Flagler Beach Mayor Suzie Johnston has rescinded her support for the Family Life Center following an appearance by executive director Trish Giaccone on Joe Mullins’ radio show. Giaccone appeared on ‘Live, Work, Shop, Play in Flagler and St. Johns County’, a weekly program aired on WNZF and hosted by Mullins, the vice-chair of the Flagler County Board of Commissioners. Mullins pays WNZF for the weekly slot. The topic of the episode was domestic violence; the Family Life Center is Flagler’s most prominent nonprofit providing aid to those seeking refuge from such crises. The organization was founded in 1987, then called the Flagler Ecumenical Social Service Center.
Prior to this recent instance, Flagler Beach’s government and Family Life Center had enjoyed a more harmonious relationship. The City Commission had welcomed representatives from FLC in for proclamations dating back years and had a documented $50 donation made in October of 2018. Each year since 2018, Flagler Beach sent a representative to serve on FLC’s board. It had been former Mayor Linda Provencher each year until her successor Suzie Johnston was elected in March.
The first sign of conflict in the situation wasn’t actually between Flagler Beach’s commissioners and the FLC, it was instead between the commission and Joe Mullins. In promoting the upcoming episode featuring Giaccone, Mullins created a Facebook post featuring several photos.
One such photo was a headline describing the recent release of Bill Cosby from prison after serving less than three years of his 3-10 year sentence. Cosby’s conviction was overturned on account of due process violations. The next photo in Mullins’ post was a FlaglerLive headline from June 2018, describing the arrest of Commissioner Eric Cooley on a misdemeanor domestic violence charge. Charges against Cooley were dropped by the state in October of that year when the alleged victim refused to cooperate with the state attorney. This doesn’t represent an exoneration of Cooley, but an acknowledgment by the state that there was no evidence to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Cooley has denied any acts of violence at every stage since his arrest.
The dynamic between Joe Mullins and Eric Cooley has long been tumultuous. The two have publicly disagreed over issues several times before, sometimes resulting in social media exchanges that venture on insult. “This individual is [an] embarrassment to the Republican Party and to our County,” Cooley posted about Mullins back in January. “His views are not shared by any respectable or decent human being. I have and will continue to openly speak out and condemn the atrocious behavior coming from this person.” Cooley’s comment was in response to a FlaglerLive article detailing controversial comments Mullins had made on his radio show regarding liberals. Mullins’ take on his relationship with Cooley: “Really don’t know him other than I am told often he post attacks about me on social media.”
In addition to the posts promoting the show making an apparent juxtaposition between Cooley and Cosby, they were also circulated as ads with different messages aimed at Cooley. “Why should celebrities, local politicians, and Flagler Beach 7/11 business owners not be held to the same standard as others?”, one ad for the episode said. Cooley owns the 7/11 store on A1A, just south of the Flagler Beach Pier. It continued: “Hear the shocking information this week on how these scumbags use money, intimidation, threats, and fear to scare their victims and others.” Another read: “Don’t miss this week’s shocking show! These creeps need to be behind bars forever. Hear how some use celebrity or political status to try and get out of it and what message does that send to society and the victims.”
Elaborating on his decision to add the photos depicting Cosby and Cooley, Mullins told AskFlagler, “We market our shows very aggressively and use as many catching subjects to increase interest with show. This one was on physical and sexual abuse to women.” Cooley has said he doesn’t feel Mullins’ promotion of the episode put emphasis on helping victims of domestic violence.
Needless to say, Mullins’ posts didn’t do much to smoothen the relationship between the two elected officials. In reality, it likely left it the same: a mutual lack of great admiration for one another. It was Giaccone’s interview on Mullins’ show, however, that drew her and her organization the ire of the Flagler Beach Board of City Commissioners.
The Radio Show
Mullins’ guests on the show were Giaccone, Flagler Sheriff’s Office Chief Paul Bovino, and Tim Sharp, a business owner and early-declared candidate for Palm Coast City Council in the seat currently held by Eddie Branquinho, up for grabs in 2022. The theme of portion of the conversation that caused disagreement was the nature of prosecuting perpetrators of domestic violence, and the difficulties in doing so that can be present on the victim’s side. Mullins and Sharp spoke about some of the details of the incident with Cooley and then turned to Giaccone for expert input on such situations. Giaccone explained how victims have no say in when charges are dropped, and how victims refusing to cooperate with prosecutors is a common occurrence. She did not object to Mullins or Sharp’s characterizations of Cooley either past or present, nor did make comment lending credence to them.
As one would imagine, Cooley was not happy with the contents of the episode. “Trish from Family Life Center participated in a widely publicized political hit show. Nowhere was it documented in any of the promos for the show that this show was about helping domestic violence victims,” he said of Giaccone’s role in the conversation.
Reactions from Mayor Johnston, Others
The episode came up in the third hour of Flagler Beach’s City Commission meeting on July 8th. Suzie Johnston, Flagler Beach Mayor, and Cooley’s girlfriend, was in her comments portion of the meeting, and took the opportunity to weigh in on the matter from her role:
“As mayor I am asked for support from lots of different organizations here within the county. And I take my stamp of approval very serious when these organizations come and I support them and read proclamations. And the groups that I support, I expect for them to behave in an ethical manner and follow the vision of which that they claim to follow.
“And now we’ve had a problem because the Family Life Center, I feel personally, that they crossed some lines, they went rogue. They went on WNZF, long story short it was a political hit show attacking one of the members of this body. The organizations we support should not attack our city, our commission, or any of our residents. Because then in turn they come and ask for support from us.
“This is something that Family Life Center has done. I’m not gonna stand up here, I don’t wanna tell anyone what they need to do, but I’m gonna tell you what I’m not gonna do. I’m not gonna support a group that goes and participates and takes cheap shots at members of our body and our residents. If any group wants my support, and wants my stamp of approval, I expect better of them. You need to stand up and say what your cause is supporting.
“So I would like to remove my stamp of approval from the Family Life Center. Anyone on this body is welcome to attend their meetings, but I will not as a board member, and to be very transparent, I reached out twice to clear the air. I contacted them last week voicing my concerns, and I contacted them this week voicing my concerns, and I heard nothing. And I have a problem with that.”
The clip of Johnston’s above remarks is available here. Skip to 2:46:47 for the relevant portion.
In the moment, Johnston’s remarks were well-received by fellow commissioners. “Kudos to you, Mayor,” said Commissioner Deborah Phillips. Commissioner Jane Mealy also voiced her support, adding: “That disturbed me as well. I’m glad you took that position.” Mealy also remarked that she’d consult with the Flagler Woman’s Club, with which she is involved, about their own future ties with the Family Life Center.
After the meeting, Johnston and Giaccone were reported to have had a phone call together, discussing the incident. Both parties offered no comment on what was discussed on the call. As mentioned in her comments above, Johnston is adamant she’d attempted to mend fences with the Family Life Center prior to the June 8th meeting.
“I am very disappointed that Trish would go on a political radio show,” Cooley said, “whose host widely publicized before, during, and after recording that this was politically motivated personal attack and allow Family Life Centers name and messaging to be used in that manner. In my opinion, what was covered on that show will in no possible manner help any victim and if anything undermines the process that is in place to help these people.”
Mayor Johnston weighed in on the ordeal with some more time has passed: “If you come to me as a Mayor and want my support, personal endorsement, and for me to read proclamations before the city then I expect any organization to behave in an ethical manner.
“As a Mayor that interacts with numerous groups seeking my endorsement, my expectations are that you positively represent our city and community. Any group or organization that attacks any citizen, city official, or business, I will remove my endorsement. In my opinion, Family Life Center behaved in a way that violates my expectations that I put my personal endorsement on.
“Never once over 20 days of smear advertising did the Family Life Center decide to make a public comment or correction to the use of their organization and participation. Lots of people are looking to spin this issue into something that it’s not. This stance isn’t about Live Shop Play, WNZF, Commissioner Cooley, or even Family Life Center. This is about what I feel as Mayor is right and wrong, and any group seeking my approval and their interactions and ethics. I simply will not endorse any group that engages in personal attacks of anyone in this city.”