What started as a seemingly innocuous 200-word Flagler County government press release about a commissioner’s donation to a social service agency has turned into a clash between two commissioners, a few unfounded accusations, a change in administrative procedure at the county and a commissioner’s plan to raise the issue at Monday’s commission meeting.
The issue involves Commissioners Joe Mullins and Greg Hansen, who have have been at personal polar opposites on the commission, Julie Murphy, the county’s public information officer, and on the periphery, Danielle Anderson, who is both a News-Journal community correspondent and head of the local Republican Club, County Administrator Jerry Cameron, and Linda Hansen, wife to Greg Hansen.
Both Hansens call it a “tempest in a teapot,” and from some perspectives, it is: a commissioner had an issue with another commissioner’s use of a news release, the matter was addressed. But the response from all parties involved suggests it isn’t that simple. The problem may point to more serious underlying issues in an administration that has gone from overly controlled under the previous administrator to unpredictably casual, with staffers either playing the game or paying the price.
The Mullins release points to lax oversight or an absence of clear procedures in how the county manages and disseminates information about commissioners, a blurry line that both Mullins and Hansen crossed in their dealings with the administration. It renews a conflict between Mullins and Hansen that Mullins is exacerbating with accusations about Hansen’s wife and claims about Anderson that aren’t supported by the record and contradicted by everyone else involved. And it raises questions about the county’s handling, and arbitrary removal, of Facebook posts at a commissioner’s behest, which are public records.
The afternoon of Sept. 26, Murphy issued the release about Commissioner Joe Mullins donating “a week’s pay to support the SMA program Women Assisting Recovering Mothers (WARM)” in Bunnell. Mullins speaks openly about his past issues with alcohol and drug abuse and currently chairs the Public Safety Coordinating Council, where some of these issues intersect. The agency formerly known as the Stewart-Marchman-Act Behavioral Health Services, now SMA, is the county’s largest independent recipient of social service subsidies, receiving $173,000 a year.
No one disputes Mullins’s good deed. He donated “about $700,” as the release stated with inexplicable vagueness. (Mullins’s gross weekly pay as a commissioner is $1,053, his take-home pay is $774, according to county records.)
But the release was unusual. The county’s public information office isn’t any single commissioner’s mouthpiece, nor are commissioners supposed to direct staffers to draft releases on their behalf. While releases have been issued to highlight individual commissioners’ accomplishments, those have been restricted to commissioners earning course credit or certificates related directly to their functions as commissioners. No releases from the county, the school board, Palm Coast, Bunnell and Flagler Beach have singled out a private deed by an elected official, however commendable, in recent memory.
“The commissioner went to the PIO and asked that the item be put out there,” Cameron said. “I don’t have first hand knowledge of how that happened.” In contrast with his predecessor, who obsessed over every word in every news release before it was issued, Cameron has largely trusted his staff to fulfill responsibilities without looking over its shoulders. Staffers might appreciate the approach, but if they don’t run things by their supervisors, it also leaves them vulnerable to misjudgments, and to taking the fall when things go wrong, as they did in this case. (Cameron has also been increasingly exasperated with intramural, unrelated brawls that have been undermining the highest levels of his administration.)
“He can’t direct her, she was just trying to be accommodating to a commissioner,” Cameron said. “It would be illegal for him to direct her. Commissioners cannot direct staff. I have an open policy that any staff person at any level is free to talk to any commissioner, but the commissioner, and they all understand this, they cannot direct staff members.” Clearly, however, both Mullins (then Hansen) gave at least some direction at various times, and Murphy followed through.
Murphy says Mullins had sent her a couple of lines about the donation, and between that and emails, she crafted the release and issued it to local media, sending a picture soon after. She posted it on the county’s website, on the county’s Facebook page and through Nextdoor, also a Facebook venue where the county disseminates information.
The next day, Linda Hansen commented on the county’s Facebook post: “I’m going to say that I do not believe it is appropriate to boost elected officials for what ordinary citizens do everyday, and I don’t like you doing it with my tax dollars.” She then edited the comment to add: “The article is fine, the plug for the commissioner crosses the line.” Nearly two dozen comments followed, overwhelmingly critical of the county for plugging Mullins, “doing free political ads” for him, and asking for it to be removed.
In an interview, Linda Hansen again commended Mullins for his deed, but said he should have publicized it on his own Facebook page without involving the county. “It wasn’t directed at Commissioner Mullins, it was directed at the website, and now I hear he’s very upset,” she said. “My apologies to Commissioner Mullins if he took that as an insult. It wasn’t. I was very careful just to target that at the commission in general, and I thought the OpEd did the same in the paper.”
On Oct. 2 the News-Tribune ran an editorial lauding Mullins’s donation but criticizing the county for issuing the release. “If commissioners’ private activities outside the scope of their duties as elected officials are given equal weight as other public announcements by county government, then the line between official business and campaigning is not merely blurred, it is wiped out completely,” the editorial read. “The county’s communications office exists to inform the public about issues and actions taken as part of the operation of county government. It is not there to promote the actions of individual elected officials.” (FlaglerLive ran the county item on Sept. 27, without the picture, and with a disclaimer that the “public relations release is published as a courtesy to the issuing agency and does not necessarily reflect FlaglerLive’s news standards or styling.)
The Facebook thread shows the beginning of a comment by Greg Hansen’s Facebook account as well, but the copy provided by the county, following a record request, does not show any content under his name. Hansen, at any rate, asked Murphy to take down the whole thread, along with the wording about Mullins–and Murphy complied, though staffers are not expected to take direction from commissioners. “If it was giving him heartburn and he was having anxiety and issue about it, I thought we’d remove it,” Murphy said.
The item is a public record. It’s still archived at the county, but not visible publicly, nor would anyone know it had been there, so the removal itself also may cross a blurry line: no commissioner would conceivably ask that the video of a public meeting be edited or removed, for example. Yet a Facebook post and a meeting video have the same value as public records.
Mullins claims “Hansen came in yelling and screaming” at Murphy and “blew up on” her over the release, and that Linda Hansen was “pounding” on Murphy on next Door. “She was all over next Door attacking Julie about it,” he said.
Cameron, Murphy and both Hansens said it was nothing like that–and screen grabs provided by Murphy of the Nextdoor thread show no comments from either Greg or Linda Hansen (Linda Hansen says she wouldn’t know how to get on Nextdoor).
“The only thing that’s going on is I went to Jerry and I said I thought that was really inappropriate,” Greg Hansen said today. “Writing up a story about the charity was fine, but as soon as you put the commissioner in there, the story becomes not about the charity but about the commissioner.” Hansen says he gives thousands of dollars to charity but doesn’t want it publicized. “As soon as you put somebody’s name to it it loses its value.” He disputed Mullins’s claim that he “blew up” at Murphy.
“How does he know that? Julie hasn’t talked to him, I haven’t talked to him,” Hansen said, “we had a very nice conversation, she called me and apologized.”
“He did not address Julie, he addressed me,” Cameron said of Hansen’s original conversation about the release, “and after I assured him that I would look into it, I asked Julie to give him a call and tell him that she didn’t intend to create a problem. So she did that. Of course he expressed his unhappiness with the way that had unfolded. Julie acknowledged it, we moved on.”
Murphy described her interaction with Hansen this way: “He was upset and he was concerned and he did talk to me about it and I listened.”
Commission Chairman Donald O’Brien and Commissioner Dave Sullivan weren’t distressed by the release, and thought it highlighted a necessary program that doesn’t get much attention. O’Brien said he’d researched the whole matter and spoken to various other county commissioners during last week’s Florida association of counties conference. “What I’ve gathered is that there’s nothing wrong, I don’t think, with having the PIO highlighting the good work that the commissioners do, which in turn reflects well on the county. I don’t really see the harm in that.” In some of the bigger counties, commissioners have their own staff, he said.
“I think the intention was really good on this one,” O’Brien said. “I think Joe’s intention was to try to highlight the good work of an organization that he felt it was important for us to support or for him to support.” But O’Brien acknowledged that there are matters of perception and risks that such releases could be seen as promoting the commissioner instead of the cause–especially at election time, though Mullins seat isn’t up in 2020 (as O’Brien’s is). O’Brien said if Mullins brings up the issue on Monday, he’ll suggest clearer procedures, perhaps ensuring that in a year when a candidate is running, no such releases be issued bearing that candidate’s name.
That’s what Mullins is intending. “The policy needs to be clear and we need to go over it and vote as a group, but I’m very concerned why one commissioner went in and went off on staff,” he said of Hansen. “He should have taken that up with me at the next commission meeting.”
Mullins also referred to the News-Journal editorial, suggesting that Danielle Anderson had written it–a rumor O’Brien had also heard. Anderson found the claim ridiculous. “Oh my gosh, I did not, I did not even know anything about it,” she said today, upset that Mullins would even suggest that possibility. “The fact that it’s ok to go around saying something when it’s not even true, how do you respond to that?” Anderson says Mullins is “vicious” to her or anyone who supported Nate McLaughlin in 2016, when McLaughlin was Mullins’s rival.
Nick Klasne, editor of the News-Tribune, dismissed Mullins’s claim. “Danielle Anderson did not write the editorial or any other editorial,” he said. As a community correspondent, Anderson doesn’t even go to the News-Journal’s offices, communicating by email and phone.
Hansen, too, was a McLaughlin supporter. He says there’s nothing going on between him and Mullins, and he thought matters had been going rather well in the last few weeks. “He for some reason doesn’t like me, and for some reason has attacked me and attacked me and attacked me,” Hansen said. “I don’t know what his problem is–he’s been very nice to me in the last few weeks. I supported Nate, maybe that’s why.”
In interviews on more than one occasion, including on Thursday, Mullins said he has nothing against Hansen, but he does see a continuing issue. “Whatever this battle is, it needs to end, because I don’t have time to fight with him. I think it’s the pace that I move. It’s a little fast,” Mullins said.
At midday Wednesday, Murphy sent an overtly chastened notice to all commissioners: “Given the blistering Op Ed in today’s News Tribune regarding a recent news release mentioning a commissioner and whether that release fell within what is an acceptable use of taxpayer money, the Communications Office – with the concurrence of Administrator Cameron and Attorney Hadeed – is returning to the standard followed in 2015. That standard is that the Communications Office will not write about commissioners individually, but only about the Board of County Commissioners as a whole. If a BOCC comment is required, it will come from the Chair or the Vice-Chair in his absence.” She said commissioners’ good deeds can still be addressed during commissioners’ own comment segments at meetings, while non-profits the county wishes to highlight can be invited to make presentations to the commission.
Later that day, Mullins emailed all commissioners, the county administrator and the county attorney, with the words, “For information only please don’t respond” in the subject line. (It was not a violation of the open meetings law: commissioners are free to send memos or communications, they’re just not free to engage in conversation, or respond.)
He was asking to address the matter on Monday, but stated explicitly his claims about Hansen’s alleged “blow up” with Murphy and his claim about the Tribune editorial: “There is no confusion this was in line of my commissioner and was done while touring a facility we are involved with,” he wrote. “I did this with hope it would encourage other commissioners to do the same. Staff clearly needs to be left out of any issue a commissioner may have with another. I would have never expected a commissioner to blow up about it. And will stand and defend the action of PIO. So please be prepared to discuss at next meeting both issues. I would also like to discuss information provided to me about who wrote the opinion and who inspired it.”
Here’s the thing with me, this is a clear sign of a local Republican Party all in-fighting over power and control. Not just power and control over their little club, but over us as a community. It is time we replace them. I’m not saying with Democrats either. It’s time to reject and replace both parties with no party. They are both a serious joke doing more harm to our community than good.
Get a grip people.
Land of no turn signals says says
A lot of hoopla over nothing,maybe Mullins was looking for an atta boy for a good deed.Commissioners piss away that much tax payer money every minute every day.
Welcome to the Circus says
While the overall sentiment of this article is pretty juvenile there is a bigger issue going on at the County. There is a saying be careful what you wish for. Everyone wanted Coffey out with the anticipation that an experienced, professional County administrator would come in and shake things up in a good way for Flagler County. Take one step forward and 2 steps back.
Fast forward now commissioners are infighting with each other and spilling into the public. As the article referenced staff infighting, you got one director accusing another of drinking during hurricane activation, making public records request on them, etc all spilling into the public. All this goes on while Jerry Cameron hopes it just “goes away”! Say what you want about Coffey and his extreme micromanaging ways, but I don’t see how this behavior would be tolerated. Being a hands off manager works as long as you don’t have kids who can’t play in the sandbox together. As they say you can’t make this **** up!
John Brady says
My Confessional will be open Sunday after 2 PM at European Village.
Is this considered news??? More like a soap opera.
Concerned Citizen says
3rd grade Sandbox issues at County taxpayers expense.
Joe Mullins wanted a little look at me chest thumping action. Then got called out on it. Greg Hansen felt put out then called out Joe on it. End of story.
Meanwhile valuable time was wasted at OUR expense. Time better spent conducting official busniess being handled. Ever notice every time this BOCC has an issue it involves money?
Aren’t there other things to spend time on? Like services for the Homeless and Mental Health care? Or protecting Flagler from land grabbing developers? Or making sure we have the emergency services coverage we need by balancing a budget and putting Fire Flight back on 24 hour service? Instead of over paying an out of area Administrator?
You folks in that BOCC are not irreplaceable. You’ve done nothing but bicker and fight and are slowly letting this County slip away from you.
Wise up fast because 2020 elections are not far away
Pamela I Andrews says
Danielle Anderson in all this has been somewhat slandered…
Someone in the county/state with more integrity in her little finger, than Mullins will ever have. He needs to make a public apology and get out of our county politics, speaking of which he stole from Nate McLaughlin, by schmoozing the people of Palm Coast, and not relying on his immediate constituents. All he has done here in our meetings out in his district was/is ti bash Nate McLaughlin.
Men like him, have no shame… Go back to once you once came.
Blaming to a person who only doing the ob he told her to do, is quite cowardly…
His votes came from his wealth… 700 is a mere fraction, compared to what he could have donated, and speak nothing about…
Just sorry this is…
Danielle, I am so sorry this happened to you, and others mentioned…
Willy Boy says
Hansen says he gives thousands of dollars to charity but doesn’t want it publicized. – What? Fast-paced Joe seems to run off the track often.
I’ve noticed that Mullins wears his MAGA hat a lot and has been photographed in it I think it’s in bad taste for any county, city or state gov’t leader to promote a particular presidential candidate, no matter what his or her party is and he also seems to slightly try to imitate Trump.. Gone are three votes for him next election.
I kind of took his publicizing of his donation to charity as “damage control” JMO
Algonquin J. Calhoun says
This makes the trump administration look like a well-oiled machine.
Mullin is a phony and needs to go.
Concerned Citizen says
When elections come around next year please remember what has and hasn’t been accomplished. I bet we will find that the hasn’t is more prelavant.
These same people have been in office for years. Yet people demand change. We won’t get it as long as this BOCC feels secure and untouchable. Time to clean house and start fresh.
It’s our job and duty as tax payers and citizens to demand change. We can best accomplish this by holding our representatives accountable. And by showing up at the polls to vote them out when they fail.
Take heed BOCC we are demanding change. And for you to do what is right by us and this County.
This donation was not worthy of a county issued press release. People make donations to charities every day. What make Mullins so special that he can think he can direct staff and waste taxpayer money? Just another example of Republican arrogance.
Dennis McDonald says
Ahhhh, so ” I don’t like you doing it with my tax dollars.” Well remember this name Lester Abberger the FORMER Flagler lobbyist who was replaced last month. Then go to a certain commissioner’s [Hansen] phone records on March 19 2019 and try to find out what he needed to have our lobbyist arrange an appointment with Ashley Moody the AG for ? Now Mr Abberger works for the Taxpayers on issues that are established in public session by the BOCC with Senator Hutson and Representative Renner every fall to get ready for the up coming Legislative session. Mr Abberger would already have his marching orders passed to him months back, so this matter raises suspicions !
I can not find any vote by the BOCC for this Commissioner to go solo, nice word for rogue and have our lobbyist create a pathway to the AG. For what? I can not get any public record information, you know that “transparency” our politicians dress up in. The AG told Ruffalo they had no such meeting but when he said it was on the Commissioners phone records they said they would look again. Nothing back yet ! Then I asked for Hadeed’s phone records from 1/1/2019 to 9/16/2019 three weeks ago. I was told a few days ago they were being REDACTED ! Was the Commissioner being directed by Hadeed to see Ashley Moody the AG without BOCC knowledge ? Maybe this kind of rogue behavior upsets other commissioners.
These are our Tax $$ and this one is NOT a tempest in a Tea Pot. Remember the name Lester Abberger. And please be nice to Julie, she has always been very pleasant and accommodating for anything you ask always trying to help everybody.
Dedicated American says
Joe Mullins has his agenda. He leaves a lot to be desired as a commissioner as do the rest of the commissioners. When it comes to their voting on large budget items, which by the way, I bet none of them actually read the 600 page budget, that have very questionable items, they just pass it. They certainly do not do their job they were voted in to do. The majority of the tax payers in this county have never been to a BOCC meeting to see how fast they spend our money. Nate McLaughlin and Greg Hansen worked very hard to do what the dictator Coffey wanted and they we got Joe Mullins that needs notoriety with his donations. He is not able to humble himself. We have an Attorney Al Hadeed, that makes over two hundred dollars a year plus all perks. That is four times more a year a working resident in this county makes. Our commissioners have absolutely no regard for the finances they vote on that affect the tax payers pocket books. Why does the county need Hadeed when we have a questionable Ethics Attorney Mark Heron doing work for Flagler County at another BIG TAX PAYER CoST? People you have to get involved. As was told to a few residents by the FBI every county has a little corruption. The FBI have been here twice with the same reply.
Concerned Citizen says
@ Dennis McDonald
You don’t have much room to throw shade sir.
How many hours of county busniess have you tied up trying to sue people. How many hours of meetings have you caused with ethics complaints? And you and your wife convieniently forget to claim items on legal documents? OK then.
And my all time favorite. You out right refusing to pay fines you owe legally levied at you?
Perhaps when you get your affairs in order and formally apologize to this county then you might consider running for an office. Until then I’ll do my part to see you don’t get appointed so much as dog catcher.
Name (required) says
“Flagler county.. A Mullins company.”
Sounds and looks to me that most of our elected officials have graduated from Trump University and then did post graduate work at Trump’ s school of public speaking, social engineering and public relations. The membership in the Republican Party has been restricted to people having an IQ just below freezing.
Murphy was just trying to please the powers that be….in few words preserve her job and while doing it she goofed! So lets do not kill the messenger. Established internal policies should be abide by in order to use fairness to all. I agree with above Maga hat worn while being an elected official of local government….plain inappropiate. Making a storm in a glass of water leaving the mayor abuses of our BOCC like the double taxation of Palmcoasters in our yearly ad valorem (home taxes) for the very partial services county provides to city residents when 70% or more of the services are rendered to us by our city government that receives half of the taxes we pay to Flagler county. This overpay Palmcoasters to county is what affords them to keep on buying overpriced derelict real state from their well connected just to seat empty and wasting away without a/c and proper maintenance like the former bank in Old Kings Road, the former contaminated hospital and the millions wasted in the Plantation Bay failing utility and the more millions wasted on high tkt political lawyers (Herron) http://www.votersopinion.com/2016/11/27/the-dirtiest-little-county-in-florida-starring-tallahassee-lawyer-mark-herron-part-2/to silence county residents or former constitutional (elected) officials. I wish BOCC will stop being a good old boy entity and start treating residents with financial fairness and honest governing… some change is needed.
Lil bird says
There’s already a protocol about it… Matthew 6:1-8
Oh, and FYI to the News Journal editorial writer, it’s no longer taxpayer money once the paycheck is cashed.
Jane Gentile-Youd says
Mullins is a joke not a commissioner
Trump's Sharpie says
Look, Joe is the smartest County Commissioner in the history of County Commissioners. With his very large brain, he knew that it would be bigly tacky to share the news about his extremely generous donation of one week’s salary, that he continually brags that he doesn’t need, on his own Facebook page, er pages. BIGLY TACKY. So he SHARED the press release that he had the PIO write on his behalf on his Facebook pages. So let me repeat, this is because he is bigly smart and not bigly tacky and not at all someone who does things just for PR.
I pay tax dollars for this ?
My link posted above about our county powers that be wrong doing by also wasting our hard earned taxes in legal fees should have been this: https://www.votersopinion.com/2016/11/27/the-dirtiest-little-county-in-florida-starring-tallahassee-lawyer-mark-herron-part-2/
Also what is up with this?: Tax-payers pay their salaries, so let tax-payers investigate.
‘Board of Inquiry’ to settle ‘blowup’ between Flagler’s fire, IT chiefs
Fire Rescue Chief Don Petito and Chief Information Officer Jarrod Shupe had what one county official described as a “blowup” d
Ben Hogarth says
Several issues at play here, and none of them are helping Flagler County move forward in a meaningful way. I will address each one individually the best I can.
1. Commissioner Mullins while well-intentioned with the charitable cause, needs to respect the line between “public” and “private” purpose. Commissioners are free to publish their own good deeds on their personal social media pages any time. And to be honest, from a communications perspective, this is the most effective way for an elected official to reach their constituency today. A public (county) press release should represent the best interests of the entire Commission (or a majority thereof) and not inure to the private benefit of any one individual – including a commissioner. Commissioner Mullins placed both staff and local press in a difficult position undermining their professional reputations. In this case, Commissioner Mullins was in the wrong for the “plug” and should learn from the mistake.
2. The belief that Mr. Cameron’s more ‘laissez-faire’ (hands-off) approach is a step backward comparative to the previous administration is a ridiculous assertion. While a manager with a more passive approach will certainly face their share of struggles, how could you possibly compare this with millions upon millions of wasted spending from a previous administration? And this isn’t even taking into account the unethical and potentially illegal practices by that administration. We need to be more mindful of our comments and not play into the absurd for the sake of making a point. Yes, Mr. Cameron could be more direct and involved in day to day affairs, but he’s weaving through a difficult political climate (fallout) in the aftermath of the Coffey “nuclear” disaster. Things will take time and there are far more daunting issues at play than this. There are many “schools-of-thought” in public administration, as to how to most effectively manage and lead personnel. At least Mr. Cameron is utilizing one – we can’t say the same about the last administration.
3. The Commission should adopt a more detailed policy on the use of county staff resources. If I were the administrator, I would have no issues with Commissioners (as members of the public) having open discussions with staff on any particular issue. Where I would draw the line is who may direct such staff to commit to a work product. That is the purview of the manager/administrator and not to the elected official. Commissioners should always make such requests through administration and from top down, such requests may be entrusted to the right parties to accomplish the task if requested by the administrator. This isn’t exactly rocket science – we are talking common sense public administration principles in the Commissioner-manager form of government.
I personally take no issue from Commissioner Mullins as I know he is doing what he thinks is best for the County. With that said, I hope he learns from this experience and realizes the potential for abuse any one Commissioner utilizing county staff for private gain may lend. If it’s not Mr. Mullins in good intentions, it may be another in mal-intent.. and that’s the point.
I know you all can do better than this. You have to do better than this.
Not Jose #1 fan BUT all those saying he should not go around with that MAGA hat all the time on. You need to learn to READ. Yes the hat is RED but the only one I see him in all the time is his own creation of “Focused on Flagler. Iget that their hate of trump blinde most all they see.