After her trouncing victories over ex-Commissioner Joe Mullins and Independent Jane Gentile-Youd, Leann Pennington today will become only the third woman ever to serve on the Flagler County Commission, and the first Republican woman to do so, when she is sworn in this afternoon. In Pennington’s word: “Amazing.”
The swearing-in follows by 24 hours a commission farewell to Joe Mullins that made it seem as if he was off to a victory tour rather than getting the boot in the most crushing defeat of any county commissioner in recent memory, after four years of defiling his commission seat with embarrassments, insults, bigotry, lies and unrelenting narcissism. His colleagues rarely challenged him, refused to censure him, and more often applauded and rewarded him, as they did with his last year’s chairmanship of the panel–as they did again Monday–a reflection of the Republican Party’s compromised moral compass in Flagler as elsewhere.
“He wanted to make sure for me to give you a kiss,” County Commissioner Dave Sullivan told Mullins, relaying a message from Palm Coast Mayor David Alfin, who was in Tallahassee. “I’m not going to do that.” Sullivan and fellow-Commissioner Donald O’Brien were Mullins’s unfailing apologist in his four years.
Pennington and Greg Hansen, who won re-election by a decidedly slimmer margin than Pennington, will be sworn-in this afternoon in a special meeting of the commission, by County Judge Melissa Distler. Hansen was in a three-way open primary, winning only 44 percent of the vote among those who voted (5,444, or just 5.7 percent of registered voters), compared to Pennington beating Mullins with 69 percent of the vote in the primary (if with even fewer votes than Hansen got in that round) and 73 percent of the vote in the general election, when she pulled in 11,730 votes.
“I know that people wanted change, obviously, in that seat,” Pennington said today. “But even beyond change, I think people really could feel that I empathize with our community and that I wanted to do a really good job, and that I really cared about them. I’m not a person that does things for special interests. I really do everything I do for the majority. And I think I tried my best in all the forums and everything else to show that to people, that I really just do. I love common sense approaches to everything. I don’t think a common sense approach is a partisan thing. I think everybody wants that kind of leadership.”
Pennington spoke of preserving the “dynamics of our community from the Hammock to the beaches to the farms at the western part of the county and urban diversity in between. “I don’t think people want to lose that as we grow. So I think they could feel that about me. I don’t think those are partisan issues.”
Pennington cites expansion of broadband access to the western part of the county as a top priority, calling such access “as vital as water.” The county has been working on that and is at the receiving end of federal grants that will facilitate the way, but the project remains unachieved. Economic development is another priority. “Unfortunately, nationally, we’re going through what could be considered difficult times and so I don’t know how far we can get on with that,” Pennington said. She is withholding comment on beach management issues for now, only because, she said, no one has the answer–“not just in Flagler, all over Florida,” she says–and plenty of discussions are ahead in light of the most recent storms’ erosion.
Pennington spoke of her nervousness as she gets ready to take on the job. “I think that’s normal to be nervous. I want to do a really good job. But I know that there’s a lot to learn and it’s got a learning curve with it,” she said. She loved getting a constituent’s request today to look into an issue. “I felt a little bit like Nancy Drew, I love to dig, I’m very investigative, so I got excited when he brought it to me.” She prizes due diligence.
Her goal is to stay ahead of issues, despite what seems to her the too-brief turn-around time between when agendas are issued and votes are taken. Unlike other local boards, the commission–again, because of O’Brien, Sullivan and Hansen–has been uninterested in holding more than the minimum-required number of workshops. It has no systematic approach to discussing all items that come before the board in workshops first, the way Palm Coast and the school board do, so issue after issue can result in cascades of last-minute improvisation by commissioners. The recent rollercoaster over the sheriff’s and the county’s budget are an example. Pennington doesn’t want to go down that road.
“I think it’s imperative that they have workshops,” Pennington said, referring to that budget process. She described it as “a bartering thing at the end,” which could have been avoided with several workshops. “I’m hoping that the others agree that workshops are necessary, especially on the bigger items.” Commissioner Andy Dance attempted to establish a regular schedule of workshops. Fellow-commissioners initially agreed, only to–in typical, improvisational fashion–to reverse course at the following meeting. “We’re going to have to bring that discussion back up,” Pennington said.
For the 4 p.m. swearing-in this afternoon Pennington is bringing family–her husband, her son, and her father Timothy Pennington, who will be holding the Bible during the ceremony.
Milissa Holland broke the gender ceiling in 2006 at the County Commission when she defeated Blair Kanbar in a landslide. She would also become the first woman to serve as mayor in Palm Coast, though both at the county and in Palm Coast, Holland resigned in her second terms. Barbara revels was the second woman to serve on the county commission. She served two terms before Dave Sullivan, who is still serving, defeated her in 2016.
This year was particularly strong for returning women to local power, ending what had been a six-year run of an all-male County Commission and a nearly two-year run of an all-male Palm Coast City Council, where Theresa Pontieri and Cathy Heighter were elected. Heighter is also the council’s first Black woman to serve, and joins Ken Bryan in Flagler Beach and Ralph Lightfoot on the East Flagler Mosquito Control District board as only the third elected official of color among some 35 electoral seats in Flagler. The school board saw two women and one man elected, keeping that board at a 4-1 majority of women. (The school board’s Christy Chong, Will Furry and Sally Hunt were sworn-in this morning.)
Pennington did not attend Monday evening’s brief send-off ceremony the county administration organized for Mullins, just before the regular meeting, as it does for every commissioner who ends a term. (Contrary to public perception, Mullins was not special in that regard). Pennington said she wanted to give him space and be respectful (as, ironically, Mullins rarely was toward people he considered antagonists).
On Nov. 18 the county had posted a public invitation to the Mullins send-off on its Facebook page. The response was immediately biting and unforgiving. “Are we allowed to bring beer and balloons? Should probably be poppin bottles for this one.” “Not a snowballs chance in HELL Why is Flagler County celebrating a man that showed so much hate, disrespect (for residents, employees, and Law Enforcement), Lied, Cheated, Stole others ideas, and Bullied people?… But hey, Don’t let the door hit ya where the good lord split ya!” “The disrespect Mullins has shown for law enforcement officers is all I need to know about this guy.” “Sure!! Okay I be there with bells and whistles!” “Literally the funniest thing I’ve seen all day.” And so on.
The odd Mullins defender asked for “class” and “graciousness” toward the exiting public servant, prompting the inevitable responses: “normally I agree with this logic but Mullins has bullied so many people in person and on social media that he deserves every comment and criticism. Literally he brought this upon himself with his own actions.” And: “I’d be proud of my kids for standing publicly against people like Mullins. This isn’t about sportsmanship, the man was dangerous.”
Two of Mullins’s fellow-commissioners–Hansen and Dance–were restrained in their public farewells, wishing him luck in his “future endeavors,” as Dance put it, and whatever big announcement Mullins promised to make in January. Mullins during the farewell reception had cryptically said he’d make an announcement about a “federal appointment” he would be getting. O’Brien and Sullivan were more effusive, as O’Brien thanked him and appreciated him “for all you’ve done for our county,” and Sullivan, aside from Alfin’s kiss, all but seconded the mayor’s sentiment: “”We’ve been together a lot, been through a lot,” Sullivan told Mullins, “I have no doubt you’re on to bigger and better things.”
One final illegal act aside–Mullins put on a blazing-red “Florida for Trump” as commissioners were making their final comments at the end of the meeting, violating the law against using public office to campaign–Mullins for his part spoke his final words from the dais with the kind of graciousness that would have almost certainly gotten him re-elected, had he maintained that tone for the previous four years, and accompanied it with more action than theatrics.