Held in the Buddy Taylor Middle School cafeteria, a mayoral debate put on by the Daytona Beach News-Journal drew all six candidates in the running to be the next Palm Coast Mayor. Poised up on the cafeteria stage, the six hopefuls got one last opportunity to pitch their candidacy to residents before voting concludes on July 27th. Early voting began on Saturday the 17th, at three locations, and candidates have also appearing at the polling places to make one last impression before the fate of their campaigns is decided.
The event Monday night was moderated by Pat Rice, the Editor of the News-Journal. Each candidate was given 90 seconds per question with the order of answers rotating each time. Whichever candidate answered each question first was also allowed a chance at the end of the question to deliver closing remarks. Nine questions were asked, along with allotted portions at the beginning and end for opening and closing statements.
The topics asked Monday night, in order, were:
- Bringing decorum back to City Council meetings.
- Qualities to look for in a new City Manager.
- What’s broken at City Hall / whether to retain City Attorney Bill Reischmann.
- How to approach eliminating partisan politics in the city government.
- How to address problems with trash pickup.
- How to lessen flooding problems in Palm Coast.
- Whether to support Rick Staly’s request for ten additional deputies, at over $1 million a year.
- How to balance economic development with quality of life.
- How to repair Palm Coast’s image after a tumultuous last 18 months.
The debate almost wound up featuring only five candidates; organizers had removed the chair and name tag for Carol “Mother Elizabeth” Bacha, who came walking in just as Rice was explaining the format. Bacha cited carbon monoxide poisoning as the reason for her delay, and took her seat at the end of the candidates’ table.
Each candidate was introduced at the onset of the debate with a name and brief bio. It was easy to see at this point in the evening that it was an active crowd in attendance, applauding loudly when their candidate was first announced.
The first four questions broadly covered the same general issue: what’s wrong at City Hall, and how to fix it. Each candidate took the opportunity to sell themselves as leaders, mediators, and problem-solvers. Cornelia Manfre was especially focused on her resumé as such, touting her lengthy experience leading corporate entities and bringing businesses to Palm Coast.
Alan Lowe hammered on a common point from his campaigning: his presence at City Council meetings, and the most current knowledge of residents’ concerns out of the field. Doug Courtney mentioned leadership multiple times, and expressed his displeasure with the dynamic of four “alpha males” on the Council currently. He proposed remedying this with a Mayor who’s willing to run tight meetings, and a City Manager willing to speak truth to the Council if need be.
As she’s been in previous forums, Kathy Austrino was to-the-point with her answers, only hitting the end of her 90 second time once in nine questions. Austrino’s approach to the job was her shortest answer of the night: “If you live here, we’re here for you.”
David Alfin proposed to tackle City Hall with his skills as a negotiator. By appealing to each Council member’s desires, he pitched, he could lead the Council into a more functional governing body. On the third question of the night he likened the two unofficial perceived factions of the Council (Danko/Barbosa, Klufas/Branquinho) as two soccer teams kicking a ball back and forth, and with a score of zero apiece.
As she usually does, Carol Bacha made the most of her allotted time of each question. Bacha proposed that former City Manager Matt Morton had been forced to resign, put great emphasis on the City’s water pipelines, and recalled her own background as a nun, a nurse, and a medical enthnomusicologist. Where every candidate was offered their chance at final remarks if they’d gone first, Carol was not offered such a chance when she answered first on the fourth question.
Starting with the fifth question, the candidates were given the opportunity to dive into some specifics. Attendees were asked to raise their hand if they’d experienced issues with their trash or debris pickup, to which easily three quarters or more of the room obliged. David Alfin was first up, and suggested communication from City Hall as an under-appreciated potential solution. Alfin wondered whether all residents were setting out their trash at the right time and position. He also suggested bringing more local residents into the fold to alleviate Waste Pro’s staffing problems (drivers make approximately $140 a day in Florida, 12% below the national average).
Responding to Alfin’s communication solution, Austrino remarked that she’d never heard of residents not knowing how to put their trash out. She agreed, however, that much of the trash pickup problems can likely be traced to staffing issues with Waste Pro, who’ve complained of such issues in the recent past. Doug Courtney came with an original idea: splitting the duties of trash pickup 50/50 across the city. If the city is growing, Courtney reasoned, there was nothing standing in the way of having two companies split the load so that no one firm was overloaded.
Courtney’s sentiment was echoed by Lowe, who also floated putting the responsibility to bidders. Lowe and Courtney both mentioned fines levied to Waste Pro for lapses in service, and Lowe proposed giving revenue from such fines back to Waste Pro for the purposes of funding raises to the positions there’s difficulty filling.
For Manfre, the issue seemed to be one set to somewhat solve itself. Job vacancies would continue to be filled as the economy expanded post-COVID, she said, and further opportunities to improve waste pickup could be explored through technological modernization of the services.
Bacha opened her answer with a wordplay: “Trash and staffing…we can’t trash our staff.” She called on her time as a nurse to back up her understanding of the importance of staffing, and spoke that it must not be interfered with by partisan politics. Lastly, Alfin used his slot for closing comments to disagree with the idea to split up Palm Coast’s routes, insisting that the value of the city as a client for waste removal comes from the size of job being given.
The question of flooding more or less was answered as the question of swales. Austrino and Manfre’s answers touched a similar point: bringing in the best possible team of professionals to solve the problem from an engineering standpoint. Alan Lowe advocated for identifying areas in town most in need of service, and bemoaned the long wait times residents can have when reaching out to the City. Courtney observed that issues seem to be most common in older neighborhoods, and wondered it there’s enough staff and funds to best address the problem.
Bacha’s answer was among the most memorable of the evening. She opened up in song, reciting “You Can Never Go Down the Drain” by the incomparable Mister Rogers. Bacha related having known Rogers once, and related some advice he’d given her on 9/11. As a nurse, she said, you had to be mindful of stepping in fluid drainage from bodily orifices, drawing some surprised groans from the crowd. Furthermore, she declared that Palm Coast’s streets were not made for the kinds of heavy vehicles driving on it today.
David Alfin closed the flooding question, still smiling with the rest of the room from Bacha’s answer. He praised the performance of Governor DeSantis in Tallahassee, drawing loud cheers. With DeSantis hailing from the area as well as Paul Renner, next in line for Speaker of the State House, Alfin said there stands an opportunity to apply for grants from the state to solve flooding issues.
Rick Staly’s Ten-Deputy Request
Doug Courtney was first up to respond to a proposal by Rick Staly for funding accommodating ten new deputies accounting for the city’s growing population. Courtney suggested that it might soon be time to explore a Palm Coast Police Department, but stopped short of saying he supported it outright. He praised Staly’s performance and floated creating a citizen’s committee to deliberate further.
Alan Lowe recalled when Staly had asked for nine new deputies last year, ultimately receiving funding for only three from Palm Coast. He mentioned the influx of population to Palm Coast, and decidedly placed his support behind Staly’s plan. Cornelia Manfre felt in her element with this question, reminding attendees that she happened to be married to a two-term Flagler Sheriff. She did, however, question the need for so many more deputies with crime down significantly by Staly’s own figures.
Carol Bacha stood up with an NIV Bible in hand, and recalled again her experience in the medical field. She did give a direct answer though, stating that if Staly wanted ten deputies, she intended to give him ten. Alfin gave attendees a proverb to describe his take on law enforcement: “Beneath all lies the land, just above that is the infrastructure, and above all is public safety.” He went on to say he’d deliver on whatever Sheriff Staly told him was needed.
Kathy Austrino agreed that it would be necessary to find the space in the budget to accommodate Staly’s request, and promised to do so as Mayor. She agreed with Courtney about one day seeing a Palm Coast Police Department, but didn’t think that day was anywhere close to the present. In Courtney’s final comments, he noted that it may come down to Staly’s deputies or action on swales and waste management. He asked rhetorically which residents wanted, to which an individual in the first few rows chimed in, “pickleball courts!”, drawing one of the biggest laughs of the night.
The penultimate topic was one brought up near-constantly at this election cycle’s different forums and debates: economic development. Lowe expressed a desire to bring in smaller businesses as opposed to larger ones with the potential to pull the rug on dozens of jobs at once if they left (Sea Ray was mentioned), but also was critical of the city for losing out on potentially adding Amazon and Costco facilities.
Manfre pointed back to infrastructure as being necessary for bringing in new development and jobs. Bacha made a concrete promise to voters: that she’d put an immediate moratorium on development until a review could be conducted to ensure a Palm Coast equivalent of the Surfside disaster wouldn’t occur.
David Alfin mentioned MedNEX as a starting point for great future economic growth in Palm Coast. Austrino was also supportive of further of development: “We need jobs now. We need businesses now.” Courtney brought up a comprehensive plan for future development and advocated reviewing and sticking to it. Lowe in final comments questioned whether the city was still bound to any semblance of a plan, and called on Palm Coast to stop rezoning with such frequency.
Palm Coast’s Image
Pat Rice introduced the final question, about Palm Coast’s image as a city, by summarizing the turbulence it’s experienced in the last year and a half: the resignation of Milissa Holland with signs of investigation, the concurrent resignation of Matt Morton, and an array of high level employees stepping down or being fired in close proximity. Manfre again referenced her time in the corporate sphere serving as an ambassador, promising to bring those skills to Palm Coast.
When Bacha stood to speak, a heckler exclaimed, “oh no” from across the room drawing the laughter of several, including Lowe. She called this and other issues “red herrings,” and stressed again the importance of water and the environment in Palm Coast. David Alfin promised to bring the news media into the fold more regularly at City Hall, gesturing to some of the outlets in attendance. Austrino suggested cleaning things up in City Hall before increasing visibility.
Courtney brought up the expedient hiring of a City Manager, and stated it wouldn’t be overnight: “It will take time, but we will do it.” Lowe referenced the firing of Jay Maher by Matt Morton, and how damaging such incidents are to Palm Coast’s reputation. He pushed for strong leadership, trust, and mutual respect between the Council and residents as a way to fix image problems.
Candidates gave their mostly uneventful closing statements soon thereafter. Most thanked the attendees and moderator. Bacha sang Rockabye Baby, and advocated for clean-flushing toilets and working internet. Lowe took a jab at fellow candidates having received “dirty PAC money”.
The event then adjourned, and candidates took the chance to talk to voters one last time before they took to the polls.