The city of Palm Coast opened an HR inquiry on City Councilman Ed Danko concerning reports that he'd "exploded" at or berated several city staff members. Danko denied the accusations.
The case was set aside during the city's administrative transition and has not formally been closed — so there has not yet been a final determination made on the accusations against the councilman. A March 16 draft preliminary findings executive summary report, however, stated the following:
"The evidence gathered during this investigation supports the finding that Council Member Danko inappropriately attempted to influence staff's administrative duties."
Council members are prohibited by the City Charter from interfering with city staff: The charter's Article 4 (11) states that such interference "shall be malfeasance within the meaning of Florida Statutes."
"These things didn’t happen the way these people say it happened. ... At no time did I direct any staff member."
— ED DANKO, Palm Coast city councilman
"This is absurd; it really is," Danko said about the allegations. "These things didn’t happen the way these people say it happened. ... At no time did I direct any staff member to do anything. And that is what this is all about: The charter does not allow us to direct staff members; that’s why there's a city manager."
Danko, asked on June 22 whether he'd been the subject of a city HR investigation, had said, "No — that's ridiculous." He explained in an interview June 24 that he'd not been informed of the allegations until June 23, after the previous interview, and only learned of it because he'd asked the city attorney.
Morton, the records show, brought the staff members' complaints to the attention of the city's HR director, Renina Fuller, in an email on Feb. 3, telling Fuller that he was dealing with an HR issue and wasn't sure how to proceed.
"Mr. Danko 'exploded' at Virginia Smith before the Council Meeting last night in front of many employees (Doug, Brad and others) – she was insulted and humiliated and came to me in tears," Morton wrote in the email.
Morton, in his email, had added that Danko's behavior was a pattern, that Smith feared retaliation from Danko, and that the matter "may require an independent analysis."
In the Feb. 2 incident before the council meeting, Danko and Smith had been discussing the reading of proclamations at City Council meetings: Danko had told Smith that he wanted more time to prepare before reading the proclamations, she wrote in her HR statement.
When he'd asked Smith who assigned the readings, she'd told him that the readings are in the agenda packet sent to council members ahead of time and that then-Mayor Milissa Holland assigned them.
Danko, raising his voice, replied that he would not read that day's proclamation, Smith wrote.
"I said the Mayor assigns the Proclamations and if you want to know in advance who is assigned, you will have to request that under Council Comment," she wrote. "... He yelled interrupting me and said, 'She is not my boss, I will not bring this up, I will give it back to her, I will just tell her when she gets here.'"
Smith told him he couldn't do that; because the matter was city business, discussing it with Holland outside of the context of the meeting would be a Sunshine Law violation.
Danko again yelled about Holland not being his boss, Smith wrote, and Smith replied to him that Holland was the one who controlled the meetings.
Danko, she recalled, then told her to tell Holland that he wouldn't be reading the proclamation. Smith said she refused, telling him, "I will not tell her; I will not be your conduit, I will speak with Mr. Morton.” Danko, she wrote, had replied, ”Fine — so will I.”
Danko, speaking to a reporter about the incident, said Smith had referred to Holland as his boss.
"She said, 'Well, Mayor Holland wants you to read this, and Mayor Holland is your boss,'" Danko said. "I said, 'Mayor Holland is not my boss: The citizens that elected me are my bosses.'"
He added, "All of the sudden, now I find that Virginia Smith filed a complaint because I told her Mayor Holland is not my boss?"
In another instance mentioned in the HR case, Marsha Lidskin, a writer who helps put together the city's newsletter and has worked for the city's communications department since 2005, reported in an email to Fuller that Danko had berated her when she was preparing his bio for the city's website.
She's asked him about organizations he'd served with, and he'd mentioned that he was president of the Trump Republican Club of Palm Coast, Lidskin wrote in the email. She told him she'd gladly mention the position, but would leave out Trump's name to avoid making the newsletter political.
"He jumped on my response immediately," she wrote. "He specifically asked me, 'who told me to say this?'"
She told him it was her decision; she'd been the newsletter's editor for 15 years.
"He then said this to me: 'What are you – some kind of liberal?' I was astonished and got quiet for a moment," she wrote.
She tried to change the subject, she wrote, but, "He interrupted me and said the following: 'You know what? I don’t want to talk to you anymore. I don’t ever want to talk to you again. Nor do I want to ever meet you or work with you.' He then hung up on me."
She added, "No one whom I’ve ever worked with in the City of Palm Coast has ever spoken like this to me. I sat quietly for a moment, trying to keep myself from getting really upset and angry."
Danko said the the incident with Lidskin had occurred before the election — before he was on the council or subject to the city's HR rules.
When Lidskin had told him that the rule against including politics in the newsletter was her own rule, he said, "I said, 'Wait a second. You have your own rules? We're a city. You don’t get to have your own rules.'"
He remembered asking her if she was "some kind of liberal."
"I said, 'You know what, I’m going to go above you: I’m going to call the city manager — goodbye,'" he said.
In the third incident, a public works employee, Greg Doston, "reported being accosted by Mr. Danko in a Road Median – Mr. Danko was agitated and disrespectful and directing employee(s)," Morton wrote.
Handwritten investigative notes submitted by a city employee handling the HR case suggested that Morton's language about that incident may have been too strong: Doston told the investigator that he "had [a] conversation with Mr. Danko, did not feel threatened, was not accosted."
"Mr. Danko pulled up to the jobsite and in an unpleasant manner he questioned the crew on why we weren't directing traffic," Doston wrote in a statement submitted as part of the HR inquiry. "During the conversation he aggressively stated that he was a current member of the council and was going to inform the City manager about out lack of safety protocols."
The employees, Doston wrote, told Danko that they were within the FDOT-required time limit for setting up a lane closure.
"He then proceeded to drive away aggravated," Doston wrote.
Danko said he'd been concerned about the safety of the setup because the workers' trucks were blocking drivers' view of oncoming traffic, and the he'd only mentioned to the staff members that he was a councilman after he'd been treated rudely by an employee.
"I edge my way up and I stop and I say, 'Perhaps you might want to put up a flag,'" Danko said. A staff member's reaction, he said, was insulting. "I thought, 'That's no way … to be treating our citizens.' So I said, 'I’m an elected councilman … and I’m going to call Matt Morton and tell him about your nasty attitude."
Danko said that he did so, "And that was the end of it."
After the HR inquiry's preliminary findings report was presented to then-City Manager Matt Morton's administration, the report sat idle, and the city took no action, Kershaw said.
Morton announced on May 27 that he would be resigning. Former Mayor Milissa Holland had resigned May 18.
The City Council appointed Denise Bevan, then the city's chief of staff over infrastructure, to the interim city manager position; on the City Council, Vice Mayor Eddie Branquinho is serving as acting mayor until the July 27 special mayoral election.
Kershaw said that the preliminary HR findings report on the Danko case hasn't yet been reviewed by the city attorney.
"Our current administration is reviewing the process, and we’ll consult with our legal team as needed," she said.