Even as they recognized the severity of his behavior, Commissioners Donald O’Brien and Dave Sullivan late Monday night blocked a motion to censure Joe Mullins over his abusive and threatening behavior toward Commissioners Greg Hansen and Charlie Ericksen at the Sept. 9 commission meeting, a stunning acquittal that’s not without precedent: both Sullivan and O’Brien, previously joined by Hansen and Ericksen, had earlier this year and on two occasions publicly refused to censure or even criticize Mullins for similar behavior against constituents and local businesses beyond the commission’s work.
O’Brien’s and Sullivan’s decision, on the heels of Sullivan calling Mullins’s behavior “unacceptable” even as he explained why he would refuse to censure him, was surprising both for the cover it again gave Mullins and the reasons they proffered: O’Brien cited scriptures (“he who is without sin, cast the first stone”) and bemoaned the risk of the county’s reputation taking a hit, while Sullivan said he didn’t want to be the first chairman of the commission on whose watch a fellow-commissioner was censured. Mullins has actively supported both O’Brien’s and Sullivan’s re-election campaigns.
The motion was the result of Mullins calling Hansen a “fat sonofabitch” at the Sept. 9 meeting, during a meeting and standing close to Hansen in a fighting stance, and also insulting Ericksen’s mental acuity.
Sullivan refused to open the floor to public comment after the motion, offering the odd rationale that the motion dealt with commissioner business only. (“I’m not going to have community outreach on this one because we’re talking about specific actions taken by commissioners”). Sullivan also allowed Mullins to vote on the motion regarding his censure. He voted No with O’Brien and Sullivan. The vote reflected intense lobbying behind the scenes over the weekend as the administration, channeling O’Brien’s and Sullivan’s desires, attempted to pull Hansen away from making the motion. Hansen didn’t deny conversations with County Attorney Al Hadeed, but called them “privileged.”
Each commissioner came prepared, knowing how he’d vote: it was a done deal before the meeting.
Almost a dozen people had addressed the matter some six hours earlier in the public comment segment, half calling for censure, half supporting Mullins.
“As a citizen of Flagler County I want to issue an apology to Commissioners Hansen and Ericksen for the insults you’ve had to endure this past week or two,” Mike Cocchiola told commissioners. “That’s egregious and should not have happened. You two have lived your lives and served your constituents and the citizens of Flagler with honor, and to be insulted by someone with far less honor, or none, is egregious. You acted with professionalism and grace. We thank you for that.”
Chuck Collins, a Mullins supporter, said Mullins “may not always be politically correct but he’s politically effective,” and asked Mullins to “stay the course and not permit the bravery of 1776, the sacrifices of body parts on Normandy, Iwo Jima, Messina, ever to be in vain.”
The censure motion was itself almost not heard. The meeting had stretched past midnight because of a hearing on The Gardens, a development matter the commissioners ended up tabling to their next meeting. At around 11:15 p.m., County Attorney Al Hadeed told the board that according to its own rules, the meeting could be adjourned, though it was up to the board members whether to do so. Sullivan said Ericksen had asked to leave, it was late, and called for a motion to adjourn. He didn’t get one, and it became evident Ericksen was not ready to leave quite yet.
Instead, Hansen spoke. “This commission relies on its ability to discuss issues without fear of retribution or harassment. Therefore I move that this commission censure Mr. Mullins for his inappropriate and unprofessional actions at our last commission meeting. He willfully disregarded instructions from the chair. He left his position and menacingly approached his fellow commissioners and used threatening and abusive stance and verbiage. His actions were not only uncalled for. They have left an indelible stain on the fabric of Flagler County government. I ask for a second.”
Mullins just read the email he’d sent commissioners Friday in which he said he “sincerely apologized for a very intense situation,” naming neither Hansen nor Ericksen.
O’Brien started by saying there were “a few things I want to say, since you brought it up,” suggesting he would not have brought up the matter had Hansen not done so. He then addressed Mullins in what looked like prepared remarks that both chided Mullins but absolved him with every clause: “Mr. Mullins your behavior at our last meeting was embarrassing and hurtful. You’ve admitted to that,” O’Brien said. “There’s no excuses, you did it and you should own up to it and it sounds like you have. And that ended up having our meeting being tainted and undermined, and I told you that day face to face how I felt about it. We serve on a collegial, or we’re supposed to serve on a collegial board of equals, and this is not a vessel for national politics. It’s supposed to be results-oriented, close to the people, local government, and we actually do things that impact people’s lives locally, and we represent everyone. There’s a time for expressing our national political preferences, but when we don’t temper that in our local government work, it detracts from our results.
“This nonsense and lack of leadership results in a huge distraction and a waste of time for everybody,” O’Brien continued, revealing another reason why he would oppose the censure motion: it’s bad publicity. “A Google record is permanent, and so it doesn’t help us with our state partners, our Legislatures,” he said, “and you know, I can’t help and wonder if maybe they won’t pick up the phone so fast because they don’t want to deal with a dysfunctional local government, a local county, and it’s a shame that that happens.” The dysfunction could prevent the county from securing grants or discourage people from running for office because they don;t want to be “involved in this nonsense.”
Then he cited the story of “the prostitute that the Pharisees brought before Jesus, and you know, back then the custom was to stone the prostitute, and as Jesus said, and we all know the end of that story, ‘he without sin, go ahead and cast the first stone.’” (Actually, most translations refer to the woman as an adultress, and Bible commentaries about Christ’s forbearance point to the not-uncommon occurrence of adultery since the beginning of times.)
In an astonishing deflection from the matter at hand, he then accused Hansen of being a “constant agitator, constantly poke, poke, poking with sometimes with negative and biting personal comments. I’ve felt it. We’re all human and over time it has a cumulative effect, and it doesn;t do anybody any good to deal in ridiculous rumors and innuendo. I think you should think about some of the sources that you have. Again, we serve on a collegial board of equals.”
O’Brien had never before hinted at problems with Hansen’s respect for decorum, even when Hansen was chairman, though Hansen’s manner is known for being brusque and imperious at times. That, of course, wasn’t the issue on the table Monday evening when O’Brien’s turning of the tables took yet another, more personal turn: Hansen, as all his colleagues and the entire county administration has known for years, takes most pride in his career in the Navy, when at one point he was in command of a ship–a career the county and his colleagues have repeatedly recognized, as when he is the commissioner chosen to read most military-related proclamations. “This isn’t a Navy ship where you run roughshod over 18-year-old pimpled little sailors, OK?” O’Brien said. “We’re equals here. We don’t just snap to attention and do whatever we’re told, and I’ve witnessed this on a lot of occasions in maybe how we behave publicly sometimes, and how we negotiate with other elected officials. That’s not how it works. Rank doesn’t mean anything on this board. It’s about respect and debate and consensus building, and we should be respectful.”
Constituents had been exhorting O’Brien and his colleagues to impress that lesson on Mullins, who has transgressed each of those “shoulds,” for more than a year, though O’Brien himself had pointedly and publicly said he was not concerned with what Mullins did or said on social media, away from commission business.
O’Brien then defined “decorum” and said “we’re all adults and start acting like it.”
Ericksen spoke briefly of feeling hurt for being an “old, lazy guy,” and for the first time publicly spoke of the situation in May, “when I almost thought we were going to go to punches. It didn;t, I complained to the sheriff about being threatened, etcetera, I think things have gotten better in our communications, and I guess I’d like to see it continue to improve. But we’ve got to do something that guarantees that we act like adults and just do better representation of each other as we go about our daily duties here on this commission.”
Sullivan, like his colleagues, had mulled over his response the entire weekend. “Censure is a pretty significant action to take. We have never done a censure as far as we can do by research in this county, on this board of county commissioners, which came into existence in 1917,” he said. He did not want to be the first chairman on whose watch it would, saying it wouldn’t do any good. He was willing to have a “consensus” that would somehow express the commission’s desire, but he didn;t define what that consensus would be.
“But I do want to say this, it is true that the actions and words used by Commissioner Mullins on Sept. 9,” Sullivan said, “were unacceptable, especially since they were directed specifically at Commissioners Hansen and Ericksen.” But then he explained why, in essence, they would be acceptable even as he said he agreed with what all his fellow commissioners said, describing the Sept. 9 incident as “severe.”
“There has been an apology made,” Sullivan said. “I would at this point rather do something along the lines of a consensus, that we all agree that it was a bad action at that point in time. But I personally as chairman don’t want to be the chairman who was the chairman when we voted to censure someone. I know that’s difficult and I would rather have some kind of, more like a consensus along the lines of what I just said.”
Cocchiola, in his remarks at the beginning of the meeting, had directed further remarks to Sullivan, speaking about the divisive times, and the commission’s choice ahead, for its own chairperson. “And you’re going to have to make a choice between further dividing Flagler County, to bring hate, fear and chaos to Flagler County, or to try to heal the wounds of this election. It’s going to be your choice what you want to do, as to whether Flagler County will come together or will continue to be divided and fraught as it is, and I hope you choose really, really well.” He then castigated Mullins for not wearing a mask, a requirement in the chamber.
“The rule in this room is that everyone has to have a mask on,” Sullivan said. “That’s the building rule, and it applies to all of us. Thank you for pointing it out.” Mullins finally donned a mask.
A Palm Coast resident then told commissioners of another rule in the commission’s book: that “any person who disrupts or interrupts a board meeting by the use of profane language or threat of personal violence, or who makes personal, impertinent remarks, or who exhibits loud or boisterous behavior, may be removed from the meeting by the direction of the chair or consensus of the board. Should that rule also apply to commissioners?” She called Mullins’s behavior at the earlier meeting “disturbing,” his personal insults bordering on “serious threats.” She called on the commission to censure him and not nominate him as chairman in the coming year.
Others called Mullins’s behavior “despicable,” telling commissioners to “do something about it,” with one, Diana LeBrun, describing herself as one of his victims of “online abuse and disrespect from Mr. Mullins” as she called for a reprimand and to keep him from being elevated to chairman. Pat Ferraro, a 33-year resident of the county, said “the behavior and spewing of vitriol from Commissioner Joseph Mullins is only surpassed by his inability to differentiate between being a sitting member of the board and a rabble-rousing participant of an out-of-order band of agitators. His insulting, demeaning and inflammatory behavior has become increasingly more prevalent.” She said the commission has received “repeated calls” to rebuke him.
Then it was the turn of Mullins supporters or associates, including Mark Phillips, who was among the anti-maskers at the earlier September meeting and who this evening reiterated his call on the commission not to re-appoint Bob Snyder, the head of the health department, and Dr. Stephen Bickel, though it’s not in the power of the commission to appoint or dismiss either. (The health department is a state agency.) Phillips said Mullins had spoken up for his group’s First Amendment rights at the previous meeting–also an inaccuracy, as the group’s rights were never in question, though its members’ refusal to follow county building rules were (they had refused to wear masks), and the sheriff and the commission chairman were urging them to wear their masks–and have the floor.
Also speaking on behalf of Mullins were one of his employees and one of the employee’s relatives and two other residents who said they were lending him their support, one of them taking the occasion to echo Phillips’s largely inaccurate case against the health department, such as the claim that churches were being ordered closed. They are not–not locally, not by the state.