Palm Coast

Palm Coast Will Keep Johnston as Acting City Manager Until Permanent Replacement


The Palm Coast City Council on Tuesday voted to retain Lauren Johnston in the acting City Manager position until a permanent replacement is found. Johnston has served as Assistant City Manager since the hiring of Denise Bevan as City Manager; by standard procedure she moved into the top executive spot once Bevan was fired last month. The City Council decided she'd be suitable for the job until the hiring process is complete.

The main alternative presented to the Council was the prospect of bringing in Jerry Cameron, the retired Flagler County Administrator who's pursued a local city management position on multiple occasions since stepping down in 2021. Cameron's biggest supporter on Tuesday was Vice Mayor Ed Danko, who at one point motioned to bring on Cameron. He did not receive a second, causing his motion to fail.

The majority to retain Johnston was formed by Mayor David Alfin and Council members Nick Klufas and Theresa Carli Pontieri. Danko and Councilwoman Cathy Heighter dissented. Even where Heighter agreed with Danko's skepticism of Johnston's readiness for the job, she did not back Danko's support of Cameron as an alternative.

Councilwoman Pontieri made a motion at the previous City Council meeting to keep Johnston on until a permanent City Manager was hired, a motion which passed unanimously then. Ceremoniously speaking, the Council had already approved Johnston. The item in Tuesday's meeting was to ratify her contract, which is where Danko and Heighter's cold feet appeared and the conversation on Johnston's readiness took flight.

Much of the conversation came down to whether the City Council would be able to fire its pick without cause. Councilwoman Pontieri pushed strongly for the Council to need cause in order to fire, something the City Attorney cautioned against. She ultimately conceded, and motioned instead to accept the contract as it was initially written, allowing a no-cause firing if the occasion arose.

Tensions between Danko and Pontieri, high since the meeting where Danko supported Bevan's firing and was accused by Pontieri of violating Sunshine laws after he left immediately thereafter, remained strained on Tuesday. The two clashed over the distinction between 'acting' and 'interim' city managers (Pontieri was correct that the city charter draws no distinction) and eventually Pontieri sharply rebuked Danko's candor during the previous discussion. She said that he'd been "feigning support of [Johnston] in this position and then almost threatening that she's gonna be put in the same position [as Bevan]," referring to Danko's potential affinity for Cameron over Johnston. "I'm not gonna sit here and tolerate this," Danko responded. He was then told flatly by Alfin: "then you know where the door is."

Johnston first started in Palm Coast's city government in 2011, when she started as a recreation supervisor. She was promoted to Parks & Recreation Director, then Assistant City Manager, and now to acting City Manager. She hasn't yet indicated any interest in inheriting the permanent position, but Bevan herself began with the same disposition. The process of hiring a permanent City Manager is among the most time and resource-intensive for a city government to take on, often resulting in major resources dedicated to either conducting the search or hiring a third party to do it. Last time that process yielded no suitable candidates, leading the Council to keep Bevan, the acting City Manager for the last several months, instead.