The barbarians are no longer at the gate. They’re at the levers. Between Joe Mullins at the County Commission, Jill Woolbright and Janet McDonald at the School Board, and Ed Danko and Victor Barbosa at the Palm Coast City Council, Flagler government is now a three-ring circus trapezing week after week from the embarrassing to the boorish to the hateful. Thank heavens for Bunnell and Flagler Beach, the county’s last remaining cardinal points of civility.
Thank heavens, too, for the circuses’ ringleaders. They may have primeval colleagues and crowds to deal with, but Mayor David Alfin at the city, Trevor Tucker at the school board and Don O’Brien at the commission, none of whom is a hothead, none of whom glories in the power of the gavel, have ably kept the fringe at the fringes. If there’s been trouble, it’s not been fatal.
That may be about to change. The County Commission tonight and the School Board Tuesday evening elect new chairs. Circuses could turn into gladiatorial arenas.
Colleen Conklin is vice-chair of the School Board, putting her in line for the chairmanship. She’s chaired it admirably and uncontroversially countless times. She would do it again. But the politics of the board are such that, as was the case last year, when she was due for it, she might not get it. It’s unimaginable that the board would find a majority for another McDonald chairmanship: her first, in pre-Trump days, was fine. Her second was as deranged as her Alex Jones-inspired Twitter feed, starting with the coup that kneecapped former Superintendent Jim Tager’s tenure and decomposing from there.
Woolbright? I don’t think we’d want a book-banning hypocrite who files a criminal complaint against her own superintendent anywhere near a district-wide leadership role. Woolbright just shot her own credibility to hell and is collaterally damaging the board. The chairmanship isn’t a recovery ward. Cheryl Massaro may seem too green on the board, though she likely has nearly as much parliamentarian experience as Tucker or Conklin because of her previous roles. But like Conklin, she may not get a third vote because of her public distrust of the Woolbright-McDonald axis.
That leaves Tucker as the default safeguard, the centrist everyone can agree on, or at least three votes could. For the board’s sake–for the superintendent’s sake, the district’s sake–it’s the only choice.
Then there is the County Commission. Mullins was in line for the chairmanship last year. He’d self-destructed so routinely that he and his friends on the commission, O’Brien and Dave Sullivan, came up with a clever scheme. Mullins would pretend to voluntarily decline the chairmanship, citing private hardships. He’d nominate O’Brien–who magically was ready for the nomination, written speech in hand–and O’Brien would return the nomination a year hence, when Mullins could leverage the chairmanship as free advertising and credibility in his re-election year. So it went. So it may go tonight.
I can’t imagine Greg Hansen voting for the man who publicly insulted him twice in two days, once on the very dais of the commission then at a 9/11 event, though he and Mullins have been scaling their own brokeback mountain together for the past few months. So you never know.
Andy Dance has been the saving grace of the commission. He’s a throw-back to non-partisan days of dull, disciplined, detail-oriented governance that couldn’t give a damn for grandstanding and narcissists. Ironically, he is more qualified to be chairman than all other four commissioners put together. His nuts-and-bolts chairmanship would fit hand-in-glove with Heidi Petito’s first full year as county administrator. Petito is similarly inclined to unpretentious, no-frills management. But it’s too much foresight and pragmatism to expect from this commission. Would Dance vote for Mullins? That would be a shock to his immaculate credibility, not just on the commission but going back 12 years on the school board. Again, you never know: “Everyone sees what you appear to be,” says Machiavelli. “Few really know what you are.”
Shocks aside, I could see Dance making a motion to name chairman any of the other three–O’Brien, Sullivan and Hansen, any of whom would be Ciceronian in comparison to Mullins.
But Sullivan and O’Brien have twice refused to censure Mullins. They’ve repeatedly come to his defense. He is Svengali to their servility. It’s inexplicable and repellant. But as God said to Moses at the origin of that ridiculous phrase, it is what it is, leaving us hoping for the only alternative: a miracle of statesmanship on their part.
We are more likely to see the same contortions and sophistries these two weaseled out to explain why they wouldn’t censure Mullins as they now explain why they will vote for him (or, more likely, explain nothing: these votes have been pre-arranged in the past, obviously in violation of sunshine. They can be again.)
They can claim again in Mullins’s defense that he was elected just as they were, that he represents Flagler County. Sure. When Mullins spent $154,000 to get elected in 2018, most of it his own, he got a respectable 31,000 votes against a weak opponent (Jane Gentile-Youd). But it was still just 33 percent of registered voters. Voters spoke to elect representation to District 4. Mullins’s fellow county commissioners bear no responsibility for his election in 2018. But they bear full responsibility for the man they elect chairman today, the man who they say speaks for and represents them. This is on them.
They can claim that the selection is no big deal. It’s ceremonial. It’s just a vote like any other. No, it isn’t. The chairmanship is the voice of the commission, the voice of the county. It is the voice we’ll hear at every event, every dedication, every memorial and commemoration. Is Mullins’s the voice and face of Flagler County? Does Joe Mullins reflect the values and ideals of the county and its commission?
Mullins is all narcissism and grandstanding. If that’s all he was, he’d be bearable. Politics are full of those. But he’s also a bigot. A bully. A crass, ill-mannered, insecure oaf who gets his jollies from using his power to demean others. Other people have pronouns. He has insults. Other people have filters. He has filth. He’s degraded women, gays, lesbians transgender people, immigrants and anyone who doesn’t pray to his god. He embraced and peddled the lies of the 2020 election, abjuring the core of our democracy in favor of subverting it. He mischaracterizes, fabricates and lies as others breathe. He’s called the entire Flagler Beach City Commission crooks, defamed one of its members and demeaned a school board member. He’s embraced anti-Semitic language and Nazi imagery literally to call for shipping people who disagree with him out of Flagler. He’s used genocidal Nazi imagery of minorities as roaches and viruses, in other words as vermin to be exterminated (me among them). In case you missed the message, he’s called for the beheading of liberals, on the air (in a weekly commercial he pays for).
This is what the commissioners who vote for Mullins will be heralding as the face of Flagler County.
You are what you vote for. There is no separation, no hair-splitting. And these commissioners aren’t just voting for themselves. They’re voting for us. This is what they’ll be saying: All this time he was his own man, his own responsibility. But now I’m OK with bigotry. I’m OK with filth. I’m OK with the language of extermination in Flagler County, in 2022. I excuse it. I endorse it. I embrace it. I want it to represent me, to represent Flagler.
Under whose eye? In what America?
At least we won’t need to pretend anymore. Flagler County has always longed to be on the map. It’ll at least be on the map of hate, compliments of its commission’s proud boys.
The alternative, so easy and so bountiful, and not that miraculous after all, stared them in the face when they shaved this morning.