Last Updated: Nov. 2, 8:56 a.m.
Since before his election County Commissioner Joe Mullins has hosted a weekly half-hour radio show on Saturdays on WNZF, paying for the airtime. A few weeks ago the show was guest-hosted by an unusual quartet: Julie Murphy, the county’s public information officer, with “guests” Al Hadeed, the county attorney, County Engineer Faith al-Khatib, and County Commissioner Dave Sullivan. Mullins himself was absent, and had suggested the others could fill in for him. The focus was on Flagler Beach’s dunes reconstruction project with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
At the end of the commission meeting last week, Mullins raised the possibility of making that sort of show a more regular feature. But it raised numerous implications, as it would have county employees and county commissioners filling air time on Mullins’s dime. They wouldn’t be making money, but they would be appearing in the equivalent of commercial airtime, paid for by Mullins.
It’s giving the county administrator, the county commission chairman and even the county attorney, despite his own appearance on the show, pause, though none of them saw Mullins’s offer as anything but well meaning.
But it eventually led the administration and Sullivan to opt to repay the cost of the show and declare it on ethics disclosure forms. Sullivan and Hadeed are required to disclose in-kind of other gifts of $100 or more value on the so-called Form 9, which officials are required to fill out quarterly, when applicable. “I think the only way for us to handle it is for us to publicly state that we have reimbursed the person who paid for the show,” Sullivan said.
The county administration reached that decision after consultations with Mark Herron, the attorney who’s handled many of the commission’s ethics cases. Herron had himself consulted with the legal staff of the state Commission on Ethics before issuing his opinion. “The pre-paid radio time is a gift,” Herron wrote in an Oct. 24 memo. “The choice of whom would participate was not determined by the in kind contributor. The lineup was determined by the subject matter to be considered, spearheaded by the county’s Public Information Officer. This is her role, to design public information communications. It was substantive content and not partisan or political, nor a discussion of policy choices. Each speaker was selected for substantive and actual knowledge. Participants included two “reporting individuals.” The broadcast was exclusively moderated by the Public Information Officer. No outside phone ins were part of this broadcast.”
But that opinion and the decision it led to hadn’t been issued when Mullins raised the issue at the commission meeting.
Mullins said he got showered with compliments about the show by the county officials other than himself (“how they enjoyed that show over mine,” he said).
“With that response I’d like to see that happen on a regular monthly thing,” he said, mentioning such show topics as the census. “I’d like to bring that up with the other commissioners and just get a feel of it if you’re all OK doing this, and just having commissioners come on and spotlight some positivity and some of the things that are happening in the community, and let the staff, Julie is the host of it, let her continue to host it.”
Mullins alluded to a similar show that Mayor Milissa Holland had hosted on WNZF for a short time, though he did not allude to the controversy the show triggered–even though (if not because) that one was paid for entirely with public dollars. Palm Coast had planned a $10,000 contract with the radio station for a weekly show. The controversy was not so much that it involved Holland or the city as much as how it had been developed: Then-Manager Jim Landon had kept the plans from the city council, and had no intention of seeking its approval for the expenditure. But Holland herself mentioned the show in an appearance on Free For All Fridays, triggering a debate about it. Within weeks, the city retreated, abandoning the planned format for a “podcast” approach featuring staff members, but even that was short-lived, as it got little response.
David Ayres, the general manager at Flagler Broadcasting, would not say how much he charges Mullins for the half hour, but the rate for the Palm Coast show in a similar time slot had been $250.
Mullins explicitly brought up the idea at the commission meeting to vet his colleagues’ response, but that response was skeptical.
“I don’t know what the legal side of that is,” Commission Chairman Donald O’Brien said.
“I’m not sure what the point is, what are you trying to do, Joe?” Commissioner Greg Hansen asked. Mullins explained. “Where would you do this?” Hansen asked. Mullins explained.
“I know this is something you pay for,” O’Brien said, but he wanted guidance from the administration on “how it can and cannot happen.”
Commissioner Dave Sullivan compared it to commissioners’ appearances on Free For All Fridays, though in that case Ayres alone, who is not affiliated with government, decides who appears on his show, what the topics are, what the questions would be, and of course none of the guests have to pay, or appear on someone else’s dime other than the radio station’s. All commissioners are frequent guests on Ayres’s show, though never at the same time, to avoid sunshine law violations.
“I don’t see any problem with it as long as we have a protocol that the administrator looks at,” Hadeed said.
County Administrator Jerry Cameron said “we may be able to do it, I’d have to get comfortable with Al before I put staff in a bad position.” But he said it would be an “excellent” opportunity to get information out, as long as it’s not politicized.
In interviews afterward, officials were more cautious. “This is the first I heard of it,” Cameron said. “I knew Julie had gone in on one show to present several issues the county had, I didn’t know Joe was going to present that tonight so I got caught kind of flat-footed on that.” What can’t happen, Cameron said, is that Murphy, as “host,” would be perceived in some sort of employer-employee relationship, since Mullins is paying for the show, or even controlling the show. “He couldn’t have any control over the show. He would be playing the role of an advertiser that was sponsoring a show,” Cameron said.
But even then, that would place the county and its officials in a position of being sponsored by a commissioner, raising questions of conflict.
“There is the potential for that and there’s also the optics of it and I’d have to deal with both of those in order to get comfortable,” Cameron said. “Certainly if it involves staff it would be my decision as to whether or not to embrace that concept. I haven’t reached the comfort level yet, but I’m not ready at this point to rule it out. I want to talk to Al Hadeed some more, I want to see what the ethical implications are.”
Cameron’s most essential aim: to avoid politics or any hints of improprieties. “You not only have to avoid impropriety, you have to avoid the appearance of impropriety,” he said.
Sullivan even the evening of the commission meeting said that, considering the potential appearance of impropriety, he would opt to repay whatever was the cost of the show. He maintained, however, that there was nothing wrong with appearing on the show.
Hadeed in an interview elaborated, describing Mullins’s ceding the half hour to county officials as an “in-kind contribution to county government to talk about the dunes renourishment project.” As for Mullins’s larger proposal to make it a regular, monthly show for county officials, “If the purpose is truly public information, non-partisan, substantive in content, then I think it’s entirely appropriate,” Hadeed said. “Now again it depends on the particular show we’re talking about, we’re not talking about employees appearing on a different kind of a program, say, where it’s a public affairs program where it’s not a focused agenda, where a number of issues might be discussed or a public policy where the public policy is not formed yet.”
It would be permissible only on issues already settled by commissioners, not issues they’re about to vote on or still debating, Hadeed said. “I’m not at all recommending to the commission that it does this. It has to consider this as a policy matter whether they might use this kind of approach for future issues.” He noted that a regular, monthly slot would open the door to some risks that, in the hunt for topics, officials might find themselves talking about issues that don’t fit the strict protocol. “Then it does become troublesome, or potentially troublesome, certainly likely to be perceived as troublesome.”