Speaking at last Thursday’s Flagler Beach City Commission meeting, Mayor Suzie Johnston raised a concern about the city’s relationship with the Family Life Center, the non-profit that runs the county’s only shelter for victims of abuse. The city contributes to the shelter, and Johnston serves on its board as a representative of the city.
Johnston wants that relationship ended, and fellow-commissioners were supportive. It was a blow to one of the county’s most essential and respected non-profits, but also a concerted signal by a local government about the toxicity of an incendiary weekly radio commercial and its presenter and principal subject.
Flagler County Commissioner Joe Mullins pays $200 a week for a radio informercial on WNZF every week and uses the infomercial, on the air or on his Facebook page, behind the WNZF logo, as springboard to attack personal enemies and push his political beliefs and his own standing. Last month he called Flagler Beach commissioners “cowards” for not going ahead with the annual Independence Day Parade and fireworks, and suggested that they were misappropriating money earmarked for fireworks (they were not). He had attacked the city frequently over its Covid-related precautions. He’s been savaging Eric Cooley, the current chairman of the city commission and the owner of the 7-Eleven on South Ocean Shore Boulevard, which has not been spared Mullins’s smears.
The Family Life Center’s executive director, Trish Giaccone, appeared on the informercial earlier this month, in a 30-minute discussion of domestic violence. Advertising the episode on his social media page, where most of his venom flows, Mullins ran a screen shot of an article about Bill Cosby, who was just released from prison after his conviction for drugging and molesting a woman was overturned. He also ran a screen shot of an article about the arrest of Cooley in 2018 on a misdemeanor battery charge of domestic violence. The charge was dropped. Mullins referred to “predators” getting away with it, and appeared to make a link between Cosby and Cooley, equating them as predators. (See: “Joe Mullins’s Defamatory Attack on Eric Cooley.”)
Mullins, who has previously used county government’s PR office to advertise his donations to one group or another, also used the infomercial to advertise his donation to Giaccone’s organization.
Giaccone in her segment of the infomercial didn’t mention Cooley, and most of the discussion, which also included the sheriff’s Chief Paul Bovino, focused on abuse issues: neither Bovino nor Giaccone were interested in discussing anything other than their field of expertise. The exception was toward the end when Tim Sharp, who has expertise neither in domestic violence advocacy or abuse policing (he owns a gun shop and is a political candidate for the Palm Coast City Council in next year’s election), brought up the Cooley arrest. Though he was citing an Observer article, he inaccurately said the arrest happened last year, and twice, at Mullins’s instigation, talked about it briefly, focusing on its more salacious details to no clear purpose. Giaccone brought back the discussion to the specifics of how prosecutions are pursued or dropped by the State Attorney’s Office, and the 30 minutes ended shortly after that.
“This one’s a little tough one,” Johnston told her colleagues on the city commission Thursday. “I want to clear the air on some things.”
She said as mayor she is asked for support from lots of different organizations. “And I take my stamp of approval very serious when these organizations come, and I support them and read proclamations,” she said. “And the groups that I support, I expect for them to behave in an ethical manner and follow the vision which they claim to follow. And now we’ve had a problem because the Family Life Center, I feel personally that they’ve crossed some lines. They went rogue. They went on WNZF. Long story short, it was a political hit show on attacking one of the members of this body, and the organizations that we support, they should not attack our city, or commission or any of our residents. Because they then turn around and they ask for support from us. And this is something that Family Life Center has done. And I’m not going to stand up here–and I don’t want to tell anyone what they need to do, but I’m going to tell you what I’m not going to do, and I’m not going to support a group that goes and participate and takes cheap shots at members of our body and our residents.” She said she’d contacted the center twice but had not heard back.
“Kudos to you mayor, really, kudos,” City Commissioner Deborah Phillips told her.
“That disturbed me as well,” Commissioner Jane Mealy said. “Glad you took that position.”
When Johnston said that “the organizations that we support, they should not attack our city, or commission or any of our residents,” she had conflated Giaccone’s appearance with Mullins’s motives, which was not accurate: Giaccone at no point shed any negative light on the city, let alone take “cheap shots” at it or its commissioners, or even entertained any discussion about the city or the Cooley case. At one point Giaccone specifically stated that she does not get into cases by name. Her focus is on victims and victim advocacy, and as such, she’s built a solid reputation as a forceful and non-aligned advocate who takes any chance she gets to speak on behalf of the center, though that was also what was behind commissioners’ surprise at Giaccone’s appearance on Mullins’s hyper-politicized and belligerent platform.
In an interview today, Giaccone–who had been on vacation last week and did, today, contact Johnston–seemed blindsided by both the city commission’s reaction and what she learned of the context behind Mullins’s infomercial.
She said she does not follow what’s on WNZF, including the infomercial, and was not aware of Mullins’s antagonistic portrayal of Cooley when announcing the domestic violence episode. “I am not in agreeance with it,” she said. “If you look back historically, I typically do not talk about domestic violence cases that are high profile in any capacity, whether alleged or beyond.”
“The conversation as far as I’m concerned was educating our community about the incidence of domestic violence in our community. If the mayor has taken that to mean something other than that, it’s unfortunate,” Giaccone said. She was dismayed that Johnston had not had a chance to discuss the matter before it was brought out in the manner that it was at the commission meeting. She was equally dismayed that the Family Life Center would find itself at the center of a controversy that would detract public attention from its mission.
“Our focus is always to make sure people are aware as to the services we provide, that they’re free, and educate the community about what the trends are. I recognize I cannot be responsible for what other people say on a show I’m on,” Giaccone said. But she acknowledged that, having learned of the way Mullins had announced the discussion on his Facebook page, it now will give her “pause” before she appears there again. But while Mullins “may be questionable,” she said, “one of the things I think about is the host and his audience may be the very people we should have that conversation with.”
There was more context to Thursday’s discussion at the city commission–including the fact that Cooley and Johnston have been partners for several years, a dynamic they pledged would not affect their relationship as elected officials on the commission.
“It’s interesting you bring that up,” Cooley told the mayor as the discussion continued. “I sent correspondence to not Family Life Center but David Ayres on almost the same thing,” he said, referring to the general manager of Flagler Broadcasting, WNZF’s parent company. “That same week, there was folks that came into my business and wanted me to spend $1,000 a month in advertisement. That struck a nerve. So you’re going to do do a political hit show, and then send your sales guy and ask me as business owner for $1,000 every month, you want 12 grand a year to tear myself my business down. You want me to support that. So I sent him an email and politely told him what I thought of that. And, you know, it’s not as it’s just as a business owner. And the thing is, I don’t know if it’s short sightedness or just arrogance. In order to tear down folks and then turn around and come right back with your handout I find it very distasteful.” Cooley said his case and Johnston “sounds like it’s almost one and the same.”
Ayers has said that while the Mullins infomercial is paid for ad broadcasts on WNZF, it’s not Ayers’s program but Mullins’s, a separation Cooley doesn’t see since it’s produced under WNZF’s antenna. Neither Cooley nor Ayers were willing to publicly disclose the emails.
Late last month the Flagler Beach City Commission had a discussion about severing its ties with WNZF and going with a Flagler Beach radio station as the sponsor of its First Friday events, which are set to resume in September. At the time, the discussion seemed entirely driven by the city’s desire to refocus its events on local businesses to the extent possible. But last Thursday’s revelations, along with the open hostility between Cooley and Mullins, often centered on his radio infomercial, lend broader understanding to the distance the city is putting between itself and the radio station–and points to the extent to which the Mullins infomercial can poison relations.
Conversely, Giaccone said she would also pause regarding a Family life Center event in the planning stages in Flagler Beach in light of the drubbing last Thursday. “This is certainly something that I will have to process and digest,” Giaccone said. “I can’t express to you enough that the message of our services are at the forefront of what we do. I can appreciate what happened here with this radio show, but for me the priority is that we’re there for our victims, and they know it.”
The Family Life Center’s Crisis Helpline is 386-437-3505. It accepts texts.