An otherwise limited and routine Flagler County Commission meeting this morning was punctuated on three occasions by comments or discussion about Commissioner Joe Mullins’s behavior on his Facebook page, and a request from three residents that he be “censured” by the County Commission. But Dave Sullivan, the newly installed chairman of the commission, said he would not allow the matter to become commission business.
“I’m not going to allow the board to discuss that directly,” Sullivan said. “I consider it mostly a private matter. This board will never agree to any form of census [he meant censorship], of keeping information from the public, of any type of controlling information. However, we always want to use good language and take into consideration that people may have different views. But as far as the board goes and unless the rest of the board differs with me, I’m just not going to allow us to discuss that here at the board because I consider it to be a private matter.”
None of the board members challenged Sullivan’s decision or asked to speak just then, but moments later Mullins said he would “always exercise my First Amendment right. I don’t try to take it from anyone. I just want it to be fair, I want it to be a situation to where both sides of the story are told, and I damn sure don’t want to be intimidated by anyone.” He alleged, without examples, that there’d been “a lot of dialogue and intimidation,” before switching to talking about the president. But when he said he’s always respected the president, whoever was in office, and segued into speaking about “socialism” not being something he preaches or likes, Sullivan stopped him: “I asked that we not further discuss it because it’s not an issue I want the board to get involved in,” Sullivan said.
Sullivan did not hide his exasperation with the issue in an interview after the meeting. “The person to stop it is Joe, he just stops responding, it’ll begin to end the situation,” Sullivan said, referring to Mullins’s back-and-forth instigations with commenters on his Facebook page. “It’s not an easy thing to handle because I don’t want to limit people’s expression, but I do think when he sits there as a board member, I do have the ability to restrict him. I don’t know. It’s not a good situation.”
Sullivan said he was intent not only on stopping any discussion about Mullins’s dealings on his own Facebook page, but also about Mullins’s more recent intimations that he wanted some sort of regulation or “policy” about local media–matters on which neither Mullins nor the commission have a say.
“Other Counties are taking action to identify credible news outlets and a stron [sic.] policy for everyone to follow,” Mullins wrote on his Facebook page on Sunday. Mullins often makes unsupported statements. There are no local governments “taking action” that way. At most, larger state and federal agencies at times provide credentials to enable access to certain sensitive areas, but otherwise no local government has the authority to regulate news organizations’ work in any way, let alone define news organizations, as Mullins–who has taken to calling FlaglerLive “fake news”–intimated he wanted to do.
Mullins at the end of the meeting today again alluded cryptically to taking such steps: “Hearing some of the media stuff, it’s probably time to look at some of this media stuff a little closer and how we go about it and what we do, qualifying it, that’s something maybe in the future we need to look at.”
Other commissioners are intent on preventing that.
“I would not be interested in having that discussion, period. Unless Al told us differently, I think our policies are just fine,” Commissioner Donald O’Brien said after the meeting. “Commissioners can sit up there and say anything they want, they can say it on social media, they can say it at a public meeting, they can say it in an email, they can say it in an OpEd, it doesn’t mean I agree with it.”
“Most of this mishegoss–that’s a yiddish term–is just what it is: it’s nonsense. It just reinforces to me why so many normal people don’t participate in social media.”
O’Brien had been especially irritated by the discussion during the meeting, after hearing public comments and getting a sense of the issue, about which he said he’d known almost nothing beforehand. “A lot of this discussion I felt like I walked in in the middle of the movie, right in the middle and didn’t know what the heck was going on,” O’Brien said. “There’s also an opinion out there that most of this mishegoss–that’s a yiddish term–is just what it is: it’s nonsense. It just reinforces to me why so many normal people don’t participate in social media, because it’s just nonsense. I just wanted to say that. It’s frustrating that we have to waste a lot of time.”
Sullivan echoed O’Brien, stressing that no county policies would change, especially regatrding the county’s relationship with media. “I did not want to force the commission at an official meeting to have to address an issue like censorship and that kind of thing,” Sullivan said. “I don’t think anyone else on the board has any desire to do anything that would restrict freedom of the press, and if all of a sudden we came up with a rule along those lines I think it would be quickly challenged.”
Mullins maintains an active Facebook page where he lists himself as a county commissioner, among other things. He discusses county issues and showcases his support for Donald Trump, often through abrasive statements generally demeaning to the opposition, in a style closely cribbed from Trump’s own social media bare-knuckled pugilism. Mullins appears to relish provoking verbal confrontations with readers in comments to his posts, in turn drawing questions from constituents to the county administration about the propriety of his behavior.
“I find your comments on that Facebook page offensive, divisive, and beneath the dignity of the office that you hold. Your comments do not help to bring us together,” Edith Campins, a local resident, told him at this morning’s commission meeting. The comments, she said, “incite violence, and they’re really beneath the office that he holds, and they deserve public condemnation.”
County Attorney Al Hadeed drew a line between the Mullins page and county business–a line he cautioned against crossing. The county does not sponsor, curate, finance, review, comment on, have anything to do with any of the Facebook pages or other personal activities of the county commissioners,” Hadeed said. “Now it is true that by discussing county business on his Facebook page that he maintains personally, he may have other obligations of the law. The only requirement–and I pointed this out to Ms. Jane Gentile Youd, who had posed the same question–and that is, he is not permitted to represent that he is presenting the official county Facebook. He is permitted to talk about public matters on his Facebook, just as commissioners may with their personal email accounts talk about personal matters–I mean public matters. But there are consequences that flow from that choice that is made by the commissioner. It does not violate any rule of the county. Again, provided that there’s no representation that it is the official county position.”
Mike Cocchiola, a local Democratic Party leader, had begun the meeting’s public comment segment by imploring commissioners to focus on local issues. (Mullins’s “Focus on Flagler” ballcap, which he would at times place on the dais, was not in evidence at this meeting.)
“It’s been a fairly tumultuous year,” Cocchiola said. “We’ve had some large issues to deal with, and some of those issues are going into the next year, and the only way we’re going to solve those issues is working together as a community, bringing everybody together, forgetting about outside politics, forgetting about all of that. This is Flagler.” He said he was imploring the commission “to urge that kind of thing, to work together as Flagler, to work together as a community, to keep us local.”
Kathy Austrino, a Realtor who spoke as a representative of the TAGVBear Foundation, a local non-profit that supports children in families facing adversity, spoke of her work for the foundation in preparation for Thanksgiving. She cited “one example of the many times” Mullins referred to Austrino and her work in a ridiculing way. She then cited various Mullins posts deriding Trump opponents or claiming that “we’re coming for you.” (Austrino says she’s a “big ole Trumpkin,” but opposes “division” or intimidation.) Austrino–a supporter of Nate McLaughlin, whom Mullins defeated a year ago–read from a three-page statement she then handed off to Jilli Nel, because of time constraints during the public comment segment.
The two women at the beginning and end of the meeting went through variously insulting and demeaning Mullins statements from his Facebook page (referring to one resident–the sole provider, disabled mother of three who works at a fast-food restaurant–as “Cheesburger Chelsea,” telling a former county commission candidate to “please shut your bitter mouth”) before listing a series of requests of the commission, among them the request to “censure” Mullins. They also asked to see proof that Sullivan and County Administrator Jerry Cameron had paid for the tickets to a recent University of Florida football game, where they were featured in selfies with Mullins. (Both said they paid their own way. Sullivan said his ticket was in the $250 range. Cameron said he would make the documentation available publicly.)
Sullivan, a friend of Mullins’s, acknowledged in the interview after the meeting: “He put me in a very difficult position.”
The commission was expected to take one step that could silence Mullins–at least in so far as his social media activity during county commission meetings is concerned: the commission is considering prohibition commissioners’ use of cell phones during meetings. Two weeks ago the Observer’s Brian McMillan reported that Mullins was posting “a pro-Trump meme on Facebook,” drawing rebukes from readers telling him to focus on the commission meeting. Mullins subsequently told the Observer that the Trump meme “was actually scheduled by his marketing team in advance.”