What started as a seemingly innocuous 200-word Flagler County government press release about a commissioner’s donation to a social service agency has turned into a clash between two commissioners, a few unfounded accusations, a change in administrative procedure at the county and a commissioner’s plan to raise the issue at Monday’s commission meeting.
The issue involves Commissioners Joe Mullins and Greg Hansen, who have have been at personal polar opposites on the commission, Julie Murphy, the county’s public information officer, and on the periphery, Danielle Anderson, who is both a News-Journal community correspondent and head of the local Republican Club, County Administrator Jerry Cameron, and Linda Hansen, wife to Greg Hansen.
Both Hansens call it a “tempest in a teapot,” and from some perspectives, it is: a commissioner had an issue with another commissioner’s use of a news release, the matter was addressed. But the response from all parties involved suggests it isn’t that simple. The problem may point to more serious underlying issues in an administration that has gone from overly controlled under the previous administrator to unpredictably casual, with staffers either playing the game or paying the price.
The Mullins release points to lax oversight or an absence of clear procedures in how the county manages and disseminates information about commissioners, a blurry line that both Mullins and Hansen crossed in their dealings with the administration. It renews a conflict between Mullins and Hansen that Mullins is exacerbating with accusations about Hansen’s wife and claims about Anderson that aren’t supported by the record and contradicted by everyone else involved. And it raises questions about the county’s handling, and arbitrary removal, of Facebook posts at a commissioner’s behest, which are public records.
The afternoon of Sept. 26, Murphy issued the release about Commissioner Joe Mullins donating “a week’s pay to support the SMA program Women Assisting Recovering Mothers (WARM)” in Bunnell. Mullins speaks openly about his past issues with alcohol and drug abuse and currently chairs the Public Safety Coordinating Council, where some of these issues intersect. The agency formerly known as the Stewart-Marchman-Act Behavioral Health Services, now SMA, is the county’s largest independent recipient of social service subsidies, receiving $173,000 a year.
No one disputes Mullins’s good deed. He donated “about $700,” as the release stated with inexplicable vagueness. (Mullins’s gross weekly pay as a commissioner is $1,053, his take-home pay is $774, according to county records.)
But the release was unusual. The county’s public information office isn’t any single commissioner’s mouthpiece, nor are commissioners supposed to direct staffers to draft releases on their behalf. While releases have been issued to highlight individual commissioners’ accomplishments, those have been restricted to commissioners earning course credit or certificates related directly to their functions as commissioners. No releases from the county, the school board, Palm Coast, Bunnell and Flagler Beach have singled out a private deed by an elected official, however commendable, in recent memory.
“The commissioner went to the PIO and asked that the item be put out there,” Cameron said. “I don’t have first hand knowledge of how that happened.” In contrast with his predecessor, who obsessed over every word in every news release before it was issued, Cameron has largely trusted his staff to fulfill responsibilities without looking over its shoulders. Staffers might appreciate the approach, but if they don’t run things by their supervisors, it also leaves them vulnerable to misjudgments, and to taking the fall when things go wrong, as they did in this case. (Cameron has also been increasingly exasperated with intramural, unrelated brawls that have been undermining the highest levels of his administration.)
“He can’t direct her, she was just trying to be accommodating to a commissioner,” Cameron said. “It would be illegal for him to direct her. Commissioners cannot direct staff. I have an open policy that any staff person at any level is free to talk to any commissioner, but the commissioner, and they all understand this, they cannot direct staff members.” Clearly, however, both Mullins (then Hansen) gave at least some direction at various times, and Murphy followed through.
Murphy says Mullins had sent her a couple of lines about the donation, and between that and emails, she crafted the release and issued it to local media, sending a picture soon after. She posted it on the county’s website, on the county’s Facebook page and through Nextdoor, also a Facebook venue where the county disseminates information.
The next day, Linda Hansen commented on the county’s Facebook post: “I’m going to say that I do not believe it is appropriate to boost elected officials for what ordinary citizens do everyday, and I don’t like you doing it with my tax dollars.” She then edited the comment to add: “The article is fine, the plug for the commissioner crosses the line.” Nearly two dozen comments followed, overwhelmingly critical of the county for plugging Mullins, “doing free political ads” for him, and asking for it to be removed.
In an interview, Linda Hansen again commended Mullins for his deed, but said he should have publicized it on his own Facebook page without involving the county. “It wasn’t directed at Commissioner Mullins, it was directed at the website, and now I hear he’s very upset,” she said. “My apologies to Commissioner Mullins if he took that as an insult. It wasn’t. I was very careful just to target that at the commission in general, and I thought the OpEd did the same in the paper.”
On Oct. 2 the News-Tribune ran an editorial lauding Mullins’s donation but criticizing the county for issuing the release. “If commissioners’ private activities outside the scope of their duties as elected officials are given equal weight as other public announcements by county government, then the line between official business and campaigning is not merely blurred, it is wiped out completely,” the editorial read. “The county’s communications office exists to inform the public about issues and actions taken as part of the operation of county government. It is not there to promote the actions of individual elected officials.” (FlaglerLive ran the county item on Sept. 27, without the picture, and with a disclaimer that the “public relations release is published as a courtesy to the issuing agency and does not necessarily reflect FlaglerLive’s news standards or styling.)
The Facebook thread shows the beginning of a comment by Greg Hansen’s Facebook account as well, but the copy provided by the county, following a record request, does not show any content under his name. Hansen, at any rate, asked Murphy to take down the whole thread, along with the wording about Mullins–and Murphy complied, though staffers are not expected to take direction from commissioners. “If it was giving him heartburn and he was having anxiety and issue about it, I thought we’d remove it,” Murphy said.
The item is a public record. It’s still archived at the county, but not visible publicly, nor would anyone know it had been there, so the removal itself also may cross a blurry line: no commissioner would conceivably ask that the video of a public meeting be edited or removed, for example. Yet a Facebook post and a meeting video have the same value as public records.
Mullins claims “Hansen came in yelling and screaming” at Murphy and “blew up on” her over the release, and that Linda Hansen was “pounding” on Murphy on next Door. “She was all over next Door attacking Julie about it,” he said.
Cameron, Murphy and both Hansens said it was nothing like that–and screen grabs provided by Murphy of the Nextdoor thread show no comments from either Greg or Linda Hansen (Linda Hansen says she wouldn’t know how to get on Nextdoor).
“The only thing that’s going on is I went to Jerry and I said I thought that was really inappropriate,” Greg Hansen said today. “Writing up a story about the charity was fine, but as soon as you put the commissioner in there, the story becomes not about the charity but about the commissioner.” Hansen says he gives thousands of dollars to charity but doesn’t want it publicized. “As soon as you put somebody’s name to it it loses its value.” He disputed Mullins’s claim that he “blew up” at Murphy.
“How does he know that? Julie hasn’t talked to him, I haven’t talked to him,” Hansen said, “we had a very nice conversation, she called me and apologized.”
“He did not address Julie, he addressed me,” Cameron said of Hansen’s original conversation about the release, “and after I assured him that I would look into it, I asked Julie to give him a call and tell him that she didn’t intend to create a problem. So she did that. Of course he expressed his unhappiness with the way that had unfolded. Julie acknowledged it, we moved on.”
Murphy described her interaction with Hansen this way: “He was upset and he was concerned and he did talk to me about it and I listened.”
Commission Chairman Donald O’Brien and Commissioner Dave Sullivan weren’t distressed by the release, and thought it highlighted a necessary program that doesn’t get much attention. O’Brien said he’d researched the whole matter and spoken to various other county commissioners during last week’s Florida association of counties conference. “What I’ve gathered is that there’s nothing wrong, I don’t think, with having the PIO highlighting the good work that the commissioners do, which in turn reflects well on the county. I don’t really see the harm in that.” In some of the bigger counties, commissioners have their own staff, he said.
“I think the intention was really good on this one,” O’Brien said. “I think Joe’s intention was to try to highlight the good work of an organization that he felt it was important for us to support or for him to support.” But O’Brien acknowledged that there are matters of perception and risks that such releases could be seen as promoting the commissioner instead of the cause–especially at election time, though Mullins seat isn’t up in 2020 (as O’Brien’s is). O’Brien said if Mullins brings up the issue on Monday, he’ll suggest clearer procedures, perhaps ensuring that in a year when a candidate is running, no such releases be issued bearing that candidate’s name.
That’s what Mullins is intending. “The policy needs to be clear and we need to go over it and vote as a group, but I’m very concerned why one commissioner went in and went off on staff,” he said of Hansen. “He should have taken that up with me at the next commission meeting.”
Mullins also referred to the News-Journal editorial, suggesting that Danielle Anderson had written it–a rumor O’Brien had also heard. Anderson found the claim ridiculous. “Oh my gosh, I did not, I did not even know anything about it,” she said today, upset that Mullins would even suggest that possibility. “The fact that it’s ok to go around saying something when it’s not even true, how do you respond to that?” Anderson says Mullins is “vicious” to her or anyone who supported Nate McLaughlin in 2016, when McLaughlin was Mullins’s rival.
Nick Klasne, editor of the News-Tribune, dismissed Mullins’s claim. “Danielle Anderson did not write the editorial or any other editorial,” he said. As a community correspondent, Anderson doesn’t even go to the News-Journal’s offices, communicating by email and phone.
Hansen, too, was a McLaughlin supporter. He says there’s nothing going on between him and Mullins, and he thought matters had been going rather well in the last few weeks. “He for some reason doesn’t like me, and for some reason has attacked me and attacked me and attacked me,” Hansen said. “I don’t know what his problem is–he’s been very nice to me in the last few weeks. I supported Nate, maybe that’s why.”
In interviews on more than one occasion, including on Thursday, Mullins said he has nothing against Hansen, but he does see a continuing issue. “Whatever this battle is, it needs to end, because I don’t have time to fight with him. I think it’s the pace that I move. It’s a little fast,” Mullins said.
At midday Wednesday, Murphy sent an overtly chastened notice to all commissioners: “Given the blistering Op Ed in today’s News Tribune regarding a recent news release mentioning a commissioner and whether that release fell within what is an acceptable use of taxpayer money, the Communications Office – with the concurrence of Administrator Cameron and Attorney Hadeed – is returning to the standard followed in 2015. That standard is that the Communications Office will not write about commissioners individually, but only about the Board of County Commissioners as a whole. If a BOCC comment is required, it will come from the Chair or the Vice-Chair in his absence.” She said commissioners’ good deeds can still be addressed during commissioners’ own comment segments at meetings, while non-profits the county wishes to highlight can be invited to make presentations to the commission.
Later that day, Mullins emailed all commissioners, the county administrator and the county attorney, with the words, “For information only please don’t respond” in the subject line. (It was not a violation of the open meetings law: commissioners are free to send memos or communications, they’re just not free to engage in conversation, or respond.)
He was asking to address the matter on Monday, but stated explicitly his claims about Hansen’s alleged “blow up” with Murphy and his claim about the Tribune editorial: “There is no confusion this was in line of my commissioner and was done while touring a facility we are involved with,” he wrote. “I did this with hope it would encourage other commissioners to do the same. Staff clearly needs to be left out of any issue a commissioner may have with another. I would have never expected a commissioner to blow up about it. And will stand and defend the action of PIO. So please be prepared to discuss at next meeting both issues. I would also like to discuss information provided to me about who wrote the opinion and who inspired it.”