Some politicians like to be ahead of the curve. That’s not for Joe Mullins. The rookie Flagler County commissioner wants to be the curve, conventional procedures be damned.
Mullins is proposing policy directions that his own government hasn’t discussed yet, though he doesn’t limit himself to the county: to the dismay of mayors and city commissioners, he’s proposing policy for cities, too: abolishing the Bunnell Police Department, or drafting municipal and county policies regulating homeless behavior. That may often not sit well with his colleagues in government. But perplexed as they may be, he has some of them listening, and reacting.
At a meeting of the Public Safety Coordinating Council this morning, which he chairs, Mullins directed County Administrator Jerry Cameron to discuss policy proposals with the city managers of Palm Coast, Bunnell and Flagler Beach to create a regulatory process that would require permits for the homeless to pitch tents or panhandle.
Palm Coast City Manager Matt Morton initiated the monthly joint meeting with fellow managers and the administrator to have better communications between governments. But the administrative meetings are not–cannot be–policy discussions. That’s in the exclusive purview of elected officials. And at three of the four governments–the county, Flagler Beach, which has no homeless issue, and Palm Coast–there’s been no formal discussion of homeless policy, no policy guidance to managers or the administrator, not even workshops on the matter.
“No there’s not,” Mullins said, “that’s why we need to start communicating and talking about it. That’s what we’re trying to do here, is get everybody together to start talking about legislation that we have got to get in place. Now, I have been talking to the mayor–I’ve not talked to Donald about it, because of sunshine.” (He was referring to Donald O’Brien, chairman of the county commission.) “I’ve talked to the mayors about it, and they’re saying look, whatever we come up with has got to be countywide, you all get something together and propose it. So that’s what we’re doing.”
That’s not quite the way Palm Coast Mayor Milissa Holland interprets it. “We have not had any discussions in regards to ‘legislation’ of any kind on the Council,” Holland, who does not usually attend public safety meetings, texted this morning in response to questions about Mullins’s approach. “I have asked Jack [Howell, the Palm Coast council member] to update us following the meetings as he is our representative. Last night at Council he had talked about the Homeless Coalition meeting he attended and stated what services the County has offered those that were displaced from the Library property and that Janet Nickels would continue to identify services. He has not mentioned any kind of legislation that was being proposed.”
O’Brien said Mullins was “out on a limb” with his approach.
Mullins said the public safety coordinating council, a monthly gathering of judicial representatives–including two judges this morning–law enforcement, county government and social service agencies, “will hopefully make a recommendation to the commission” about an ordinance. If so, this morning’s council members’ reactions to Mullins were tepid at best, and silent for the most part. Mullins spoke and on several occasions prompted discussion about his proposal, at one point going around the table to elicit opinions.
There was some discussion about affordable housing, especially from Flagler Beach City Commissioner Rick Belhumeur, who spoke of the myths of subsidized housing, and from the county administrator, who may have been seeking to refocus the conversation on more realistic or palatable horizons. But only Bunnell Manager Alvin Jackson spoke directly about the sort of ordinance Mullins is looking for.
Jackson said it was important to make sure “all the cities and the county, that whatever is adopted is the same legislation,” with all governments working together “to start working on those components of that legislation. But that’s going to be very important that there is one legislation for all.” Ironically, Bunnell is the only city to have passed “legislation” addressing homelessness–a harsh anti-panhandling ordinance tailored after St. Augustine’s, giving the city authority to fine loitering individuals. The city passed the ordinance last year without reaching out to the county or other cities, let alone attempt to work together with them on a unified approach.
But Bunnell Police Chief said the civil citation that may be issued to violators of the ordinance “is a piece of paper, we can’t hold them accountable.” He added: “We displace people, but we’re not addressing the real issue.”
Sheriff Rick Staly’s silence throughout was telling: he was not interested in weighing in on the policy discussion. “I read his body language, there was no enthusiasm there,” Cameron said of the sheriff afterward, though Staly allowed this much during the discussion: “I’d like to weigh in once I see a proposed ordinance.”
Mullins sought to reassure him that the ordinance he has in mind would not be sending the homeless to the jail, which only adds to the confusion about what, exactly, the ordinance would be seeking to achieve. Staly has repeatedly spoken against turning his deputies into a homeless police.
“Let me just give you an example on why that doesn’t work,” he told the council. “Friday night we had a trespasser in a construction zone site. We arrested her. The next morning I saw her walking down Bunnell. So it ties up a deputy for hours, it ties up the courts to have an absolutely zero solution. This individual, my deputies recognized. She knew she was not supposed to be there. She had been provided, as we understand it, she told us that she’d been provided a trailer and we said why aren’t you there, she said it didn’t work out.” He said the community joined to deal with domestic violence. It should do likewise with the homeless situation.
“All I would do is caution that we don’t create a revolving door that ties up deputies and ties up the courts to solve a social problem, not a true law enforcement problem, unless of course they’re committing a crime,” the sheriff said.
Cameron, too, sought to downplay any suggestion of policy-making by the managers. He sat with Mullins at much of today’s meeting. He said afterward that the discussion with other managers will be more diagnostic, pending what the county attorney’s research concludes. “I don’t see us coming out of that meeting with proposed legislation,” he said in an interview. He sees that meeting producing only an assessment of the scope of the problem and what’s currently in place in the county and the cities–that is, information already known.
“With most of these ordinances,” Cameron cautioned, “we’re asking law enforcement to walk down the edge of the constitution, and it’s easy to step over,” he said. “There are people out there just waiting for you to step over that can create very expensive litigation and potential judgments against the city. So whatever we do in that area we really have to think it through and not put our law enforcement officers and potentially our judges in situations to make very tough calls.” He said two thirds of such ordinances have been struck down.
Of Mullins, Cameron said: “His style is to jump in front of things. Keeps us busy.”
Mullins acknowledged that the “legislation” he’s seeking can’t go in effect unless the two other components are also in place: assessment and placement. And he agreed that placement means the kind of housing usually provided by shelters and by long-term arrangements through affordable housing, neither of which exist in Flagler.
“Before we put any of the three parts into place, we’ve got to make sure we have all three. We can’t just put the legislation out there and not have a place to offer” temporary shelter and long-term housing,” Mullins said. Yet in a seeming contradiction he said he wanted something legislative in place “in the next 60 to 90 days,” a timeline that would not by any calculation allow for the two other components to fall in place short of shipping homeless individuals out of the county. Cameron cited one example of affordable housing in St. Johns County that took 15 years to bring to fruition.
Mullins repeatedly spoke of a number of people sending him images or telling him about the extent of the homeless problem. Asked to be more specific about the people who speak to him, he cited social media and encounters at his numerous community meetings. He also forwarded three images he said were sent to him from “upset residents in the community.” In one, a woman appears to be on top of a man along a path by a roadway (they’re both fully clothed, and the scene is not unlike one occasionally seen in parks or college campuses on spring or fall days. Another shows a homeless person under I-95 bridge over the State Road 100. A third shows four people sitting in a right-of-way. None of the activity is illegal.
“These individuals are being coached by a local person that they have the right to act this way and be in these locations on the corner,” Mullins wrote in an email he sent county commissioners this morning, without elaborating. (It’s not clear what coaching is needed to know that one may freely remain on public land as long as no laws are being broken.) “They have been offered help and would rather be in this state.”
The council discussion did not lack for at least one relatively realistic, concrete proposal: that of Flagler Beach City Commissioner Rick Belhumeur, a landlord who sought to dispel myths about subsidized housing, or so-called Section 8 vouchers. “I personally have 14 rentals that I have and trying to keep full,” Belhumeur said. “When you get somebody that has Section 8 help, you know that rent money is coming in every month, and typically they turn out to be good tenants. I think it might be a misconception by a lot of landlords that you [can’t] get a lot of people and keep them for a while.” He cited one tenant family that was “pulled off the street” through county help and been his tenant for a year. The family is about to renew its lease. His suggestion is to reach out to landlords and convince them to “take a chance on some of these people.”