Mike Cocchiola, the chairman of Flagler County’s Democratic Party, urged the Flagler County Commission today to issue a joint, written public statement that “it supports all citizens equally” and blistered Commissioner Joe Mullins for “inflammatory” language stating publicly that liberals should love “Trump county” or leave it while offering to provide buses and trains to help them along.
Several others echoed Cocchiola’s words, while some spoke in support of Mullins. It was the second time in three months that residents criticized Mullins at a commission meeting for making bigoted or divisive statements through social media. Though candidates for office have at times pushed the limits of civil discourse on social media or the campaign trail, no such conduct has ever been seen from a local elected official.
Mullins considers it his First Amendment right, and thrives on the seeming separation between his social media account and his title as commissioner, though he routinely uses the same account to feature his public-business appearances, make pronouncements as a commissioner and address public issues.
And for the second time in three months, commissioners demurred.
“We had a lot of comments this morning,” Commission Chairman Dave Sullivan said. “All five members of the commission were elected by the people to represent all the people of this county. However, when we come to these meetings, we don’t really need to get into political discourse from either side. We don’t need personal attacks. We don’t need bad language. We don’t need frivolous lawsuits. We want to get on with the business of the county.” He said commissioners aren’t here “to argue who’s right politically or who’s too aggressive in their private matter.”
Sullivan had effectively parried the request by Cocchiola and others by schooling them in red herrings. None of the speakers had used language anywhere near the personal attacks that Mullins has been leveling at residents, nor “bad language,” or threatened “frivolous lawsuits,” nor had anyone argued about who was right or wrong politically, or made political statements: the recurring request to commissioners this morning was the opposite–to make a clear statement of representative unity toward residents of all stripes. And it was focused on county business, and commissioners’ behavior as such.
“There’s no easy solution to this, there is disagreement out there, and I realize it, but that’s not the purpose of the board of county commissioners,” Sullivan said. “The purpose of the board of county commissioners is to provide governance with our staff to ensure that we have the best possible situation for our people, security, safety, and good roads, that kind of thing.”
But Cocchiola’s concerns were not disconnected from county business, even less so from concerns with security.
“Over the past couple of weeks there has been some inflammatory language against some Flagler citizens by commissioner Joe Mullins,” Cocchiola said. “First, he has indicated that he’s going to bring God and his religion into this board and into our public schools. Looks like he’s already made it to this board. That wasn’t a moment of silence. That was a prayer,” Cocchiola said, referring to Commission Chairman’s opening prayer, which in fact was not silent: in a shift from previous commissioners in recent memory, Sullivan invoked God in a clear, brief prayer (“we ask God to bless all the citizens of Flagler County and especially the men and women in the military…”) before an actual moment of silence.
“Second, he said he was going to make this county a Second Amendment county, so I would ask if any of you are armed, I’ll stop speaking.” (Local regulation forbids anyone from being armed inside the Government Services Building in Bunnell, but a state legislator has filed a bill, which has advanced through one committee, that would allow elected officials to arm themselves during government meetings.)
“Third, when pushed back on that by many citizens, he indicated that this is a Trump county–thank you for the hat, Commissioner Mullins, that was really non-partisan of you. Anyway, he has stated this is a Trump county and that anybody who doesn’t like it could leave, and offered to supply buses and trains to get people out of this county. Now, some of his supporters love the reference to trains. It was Holocaust remembrance day, and the trains brought that up.” (Jews and other minorities were shipped off to Auschwitz and the Nazi regime’s other death camps in trains’ cattle cars.)
“He’s also said,” Cocchiola continued, “he can’t imagine how this commission can support those who don’t believe what he believes. That means us. Me. And thousands of Flagler citizens. Now, that inflammatory language can only go so far before it causes conflict.” Cocchiola then referred to press reports about Montana State Rep. Rodney Garcia, a Republican, telling the audience at a GOP event on Saturday that it was OK to shoot socialists. (Garcia then told a reporter: “In the Constitution of the United States (if) they are found guilty of being a socialist member you either go to prison or are shot.” No such clause exists in the Constitution or any state or federal law.) “Now such language, if it continues, is going to lead to conflict, and that conflict will do no good for Flagler County,” Cocchiola said. “It’s going to be a long, hot summer, and if that conflict turns to fighting, that fighting is going to spill beyond Flagler,” which would harm the county’s reputation, discouraging new residents and businesses from coming or encouraging some to leave.
“Now, I ask this commission to draft a public statement that it supports all citizens equally, all the time,” Cocchiola said. “Commissioner Hansen already made such a statement, and I appreciate his leadership. I want the board, though, to do that.” (Hansen on his Facebook page on Jan. 26, not long after Mullins had made his “love it or leave” comment, posted: “As your County Commissioner I am proud to serve all of Flagler County….Democrats, Republicans and NPA’s. Even if you didn’t vote for me, I consider myself a representative of ALL of you. Every individual in this County is what makes us who we are…the greatest County out there!”)
“If any commissioner on this board cannot live with that statement, or cannot abide by the oath of office they took when they were sworn in as Flagler County commissioners, then that person must resign,” Cocchiola said.
Jill Reynolds, a Palm Coast resident of six and a half years and a nurse, quoted several of Mullins’s more inflammatory “vitriol,” as she described it, without referring to him by name, such as his statement that “liberals are truly intelligence-deprived” who should be helped to find the state line, and his “offer to pay for the bus charter, or we can do a train.” Reynolds said she’s been called “the most viled names imaginable” herself at public protests and been threatened by vehicles swerving her way.
“Language like the commissioner’s not only condones but incites and encourages this type of behavior. As a health care professional, had I made these public statements I would be deservedly fired and immediately censured by my governing board. The statements of one bring shame to this entire board, so I ask: what will you do then? This rhetoric goes beyond party differences and certainly doesn’t align with the Christian values that many of you profess to have.” She said “we will not be intimidated, we will not be muzzled, we will not leave and we will not yield. You answer to all of us.”
Edith Campins quoted Edmund Burke’s line: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” She said it was not a matter of free speech but of “hate speech,” and of Mullins “threatening to drive out members of the community because they disagree with his political views.” (Mullins’s statements have not actually been threatening, trending more toward bullying or trolling rhetoric.)
“Mr. Mullins,” Campins said, “you’re an offensive little man. I have been part of this community since 1997. I pay my taxes, I volunteer for a number of community organizations. I’m a good neighbor. I have helped make this a good, inclusive community for all. This is my home, and you and your threatening rhetoric will not drive me out. As to the rest of you commissioners, are you going to remain silent until some unstable individual, empowered by Mr. Mullins’s words, decides to take matters into their own hands and decides to come after those liberals and drive them out by force? We have seen enough of these types of incidents in this country. What will you do then. Will you just offer us your thoughts and prayers? You need to stand up for all of us here.”
George Mayo, a Palm Coast resident who is among the most frequent participants at county commission and Palm Coast council meetings, said that “lately it seems like I’m not feeling as welcome anymore in Palm Coast and Flagler County, and other people also, simply because I’m a registered Democrat, and I don’t think that should be the case. I’m sure not all of you on the commission agree with that.” He said many companies that look at potential hires’ social media postings may do the same about a region they’re prospecting in, and that businesses considering to relocate to Flagler might have second thoughts based on what they’d see on social media.
Ed Danko, the Palm Coast resident and candidate for the Palm Coast City Council, spoke in defense of Mullins–who’s given $7,000 to Danko’s Trump organization–wondering why his critics still followed him on Facebook. “I honestly don’t think this type of activity rises to the level of being presented to this distinguished body,” he told commissioners. He said the commissioners, the administration and employees “have far more important things to do than become involved with arguments on facebook. This has become a waste of time. It’s become a waste of taxpayer dollars. A waste of my taxpayer dollars.” He said opponents can vote against Mullins in two years or against Trump in November. He then suggested to the commissioners that they might consider a rule “that limits public comment to issues actually facing our county, and not personal disputes on social media.”
John Erpelding, a Palm Coast resident, described Cocchiola’s and Reynolds’s language as “violent rhetoric” before asking the commissioners to declare Flagler a Second Amendment county.
Toward the end of the meeting, in the segment when commissioners make their own reports, Mullins mentioned where he’d be attending the president’s State of the Union message. “That’s a private meeting with one party involved,” Sullivan interrupted. “We don’t announce those meetings here.” But Sullivan and other commissioners did not speak of residents’ earlier concerns further.