Last Updated: 4:11 p.m. with Trish Giaccone interview.
When Trish Giaccone walked up to the podium at Thursday evening’s Flagler Beach City Commission meeting, her expression and demeanor foretold the words she was about to speak: the executive director of the Family Life Center, Flagler County’s only shelter for abused persons, looked stern, almost incensed.
Giaccone’s statement that followed, a finger raised toward the commission at times was her first chance to counter a claim by Flagler Beach mayor Suzie Johnston in mid-July that Giaccone had “gone rogue” by being a guest on an incendiary radio infomercial paid for by County Commissioner Joe Mullins.
Mullins, who has called Flagler Beach commissioners corrupt and “cowards,” in July had used announcements for a segment on domestic violence to compare Flagler Beach Commission Chairman Eric Cooley to a sexual predator. (Cooley was charged with a misdemeanor domestic battery charge involving an ex-companion in 2018; the charge was dropped. The mayor has been his companion since.)
“The organizations that we support, they should not attack our city, or commission or any of our residents,” Johnston said from the dais in July, though while Mullins had done those things–repeatedly–Giaccone herself had not. She stuck to advocacy for the Family Life Center, as she does any chance she gets, ignoring or deflecting the one or two references to Cooley toward the end of the commercial. On the other hand, Giaccone had undeniably appeared on a platform Mullins often uses to demean opponents and misinform at a pace that would test the mettle of any fact-checker.
“I feel it’s incumbent upon me to make sure that I express my concern and clarify any unjustly made comments which may have negative consequences on victims we serve,” Giaccone said. Some of her staff members were present, as were supporters, as was the chairman of her board: Capt. Lance Blanchette, who happens to be the second in command at the Flagler Beach Police Department. She recapped Johnston’s words in July, noting that the mayor had mentioned twice contacting the Family Life Center without getting a response, and summarized the center’s mission and work since 1987.
“The mayor calling my behavior unethical or rogue is far from true,” Giaccone said. “Our agency participates in various community activities, events, public speaking engagements, always first and foremost to let victims know the services that we provide, and then to educate our community about the dynamics of domestic violence, sexual assault, rape, stalking, dating violence, and many other reasons. Mr. Mullins invited me onto his show to have that very conversation, he invited a representative of the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office, as well as a local business owner, and we spoke about domestic violence. I never at any time disparage any member of this commission, the Flagler Beach community, or any community member throughout Flagler County, and you are welcome to review the tape.
“What I did talk about was how our system fails victims,” Giaccone continued. “I spoke about the importance of having victims’ voices in the criminal proceeding. I spoke about the importance of prosecuting perpetrators of violence.”
When Johnston called, Giaccone was on vacation. “I want everyone to know that the mayor has my personal cell phone number. It was part of her introduction packet that I sent to her on May 22 as a representative of this commission,” Giaccone said. “She also received my personal cell phone number again in April, neither of which she reached out to.”
Her three minutes were up at that point. She went on, speaking over Cooley’s attempt to stop her. “I want to make sure that the citizens are aware that our services will continue no matter what politicians say about the work we do,” she said, “because we do provide these services and we will continue to do so, to those residents in Flagler Beach, whether or not we have your stamp of approval.”
Giaccone spoke at the beginning of the meeting, which lasted over three hours. She stayed until the end. None of the commissioners or the mayor addressed her comments.
“I didn’t want to comment on it bec I felt at that point her presentation did more harm than good,” Johnston said Friday. “I saw she was taking a very hard stand, and the way she presented herself it came across as–it definitely wasn’t, ‘ hey, I’m looking to working together.'” Johnston pointed to Giaccone’s final words about continuing the center’s work with or without the commission’s stamp of approval as an example.
Johnston and Giaccone had spoken by phone after the July issue, when Johnston said as “CEO of an organization, everything you’re associated with, you’re held accountable, including impressions, that’s such an important thing. And I don’t know if the impression she gave last night was somebody looking to work with a municipality. I didn’t collect that from last night.” Johnston had represented the city on the board of the center. She said she has no intention of returning for now, nor have other commissioners shown an interest in doing so.
“I don’t object to anything she said at all, I have no issue with any of it,” Cooley said today. But he had other issues–namely, Giaccone continuing to speak after her time was up and the clapping that took place after her remarks, though Colley said the rules of the meeting had been laid out ahead of time. “As a chair of our meetings I take great offense to leaders of our community not following our rules of decorum,” he said. He was not inclined to restore the city’s connection with the Family Life Center that predated the July meeting.
“I did not pick up in any way shape or form that that was an olive branch, she had her folks there who were all cheering, they were videotaping,” Cooley said. “Based on conduct and what I picked up off that, it wouldn’t change anything on my end. It might with the other commissioners.”
“I spoke my piece yesterday,” Giaccone said this afternoon. “I think that was an important factor. My thought process is, I’ll clearly work with anyone in any city commission, that wants to help survivors. I hold no ill will with the commissioners.” Giaccone wanted to make clear that the work will continue, including for those in Flagler Beach who need the center’s services. She acknowledged going past her three minutes, but to say what had to be said. “I didn’t have an olive branch to offer because I didn’t do anything wrong. I was there for clarity, and I think I accomplished that.”