Three commission candidates discuss Flagler County's challenges and opportunities
Updated March 13.
County Commission candidates Nate McLaughlin, Greg Hansen and Joe Mullins talked about the county's challenges, and their plans to deal with them, during a March 7 candidate forum held at Palm Coast City Hall by the Flagler County Republican Club.
Hansen, the commissioner representing District 2, was appointed to that position by Gov. Rick Scott in January 2017 after the death of the late commissioner Frank Meeker. Hansen is being challenged by Dustin Savage, a construction consultant who is running as a no-party-affiliation candidate. Because Savage wasn't present for the Republican forum, Hansen didn't have a direct challenger.
The forum consisted of a series of issue questions answered by all three candidates — each had two minutes each per question — plus candidates' introductions and concluding remarks.
McLaughlin and Hansen defended the county's record on spending and infrastructure projects, while Mullins, in a few cases, challenged it. He also set himself apart during the first question after introductions by praising President Donald Trump, while McLaughlin and Hansen didn't make such allusions to national politics.
The question had asked about elections conduct and the importance of having ethical and honorable elected officials representing the community and asked candidates if the campaign process would reveal issues that would be embarrassing to the Flagler County community.
McLaughlin said that, "unfortunately, politicking is a blood sport," but that he'd "done a few campaigns, and we stay the high road. I mean we just — we don't do negative, I don't believe in negative. I think you run for something, you tell people what you're about, who you are, and be honorable. And I think that brings a certain dignity to the process." As to whether the campaign would reveal "embarrassing" issues, he said, "No, absolutely not."
Hansen said he "came from a community of honor, and that's the United States Navy. That was kind of a way of life for us, integrity and honor. I agree with Nate that it's a blood sport, elections are a blood sport, but not for me. There's nothing in my background that I'm embarrassed about. As a matter of fact I can list lots of thing I'm proud of."
Mullins, speaking after the other two, said that the community, in 2016, had seen a "crazy election and a lot of mud-slinging."
"We’ve seen a man that was attacked very aggressively stand above and lead the country, and go in a direction that businesses are starting to benefit from," Mullins said. "I think it's important to focus on the issues. I think when he was attacked, he stayed on course, certainly probably a little stronger than what the average person could endure. But I’m proud of what our country’s doing."
Then, again in a departure from the other two candidates, Mullins gave a lengthier answer to the portion of the question that asked candidates about embarrassing issues in their background.
"How important is it to have ethical, honorable elected officials representing the people of Flagler County? I think that's very important, but I'm not going to sit up here and say that I'm a perfect person," he said. "I've gone through a lot of challenges in my life. I've gone through losing a father at an early age, I grew up searching for a role model, I went through a divorce which was not very fun, but we have actually learned to work together and become great at coparenting together. ... That took experience to go through it and become that person and evolve. I didn't have the role model at a young age." He'd also had some "tough times" but was fortunate to never have to consider bankruptcy, he said. "It's going to reveal I'm a human being. It's going to reveal I'm a real person. It's going to reveal that — why I have God in my life. It's also going to reveal — "
And with that, the timer cut him off.
Mullins had said in a March 6 interview with the Palm Coast Observer for a story about opioids that he'd turned to God during his own recovery process from addiction to pain medication. He said he was eight years into recovery and that he still serves on Georgia’s Statewide Opioid Task Force.
On a question about traffic roundabouts — the Florida Department of Transportation is considering adding three, at Cody's Corner, U.S. 1 and Old Dixie Highway, and U.S. 1 and Matanzas Woods Parkway — McLaughlin was critical of a proposal to add the roundabouts, especially for Cody's corner, saying State Sen. Travis Hutson has been in touch with FDOT "to figure how we can not do this one and come up with a better engineering plan that's going to be more usable for our west side."
Hansen said,"We, the people of Flagler County, have no say, and that doesn’t seem right to me." He said he could see the advantage of roundabouts in some places but that a roundabout "seemed like the wrong answer" for Cody's Corner. A traffic light would be less costly than a roundabout, he said, but, "As long as it’s safe, whatever solution FDOT comes up with and we prevent loss of life, that’s the right answer."
Mullins wasn't ready to dismiss roundabouts. "Roundabouts in developments have proven to be good and bad," he said. "It just depends on the development and the plan you have and ... the way you want to get traffic —there's definitely an argument that the roundabouts are moving traffic quicker." He said that when he travels S.R. 100, it seems like he's stopped at every light. Other communities have synchronization, he said. "That's part of these roundabouts, too; I think if you're going to address one issue, you address all the issues."
One question asked candidates if they saw any wasteful spending in the county's budget. Both incumbents said no.
"This is one of the most efficiently run operations you can ever imagine," said McLaughlin, who said he's handled seven budgets in office. He pointed out that the county came up with a strategic plan in 2011 and is again growing quickly.
Mullins said, "One of the, probably the biggest areas that I see in spending that needs to be looked at and evolved: We don’t need to be temporarily fixing things or patching things, we need to be permanently fixing things. ... When we grow something, when we expand something, we need to have a vision and a plan for what we're expanding that for."
Responding to a question about the need for affordable housing, Hansen and McLaughlin spoke about the challenges of keeping up with market changes and dealing with people who don't want affordable communities nearby, while Mullins said, "You just have to sit down and do it. ... You turn around and plan it out and make sure you’re not putting it on top of a vacation home or somebody’s retirement home that they spent several million dollars on."
Hansen acknowledged that affordable housing in Flagler is a problem and noted that an apartment complex has been approved and that there are plans for a large mobile home park in the works.
"We don’t have affordable housing in Flagler County. We just don’t," he said. "The not-in-my-backyard business is serious. .. (every time someone wants to build an apartment building, there's — a hue and cry goes up, that 'Oh, my God, not there, don't do it there, build it over there.' ... But we're going to have to answer that question, and we're going to have to build some housing here, so that the people that work here can live here. ... I think we'll get it done, but it's going to be painful."
McLaughlin said that part of the issue is keeping up with changes in the market.
"A builder comes in, he builds what we would consider to be an affordable house, the housing market goes up, these folks say, 'Wow, I paid $80,000, I can sell it for $150,000,' it becomes unaffordable real quick," he said. "It's a dilemma that you think you fix it, and you don't, because the market changes." The county needs to make things affordable but also attract high paying jobs, he said, "so that if you work here, you can make a living wage."
Several times, candidates got laughs from the crowd, as McLaughlin did when he answered a question about what his three favorite places in the county were.
"You know, that's not a fair question," he said. "Because my happiest place is at home with Kelly," he added, referring to his wife.
"Awww," several members of the audience cooed as others clapped and chuckled. "Kelly — you know, she's been my girl since she was 14 and I was 15 years old. This June we'll be married 39 years," McLaughlin added, saying that he doesn't get to be home with his family as much as he'd like. He then listed Haw Creek Ranch and Bull Creek Fish Camp as his other favorite places. Hansen listed Princess Place, the Ag Museum, and the beach, while Mullins listed Flagler Beach, the rural west side, and downtown Bunnell — which he suggested could be revitalized if the county could get a train depot added there.
This story was changed to address a quote about bankruptcy that was misrepresented in the original version.