Flagler County Commissioner Joe Mullins has made a habit of using what he calls his “official personal” Facebook page to attack individuals, officials or entire groups, undermine local policy and make claims based on little or no evidence, all without disclaimers distinguishing his rants from his role as a county commissioner. That was the case Saturday when he called himself “Very disappointed in some of the city of Flagler Beach officials” and made an inflammatory claim about them: that they were hurting business and tourism in the city with their “stay on your side of the bridge mentality.”
He did not say who he was referring to, where or when any official would have told anyone to stay on the other side of the bridge (though in emergencies it’s not unusual in certain circumstances). But this time, two Flagler Beach city commissioners and the city’s mayor called him out, and the chairman of the county commission, who’s distanced himself from Mullins’s more egregious behavior on several occasions, said Mullins’s statement had nothing to do with the county’s position or its relations with Flagler Beach. “What we’re trying to do is work together,” Commission Chairman Dave Sullivan said of colleagues in the various governments.
The push-back against Mullins is a reflection of local public officials, who have long criticized Mullins privately, becoming more willing to do so publicly or on the record, embracing bluntness over diplomacy.
“Joe, do we as individual Flagler Beach City Commissioners ridicule the Flagler County Commission as a whole because all of the County amenities aren’t open?” Flagler Beach City Commissioner Rick Belhumeur responded to Mullins’s Facebook post. “So you feel comfortable attacking both Commissions as a group?, because that’s what you’re doing. Both Commissions, when we declared our emergencies, passed the baton to our staff, emergency management and health department. Start attacking them because at this point they’re making the calls.”
Mullins was again criticizing Flagler Beach government’s decision, though it was reached in conjunction with county and health officials. Those officials discuss these issues daily and cooperatively–without Mullins–and did so weeks ago to keep the city’s boardwalk and pier closed, along with the parking in front of both.
Mullins never explains why the two areas are closed, and appears not to know, though that’s the case with numerous issues he discusses with more ideological fervor and attention-grabbing bombast than reflection. The pier and the boardwalk were closed to foot traffic and parking several weeks ago after Flagler Health Department Chief Bob Snyder and Flagler Beach Police Chief Matt Doughney concluded that both served as magnets for larger groups. Keeping the areas off limits would help with social distancing. That may soon change as the same officials are exploring ways to reopen the pier on a limited basis, along with the boardwalk. City Manager Larry Newsom discussed the approach last week, stressing that the reopening would take place with social distancing guidance in place.
“We need officials that understand they (REPRESENT) us not control,” Mullins had written over a picture of the yellow cones blocking off the parking zone in his Saturday Facebook post. He did not explain what he meant by “control.” “Taxes are so high due to poor tourism income and this is their welcome,” he went on. “We all pay lots of taxes that go into this area. Come visit just don’t park. These businesses need people right now a lot more then parking stripes.”
Mullins then attacked Belhumeur for “running off other income sources” after raising taxes. “You worry about your responsibilities and I’ll worry about mine,” Belhumeur responded. “Just stop with the petty name calling and belittlement of those you ought to be strategizing with.”
Mullins did not respond to an email asking him to whom he was attributing the “mentality” statement and where it had been made.
Provencher a few weeks ago was–like most city officials–bothered by a fringe group’s decision to “demonstrate” for opening Flagler Beach, and doing so along State Road A1A downtown, while the governor’s stay-home order was still in full force. Provencher in an interview today recalled making an off-the-cuff remark that “anybody that would come to a protest during a time of crisis and make my first responders work harder, yes, that is an idiot, or something to that effect.” Provencher added: “I’ve never told people not to come here. The only thing Ive said is please pick up after yourself. God knows I do a beach cleanup every month, so people know I’m passionate about the beach.”
The mayor’s disappointment with protesters, it appears to Commissioner Eric Cooley, is what got turned into Mullins’s “mentality” statement. “His misstatements and the propaganda that he’s pushing out,” Cooley said in an interview, “first of all is categorically untrue, and second of all is extremely disparaging to this town, and he’s saying this about Linda. He’s pushing a message that’s simply untrue.”
Cooley said there are issues with the city’s “operational” approaches to parking and messaging, but not with policy. He has no disagreements with keeping the boardwalk and pier closed (he was the most vocal of his fellow commissioners for closure of the beach in late March). But he said the city’s confused and obscure messaging about parking needs improvement. But that’s a different matter from Mullins’s claims, he said, criticizing the county commissioner for undermining city policy and Mullins’s own county policies by attacking current safety measures and going against the governor’s orders. “The governor has put out this order that businesses can’t open past 25 percent,” Cooley said. “In a time of emergency, we really need to all be on the same page. He’s undermining his own govern ment and our government in our efforts trying to keep people safe.”
Sullivan was critical of Mullins for having used his Facebook page to announce policy shifts before either Flagler Beach or county government were ready to issue their statements and releases. Mullins would do so to portray himself as the decision-maker and draw attention to himself. “The normal thing is for the press release to go out about the same time the whole thing is publicized,” Sullivan said, or to “try to get it out before Joe puts it out on Facebook, which is really hard.”
Cooley said calling out Mullins isn’t new for him: if his own reputation or the city’s are involved, he says he speaks out. “My public correction to him have been going on for a while. What I’m starting to see now is some other folks getting fed up and starting to speak up about his finger-pointing and charade and general misinformation to the public,” Cooley said. “He’s making statements to make himself look good and others look bad. It ends up in his own little world, it becomes true, if nobody corrects you. He has his own radio show which is an echo chamber, he has his Facebook page, which is an echo chamber. But when it comes to public meetings, he doesn’t do that, because he knows he’ll get corrected.”