After Holland | FlaglerLive

A memorial for former Palm Coast Mayor Jon Netts earlier this year sharpened the sense that the city was heading toward a fork in its direction, possibly a distance away from the direction Netts and his follower, Milissa Holland, at the podium, set. (© FlaglerLive)

At a modest memorial and celebration of the late Jon Netts in March it became clear, as speaker after speaker spoke of what he’d done for Palm Coast–and what his successor had only improved on–that the city’s future would face forking paths, but not until 2024. Holland’s resignation just moved that up to July 27. 

pierre tristam column flaglerlive Holland says it’s a family matter. She has a long record of anguish to prove it. But it’s precisely that record that makes me think it’s not the whole story. Not when she heroically managed to meet her responsibilities at the city, at her job and at her coma-induced daughter’s side for months in South Florida in 2019. She navigated nightmares, facing what a parent should never face and contending with a byzantine health care system. She still pulled off a series of achievements for the city neither of her predecessors could claim. 

She’s done this once before–she resigned her County Commission seat two years into her second term, but to run for a Florida House seat, very nearly beating Travis Hutson. Holland doesn’t just walk away. The cynical in me fears something else is afoot. 

There’s also the obvious. Holland faced what can only be characterized as assaults on the dais, and not just the shock of that meeting earlier this month that put the whole council in fear. It’s been a parade of boors at meetings since their post-lockdown resumption at the city and to some extent at the county. Some of our own elected officials–Victor Barbosa, Joe Mullins–are fueling the vileness. It’s been targeting Holland since last year. And there’s no question that Alan Lowe, who ran his very nearly successful campaign against Holland last November, did so on similar innuendoes, slanders and outright falsehoods that never got corrected. There was no absence of malice. Maybe the wonder isn’t why Holland resigned, but why she waited this long. 

The way Palm Coast and county governments have gone, with goons in elected seats and zealots for audiences, it’s amazing to realize that Bunnell and Flagler Beach governments are now the county’s poles of civility, with a circus in between. The 67-day election we face for mayor promises to give the circus its third ring. 

Because of the council’s frayed make-up–a loose canon, an ideologue and two conservatives in the strictest sense of the term: they want to conserve Palm Coast as we know it–the new mayor will play an oversize role in setting the city’s direction, just as Holland did. So it can go either way. 

Realtor David Alfin has all the goods to be a mayor in the Netts tradition and still be his own man: intelligence, thick resume, copious civic involvements, current leadership of the Flagler County Education Foundation (the non-profit arm of the school district that gilds anyone who gets involved, its president especially). But there was that hesitant run for the council seat Barbosa took in a special election last August. Alfin got almost 21 percent of the vote in a four-way race, barely more than Dennis McDonald, which doesn’t say much for his campaign. Barbosa easily out-hustled him. Still: he lost to Victor Barbosa, a nobody then, a less than zero now. Maybe the result would have been different had Democrats rallied behind him instead of running their own Alfin-like candidate (in Bob Coffman). Alfin assumed too much, coming off more scripted than seasoned, and too rehearsed. Intelligence doesn’t win elections. Inspiration does. He also never addressed existing residents’ nervousness about growth, or about voting for realtors in high-growth periods, other than to sound like a booster for more growth–which isn’t what voters want to hear. 

He is, however, a changed man. He couldn’t have gone through what he did last year and not be (see below). I sensed that in a couple of recent conversations, the first one before Holland’s announcement. I’d called him again less than a week ago after getting his text that he’d be running for the mayor’s seat. He’d texted at 6 a.m. I called him right away. It wasn’t too early. He told me he’d been shoveling horse shit since 4:40 a.m., as he does daily (he and his wife keep eight horses). Keeps him grounded, he said. It’s the kind of unscripted Alfin I much preferred to hear. He exists. The question is whether he can convey that to the electorate, as he did not last year. And the worst thing he could do now is to assume again that people should vote for him blindly, given the opposition. 

Based on last November’s result, Lowe appears to be the frontrunner. But he starts at a disadvantage, at least compared to last year. First, he ran an emotional, impulsive campaign last year tailored to the emotional, impulsive one-off Trump voter. He’ll still have those voters this time, but not nearly as many. Off-year and special elections draw on a harder-core, more involved, more demanding voter. (Turnout was so low in the 2011 mayoral election–11 percent–that Nets ended up winning with what amounted to a little over 5 percent of the registered vote.) 

Second, Lowe won’t  have Holland–or anyone–as punching bag. Alfin is just coming off a memorial ceremony where his son, an FBI special agent murdered last year as he served a warrant in South Florida, was honored alongside other fallen officers. If Lowe tries anything tawdry against Alfin, it’ll only stain Lowe, badly and deservedly. That will force him to come up with fewer libels (“the city is corrupt”) and more substance. He hasn’t shown substance or a familiarity with facts to be a strength so far, letting the apocalyptic rhetoric dominate his previous run. It’s not for nothing that the Observer’s Brian McMillan asked him on WNZF last Friday, alluding to the recent intemperance at council: “Are you more likely to be someone who could fuel some of that kind of contention?” Lowe handled the question deftly, as he usually does in a non-ideological setting: he’s poised, likable, measured. He can come across as serious and sincere. You want to believe this guy with the wizened beard and humanitarian streak. 

But he’s going to have to convince us that what we see is what we get, considering the unseemliness of what we also learned last year–the thefts of intellectual property, the easy slanders, the scorched-earth promises if he gained office, and of course the “sovereign citizen” period, which is no small matter even by way of youthful indiscretions: signed and documented treason wrapped in religious zealotry isn’t mere indiscretion–especially when running against the father of a fallen hero. In an ordinary election in an ordinary society, it’s an immediate disqualifier. Of course, there’s been nothing ordinary about our politics anymore. The outrageous is just another way to build a brand. 

Lowe calls himself a “conservative.” But when I hear Councilman Ed Danko say “I need Alan Lowe,” I hear the guillotine’s blade getting sharpened. Danko wouldn’t need anyone if he saw eye to eye with Nick Klufas and Eddie Branquinho. There’s nothing wrong with that. We need diversity of ideas on local boards, not just of skins and ethnicities (lost cause though that is in our whitening red county). Of course Klufas and Branquinho represent Palm Coast as it is, as we’ve known it in Holland’s years: they’re the actual conservatives, and they’re glumming onto David Alfin to be the third in line after Netts and Holland.  Danko and Lowe are the radicals. They want a change in course. 

Not that they haven’t fair points: the city’s ban on commercial-vehicle signage in residential driveways is absurd–Palm Coast isn’t an homeowner association–and the tennis center expansion is a bit more Versailles than Town Center-worthy, to say nothing of the way it was slammed through. There was arrogance and defensiveness there, not community consensus and transparency. But beyond that, Lowe and Danko seem more intent on countering than constructing, as when Danko dogmatically says, reading the first Bush lips, “no new taxes,” a meaningless appeal to outworn ideological base instincts, not to governance. Meanwhile Democrats may be running around trying to throw candidates like spaghetti on the wall, hoping one of them will catch on. They’re delusional and short-sighted, considering what happened in the Barbosa election, and especially in what ought to be a non-partisan election. 

Sure nobody buys the non-partisanship. But that was one of Holland’s secrets. She did not govern as a Democrat or a Republican. She found ideology distasteful and meaningless locally. That’s what made her effective. And if there’s one thing ripping the heart out of local government and letting primitive instincts take over, it’s ideology. The July election may come down to this: do you want governance, or do you want ideology? You’ll certainly have a choice, and it’ll define Palm Coast’s future. 

Luckily, neither Alfin nor Lowe sounded ideological when they appeared jointly on WNZF’s Free For All Fridays last week. They sounded more alike than dissimilar. The mere fact that they appeared together was itself encouraging: this election may get serious for the right reasons after all. They talked issues, respectfully and interestingly. Ideology may get kicked to the side. The question is whether what we see is what we’ll get. Lowe last year revealed himself differently in different mediums. He’d be Jekyll on a forum or in person only to go Hyde on Facebook. Alfin was not visible enough behind his ivy. Friday’s template could be their model. It was no Lincoln-Douglas debate, but it was real. Here’s to more of that reality and less, much less Facebook. 

Pierre Tristam is FlaglerLive’s editor. Reach him by email here. A version of this piece aired on WNZF.

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