Some 150 people jammed the old Bunnell City Hall building Monday evening for the only forum featuring the last three candidates standing in the race for Flagler County Sheriff, down from nine: Democrat Larry Jones, Republican Rick Staly and Independent Thomas Dougherty.
Staly faced down five Republicans to win that primary, Jones defeated the incumbent, Jim Manfre (for whom both Jones and Staly worked for two years) and Dougherty coasted along as the only Independent, participating in previous forums but without as yet presenting a clear reason as to why he is in the race.
The forum, sponsored by the News-Journal and the Flagler County Chamber of Commerce, was moderated by Pat Rice, the News-Journal’s editor, who asked questions ranging from staffing, morale and budgeting issues at the sheriff’s office to race, conflict-management and consolidation of policing in the county.
There weren’t nearly as many points of contention between the candidates as there were during the primary, when Manfre’s presence provided the equivalent of bait for a school of piranhas. The three candidates displayed the occasional differences, but the sense of often bitter competition that dominated the Republican and Democratic primaries was almost absent in this forum, even from Jones and Dougherty, who sought not even once to score points against Staly, the obvious front-runner. Staly, for his part, spoke most of the time not as a candidate but as a sheriff-elect already developing his administrative plan of attack, underscoring the approach by pointing to his recent meetings to that end with county officials.
The forum’s most animated segment was the result of a question that elicited the sharpest differences between the three men, but on a matter they would have absolutely no control over: whether assault-type rifles should be in the hands of civilians, or whether they should be regulated or banned.
Staly drew applause even from a group from deputies when he said emphatically that there should be no such ban, quickly adding that he’s been endorsed by the National Rifle Association. Dougherty spoke his displeasure at being called at home to hear a canned NRA endorsement of Staly, then adding that he’d have no problem with bans on assault-type weapons. “The only people who should have them are law enforcement officers,” Dougherty said. Jones aligned himself with Dougherty: “We don’t need those types of guns out there, destroying people’s guns.”
But the question was more revealing of philosophies-and the tenor of the electorate–than anything the candidates can do in their capacity as sheriff.
There was one other point on which Jones and Staly drew blunt differences between their two approaches: when the candidates were asked what they would do to ensure that Flagler is a model in matters involving race and law enforcement–a roundabout way of asking about the roiling conflicts between black communities and police as a result of the shooting of unarmed black men and boys–Jones, who is black, said heavy-handed deputies should be weeded out and body cameras properly and always used. Staly acknowledged problems, but relegated them to the 60s and 70s while placing his faith in psychological testing of prospective employees and proper internal investigations when issues arise. But, he said, problems on the street would not arise as often if individuals immediately complied with police commands. That drew immediate applause.
They were on more readily practical grounds when they addressed personnel, morale and budgeting issues, though with varying degrees of clarity. With those as with most other questions, the differences were in style and detail.
Jones spoke of his long service at the department, his connection to Flagler and his interest in keeping children out of crime: one of his three priorities is to expand the Police Athletic League. If there was a recurring theme to his approach, it’s his interest in building a sense of community between residents and the sheriff’s office. “It’s not us against them. We are a community,” he said. His immediate plans are to develop a transition team from which he would seek recommendations, and through which he would speak with all deputies and employees to get a better idea of his priorities.
But his absence of managerial experience, or even much grasp of managerial issues at the sheriff’s office, was apparent. He did not try to sound more knowledgeable than he is on those issues, steering his answers to the more familiar but general grounds: the importance of training, the value in de-escalation of tense situations, his support of body cameras, as long as deputies turn them on as soon as they’re called to a scene–not arbitrarily, well into a call.
Staly’s command of the issues facing the sheriff’s office was in more evidence than for Jones, who retired two years ago after 30 years at the agency, as a sergeant, or Dougherty, who appeared disconnected from the agency except in the most general terms (when he wasn’t referring to deputies as “police officers.”) Staly was the undersheriff for the first two years of Manfre’s administration, an experience he used to discuss the agency’s need for additional deputies, an updated policing contract with Palm Coast, which hasn’t been updated in either years, and an almost hubristic promise that as soon as he is the next sheriff, morale issues at the department would take care of themselves, because he already has the ranks’ support, he said (he won the deputies’ union endorsement).
Th contrast between Staly’s command of the issues facing the sheriff’s office–or policing in general–and that of Dougherty and Jones was inescapable, however: Staly could enumerate demographic projections, deputy-to-population ratios,staffing levels and make-up of policing zones in the county in a way that his opponents simply could not, and did not try to. Rice’s questions mercifully did not exploit those differences, focusing instead on a series of more positional matters.
None of the candidates support either consolidating Bunnell’s and Flagler Beach’s police departments with the sheriff’s office nor seeing palm Coast develop its own police department. Staly alone spoke of the need for more deputies, reservists and other personnel. But he was never entirely clear, beyond speaking of federal grants, as to how he would pay for additional personnel. On two occasions he said the county and Palm Coast could help “shuffle money around” rather than raise taxes to beef up the ranks. “None of us wants to pay additional taxes,” Staly said.
Jones, on the other hand, saw no need for additional policing in Palm Coast (“they’re getting adequate service,” he said. “They have everything,” a statement that was at the opposite end of an earlier statement about his approach as sheriff: “I’m going to change the direction of everything here in Flagler County.”) Jones proposed to go to Tallahassee and ask the governor directly for additional money if necessary, a counter-point to Staly’s proposal to seek federal dollars. State money, however, is not part of local policing budgets.
Dougherty scoffed at the notion that the ranks could be beefed up without increasing taxes–he said he was willing to pay an extra $40 or $50 a year to that end, as a taxpayer. Throughout he was more polished tonight, less flighty or fidgety than he’d been during the primary forums, particularly when he spoke about de-escalating tense policing situations and adding criminal justice to local high schools’ curriculums. But he did not stray much beyond his previous and almost single-minded mantra: education.
As for personnel changes, Staly reiterated his often-repeated promise that, in contrast with Manfre, he would not fire anyone, but make the ranks part of his transition team. Jones and Dougherty did not disagree. “I’m going to make sure the employees are happy.”
The old coquina building at Bunnell’s former City Hall had filled to capacity well before the 6:30 p.m. forum, leaving a platoon of “Deputies for Staly” standing in back of the room, alongside about two dozen or more people who could not find seats. But the audience was split as at a wedding: Staly’s supporters on one side, Jones’s on the other. They each got about as much support, judging from the decibel level of the applause, at the beginning of the forum. When Staly completed his closing statement, however, the applause he drew was more deafening.