contentious election season, and there was just a lot of emotion in the room," Holland said. "I believe everything will settle down, I believe we all be able to work together for the common good. ... We're all trying to do what we can to help our residents."