Communication, and the lack thereof, was at the center of Volusia County Council's first meeting of 2021 on Thursday, Jan. 7, as council members expressed disappointment over recent events, as well as each other.
Not long after the new council members were sworn into office, sharing statements of the need to work together, did the topic of communication reach the dais. It started when County Council member Ben Johnson reprimanded fellow Councilwoman Heather Post for an email to an employee within the county's community information division that he believed to be a verbal attack. Post's email asked for the council to be informed ahead of time on what would be presented to the public in a press conference, with specific regard to the Jan. 6 briefing held by the county after the vaccination event in Daytona Beach that prompted seniors to camp overnight earlier in the week.
“We’re supposed to set an example and promote unity up here. It’s destructive, counter-productive and demoralizing to staff to be unfairly berated by a council member, particularly when you’re doing the right thing," Johnson said.
The other council members were blindsided by Johnson's comments, with Chair Jeff Brower and County Councilwoman Barb Girtman saying they were disappointed at how Johnson approached the situation. Johnson later apologized to Post.
Girtman said she recognized they were in a "high-stress high-intensity" situation, and while she didn't always agree with Post's methods to air grievances, she didn't agree with Johnson's methods either.
“It’s a new year, it’s a new day, it’s a new opportunity to go forward," Girtman said. "I’ve some concerns with how some of the communication is issued. We’re a work in progress.”
Post, who apologized to the employee, read her email aloud to the council, and stated that she wanted county staff to notify them when there are public meetings, and what information will be shared so that when constituents ask, she is able to have answers. Post said she doesn't want to find out what the county is doing from the press.
“When I bring these things up, it is not meant to be an attack, it is meant to be, ‘hey this needs to be corrected, and we need to correct it and move forward,'" Post said.
County Manager George Recktenwald said moving forward, communication would be smoother if concerns are raised directly with him.
“We will work and improve on that, I assure you," Recktenwald said. 'In this particular case, again, [it] falls on me.”
Later in the meeting, the communication issue centered around COVID-19. Girtman said she felt the county's approach to handling the pandemic lacked a sense of urgency.
“You actually are seeing a more relaxed approach to this surge than the earlier time when the numbers were not as significant as where they are now," Girtman said. "I’m saying that even for us this morning in this room—we had no mandate for people to come in and wear a mask, we have people not social distancing in our own room, in our own space.”
Post also had a stern exchange with Public Protection Director Joe Pozzo and Patricia Boswell, administrator of the Florida Department of Health in Volusia County, over the lack of information surrounding vaccinations for seniors in the community and in longterm care facilities.
“I’m not sure what’s happening, but we need much more clear information and much more clear communication coming from the health department," Post said.
Pozzo assured Post that county staff, who found out about the Daytona vaccination site via a press release themselves, now had a significant role in registration and planning for future events. For her part, Boswell apologized, took full responsibility and promised to improve communications.