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Palm Coast Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2019 1 day ago

Flagler commissioners not interested in muzzling Mullins

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A handful of residents have complained about County Commissioner Joe Mullins' behavior on social media.
by: Jonathan Simmons News Editor

County Commissioner Joe Mullins engages with constituents through social media — and some of them don't like the way he does it. 

For instance, there was the time he wrote, responding to a Facebook post about dog chaining,  “We did decide to chain and mussle all radical librals in the county.” Or the time he referred to a former candidate for county commission as a "nasty old person" and wrote, "If I put you on payroll would you please shut your bitter mouth." Or the time he referred to a local woman who'd been critical of him on social media as "cheeseburger Chelsea," because she worked in a restaurant.

One resident, Kathy Austrino, compiled screenshots of such comments by Mullins and sent them to the other commissioners and to local media.

"Mr. Mullins, I find your comments on that Facebook page offensive, divisive and beneath the dignity of the office that you hold."

 

— EDITH CAMPINS, Flagler County resident

Others complained to the county administration, both about the nature of the comments and about their impression that Mullins has been posting them from his phone during County Commission meetings, while he was at the dais — from which he's often observed using his phone. (Mullins, after the Observer reported that he'd posted a Trump meme on his Facebook page during a commission meeting, contacted the newspaper and said that the post had been scheduled in advance by his marketing team.)

At the commission's meeting the morning of Dec. 2, several residents used the meeting's public comment period to speak about about Mullins' comments on social media.

Mike Cocchiola, who heads the local Democratic club, did not mention Mullins' name. But he implored commissioners to avoid divisiveness.

"We’ve got to work together to deal with the issues we need to deal with," he said. "Dividing ourselves does no good to anybody, and certainly not to the 100-some thousands citizens of Flagler County that depend upon you to solve our issues."

Resident Edith Campins was direct. 

"Mr. Mullins, I find your comments on that Facebook page offensive, divisive and beneath the dignity of the office that you hold," Campins said. "Your comments do not help to bring us together. They’re offensive, they’re demeaning, they incite violence, and they’re really beneath the office that he holds, and they deserve public condemnation.”

"I am going to always exercise my First Amendment right. I don't try to take it from anyone. I just want it to be fair; I want it to be a situation to where both sides of the story are told."

 

— JOE MULLINS, county commissioner

But fellow commissioners weren't interested in muzzling Mullins, or in discussing during the meeting  the details of his comments.

"As far as the comments that commissioner Mullins has made, I’m not going allow the board to discuss that directly: I consider it mostly a private matter," board Chairman David Sullivan said. He added that the board would not agree to any form of censorship. "However, we always want to use good language and take into consideration that people may have differing views."

Mullins added later, addressing Cocchiola, "Mike, I certainly hear what you say. And I agree 100%." But, he added, "I am going to always exercise my First Amendment right. I don't try to take it from anyone. I just want it to be fair; I want it to be a situation to where both sides of the story are told."

Commissioner Donald O'Brien, speaking toward the end of the meeting, said he felt about the issue "like I walked in the middle of a movie ... and didn't know what the heck was going on."

"There's also an opinion out there that all of this mishegoss, that's a Yiddish term, is just what it is — it's nonsense. It just reinforces to me why so many normal people don't participate in social media, because it's just nonsense. ...  It's frustrating that we have to waste a lot of time."

The issue wasn't settled for the day: At the board's workshop several hours later, County Attorney Al Hadeed, as he advised board members on areas where their rules of procedure may need updating, suggested that it might behoove the commission to consider clarifying its social media policy. 

Currently, the district's policies don't address what commissioners may say on their own social media pages, he explained. "Perhaps it may be good to take a look at or identify some guidelines," he said. He added that, as commissioners' role is political, "We want to make sure that nothing in the guidelines would abridge your ability to communicate, but at the same time lay out some of the basic principles of how those social media pages or emails might be used."

Hadeed also mentioned that the board could decide to implement a policy of leaving their phones with the clerk at the beginning of each meeting. 

County Administrator Jerry Cameron added, "That would also protect you … from accusations you received an ex parte communications during the meeting."

But commissioners weren't interested in that suggestion.

Sullivan said he saw phones as analogous to using a pen or paper to write or pass notes, as often occurs in public meetings elsewhere.

Mullins said, "I’m not going let somebody out in the public dictate what I do or don’t do with my phone."

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