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At Flagler Sheriff’s Forum, Eight More or Less Angry Men, Mostly at Incumbent Jim Manfre

| June 23, 2016

sheriff's forum 2016

The nine candidates were lined up with little elbow room as they faced the audience at the Portuguese-American Club Wednesday evening. (© FlaglerLive)

All nine candidates for Flagler County Sheriff gathered Wednesday evening for what appears to be the only forum that will feature them all at the same table before the Aug. 30 primary. The forum drew some 200 people, at least a third of them friends, family and partisans of the candidates, at the Portuguese-American Club in Palm Coast.

It was hosted by the emerging coalition of the county’s six public-sector unions, the United Public Employees of Flagler County, whose clout candidates are learning not to ignore: the coalition, representing 2,000 members and upwards of twice that number in union family members who vote, is endorsing local candidates as a bloc and in mutual support. So teachers, firefighters and others will support the choice of the cops’ union for sheriff, cops, firefighters and other employees will support the teachers’ choice for school board, and so on. It’s the first time that Flagler County’s unions have combined forces—or, for that matter, hosted forums. They have not yet made their choice for sheriff: Wedenesday’s forum was to be key in that decision.

A previous forum hosted by the Young Republicans Club of Flagler County featured six of the nine candidates—the Republicans only. Without much excitement or surprises, the forum served as a solid introduction to many candidates most voters had never heard of, campaign signs and club memberships aside–John Lamb, Jerry O’Gara,  Mark Whisenant and Chris Yates. None was a county resident when Fleming was first elected in 2004, let alone Manfre in 2000. Fleming was there too, as was Rick Staly, Manfre’s former undersheriff. The forum served to define many of the candidates’ basic positions and themes, which won’t be repeated here. It also strongly suggested that while the race has drawn a large number of candidates because of Manfre’s perceived vulnerabilities, not to mention the $126,000 salary, Fleming, Staly and Lamb are in the front-running half.

Wednesday’s forum in contrast included the two Democrats (incumbent Sheriff Jim Manfre and Larry Jones, the long-time sergeant at the sheriff’s office until his retirement in 2014) and a self-funded independent, Thomas Dougherty, whose name until then drew quizzical looks even from followers of the local political scene, if it drew any reaction at all.

If O’Gara had been the previous forum’s testier oddball (he opened with a joking salvo declaring himself “not a cop” then went on to glory in his days as a “warden” on Rikers Island, New York’s jail complex long dominated by corruption, violence and “barbaric abuses,” in the words of the New York Times) he was displaced in that regard by Dougherty on Wednesday. The former New York City cop and current substitute teacher in Flagler schools spoke of the need of better “communication” and education at the sheriff’s office, but never got much past that. When asked about a perceived shortage of deputies locally, he said: “How about calling the governor?” Then he said he’d go to the governor’s house if he had to. (O’Gara this time was more disciplined and controlled, and, changing tunes, was at pains to describe himself as a cop with arresting and investigative powers in his day.)

The evening gave eight of the nine candidates their only opportunity to directly attack Manfre, as all of them more or less did, though two with more personal venom than second-hand generalities: Don Fleming, the former sheriff and nemesis to Manfre since 2004, and Rick Staly, who’d been Manfre’s undersheriff for two years. Veiled and rare barbs between the Republican candidates aside, almost the totality of the criticism was directed at Manfre. The criticism was recurring, varied and at times angry. the sheriff’s position at the extremity of the narrow table arrangement proved aptly, at times poignantly, symbolic.

flagler sheriff candidates

The candidates head-on. Click on the image for larger view. (© FlaglerLive)

Manfre sat through the 100-minute forum his hands folded in front of him, mostly staring ahead, his lips pursed, while also managing to answer charge after charge with a trove of accomplishments: a new jail, a new operations center (both were built by the county but not without the sheriff’s advice and consent), accreditation, the first substantial raises for deputies since Fleming’s 33 percent increase over three years at the height of the housing boom 10 years ago, more attention on the mental health needs of suspects, the lowest crime rate in years (and one substantially lower than during the Fleming years), and so on.

Manfre does have the sort of record that, for any other sheriff, would usually lead to easy re-election and token opposition, if that. But both forums this month showed to what extent two issues have gravely damaged the Manfre administration: his firings, demotions and transfers of a long roster of veterans the day he took office gave the impression he’d come prepared with a hit list before even speaking with employees. That badly soured his image in the department from the start. And his subsequent protracted two-year battle with ethics charges–brought against him, not surprisingly, by one of the long-time employees he pushed out–projected the image of a man above the law (Manfre says he wasn’t above the law but that, much evidence to the contrary, he’d been wronged). Manfre fought the charges until last month, amplifying and prolonging a relatively small issue into one of the defining shambles of his tenure.

All other accomplishments, and there have unquestionably been many, have paled in comparison to those issues, which his opponents have pounced on at every opportunity.

They did so Wednesday. Three recurring criticisms were low morale, huge turnover—though candidates conceded that better pay elsewhere is a big factor—and the ruin of many cops’ lives and families after losing their job. One of those long-time cops, then and now a Fleming supporter, was in the audience: she lost her boat, her house, her marriage and her retirement savings after her firing, and is now a cop at half her previous wage in St. Johns County.

When Manfre cast Staly in the role of co-pilot during the purges, Staly fired back that he’d not been part of Manfre’s transition team, was handed a list and told to get to work, essentially as the hatchet man, though he did not know the people whose jobs were affected. Still, he stayed two years on the job. One of a series of pointed questions directed at individual candidates targeted Staly’s tenure alongside Manfre, Staly’s most serious vulnerability as a candidate: if it had been so bad, why stay? Staly answered that he almost left after nine months, but pledged to two fellow-employees that he’d stay to be a “buffer” between them and Manfre. “That’s exactly what I did for the next 13 months or so,” he said. Staly would underscore the contrast between his career and Manfre’s, describing himself in the words the Palm Coast Observer had ascribed him, as “a cop’s cop,” one who’d been shot in the line of duty and been decorated for it, who’d spent almost his whole career as a cop (or building a multi-million dollar private security company in Flagler) and who still made arrests as an undersheriff.

Dueling between Manfre, Fleming and Staly sharpened a contrast between administrations of the past and possibilities of the future.

Manfre–a former prosecutor–also stayed on the attack, saying that most of the terminations took place during Staly’s tenure, and that “a cloud lifted” from the agency when Staly left. “You demean employees, you intimidate them, you also undermine people that you’ve worked for,” Manfre said.

The last was a reference to Staly running for sheriff against his former boss in Orange County, where he’d held a similar position to the one he held under Manfre. Staly replied: “If what Mr. Manfre says is true, then why did the former sheriff give me a glowing recommendation when I retired?”

Then there was the criticism directed at Manfre from Fleming, whose tenure Manfre had described as more affected by crime than his. That prompted one of three pledges—if not threats—from Fleming to “look at your statistics pretty heavy,” an incendiary intimation that Manfre is cooking the books by downplaying crime or reclassifying crimes to lesser categories. Earlier, he’d said: “I’d like to take a look at the way you do your numbers,” and had threatened to get the Florida Department of Law Enforcement involved.

The eight challengers addressed a question about how each would handle their long-term staff upon taking office—a direct allusion to Manfre’s firings and demotions on Day One. They all spoke of how they’d strive to protect their employees, or at most reassign them, rather than fire them. Manfre for his part described a department where, “when I walked in the door, people did not want to show up, the former sheriff did not show up,” leading to the personnel overhaul. (Fleming did not ask for 30 seconds to respond to that one, but he’d earlier made the unusual promise that he would hire back some of his former staff, though candidates are barred from promising jobs, at least not in return for political support: “Am I going to bring back somebody? You bet I am,” he said.)

Under forum rules any individual who was personally attacked got 30 seconds to respond, out of turn from the normal question-and-answer round. Naturally, the dueling between Manfre, Fleming and Staly provoked flurries of 30-second responses, to the point of drawing groans from an audience that became restless at the intramural spectacle.

The dueling also provoked one of the more telling lines of the night, from John Lamb, when he said that the back and forth was reason enough for a change. Lamb repeatedly drew from his experience in Jacksonville, where he’s spent 23 years at the sheriff’s office, to promise a professionally run department with a focus on career and leadership development to ensure better retention of employees, among other pledges . “Four reasons why people leave an agency,” he said, displaying the characteristic style of an instructor that framed much of his presentations, complete with verbal footnotes. “First, they’re not treated with dignity and respect. This is the Gallup poll. Second, they’re not listened to. Third, they’re not given more work or more responsibility [when they show competence for either], and fourth they don’t feel like they have an impact in the agency to make a positive change. Ladies and gentlemen these first four things do not cost anything. That’s Leadership 101.” Leadership is where he comes in, he said. (An audience member would later say that he came on too strong, an observation illustrated by Lamb’s decision, in his closing statement, to stand up from among the nine and boomingly address the audience, starting with a quote from the Gospel of Matthew and flourishing his speech with jabs at the air.)

But Lamb—like O’Gara, Chris Yates, and Mark Whisenant, and unlike Staly or Fleming—had the advantage all evening of making statements without having the burden of a verifiable record at the questioner’s fingertips, or the sort of local history, rich in headlines and accompanying articles, that muddy more local candidates’ records. (The moderator was radio host Marc Bernier, who read the questions prepared by members of the Police Benevolent Association. There were no follow-ups to questions.)

jim manfre

Incumbent Jim Manfre was the evening’s chief target. Click on the image for larger view. (© FlaglerLive)

The newer candidates’ illusion of a clean slate was not necessarily a benefit. Lamb—in contrast, say, with Staly—spoke more theoretically about enacting certain methods and procedures locally. Staly also spoke of leadership and a long track record supervising up to 2,000 employees (in Orange County), but could more specifically also speak of meeting with individual employees in Flagler, splitting the county into three districts, addressing quality of life issues and domestic violence (the most persistent problem locally), and “creating a good working environment.” Fleming could—and did—return to his years as sheriff as a record “that speaks for itself,” though he did not add much to that record in terms of a fresher vision for 2017 and beyond.

Whisenant, a member of the Coast Guard Reserve, made a lot of loud and dogmatic vows that this or that crime won’t be tolerated in Flagler, and that he would “interdict” drug-runners and their cash up and down I-95 (a reference to the increasingly discredited, at times illegal and often bullying method of police agencies to seize and forfeit suspects’ assets, whether the suspects have been found guilty or not). But as was the case in the first forum, he steered clear of local issues, sticking to abstract talking points.

The disappointment of the evening was Jones, the popular veteran of the Flagler Sheriff’s Office whose joining the race—against Manfre in the Democratic primary—drew a groundswell of support and enthusiasm. The more immediate Manfre-Jones Democratic primary was eclipsed by Manfre’s battle with his Republican rivals, even though he’s not made it that far yet. Jones only occasionally joined in the attacks, and less directly than the Republicans. But he made little impact during the forum, particularly when asked about his command experience, of which he has very little. He noted how Manfre had favored him to be Bunnell’s interim police chief in 2001, when the city was having issues with its department—an endorsement that Jones said showed confidence in his command abilities. “It shows that I could take responsibility,” he said. What he did not say is that he never got that chance, because Bunnell’s city commission, then unapologetically bigoted, rejected him because it did not want a black chief commanding a white force. (Bunnell subsequently evolved, and several years later appointed a black chief.)

Jones spoke a lot about the importance of raising morale, and about his uniqueness as a Flagler County candidate with the deepest roots locally. But he seemed to have neither program nor vision as to how and why he wants to lead the sheriff’s office. He spent much of Wednesday evening ducking from the dueling between Manfre and others.

When it was over, some of the Republican candidates briefly mingled and shook hands with each other: they couldn’t make their way past the table without bumping into each other. Manfre got up and walked away from the table without looking back.

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27 Responses for “At Flagler Sheriff’s Forum, Eight More or Less Angry Men, Mostly at Incumbent Jim Manfre”

  1. Donald Trump's Tiny Fingers says:

    Thanks for posting this. Whisenant’s willingness to apply asset forfeiture carte blanche is enough for me to not vote for him, since it’s a revenue generation method and not a crime deterrent. Lamb looned out on this one, so Yates seems to be the best so far. I wish Jones had a better voiced opinion, might be time for a coin toss.

  2. 30 year cop says:

    Having attended the debate it became evident that a change is needed. It is time for Flagler County to move forward, leaving Manfre, Fleming and Staly behind.

  3. Barry Hartmann says:

    It’s clear after attending the debate ,, Lamb, Fleming and Staly are the only ones who seem to have the qualifications and experience needed for the job.

  4. RJ says:

    Staly is deceiving the public with every sign he posts by not prodominately displaying the word “FOR” in colors that can be seen. He intentionally plaed the “FOR” in white letters in a yellow background so it would not be seen easily to mislead the voters. Looking at his signs one would beleive he was the incumbent. My friend, you were the Under Sheriff, not the Sheriff! Time for you to get off your soap box and be honorable. You put the screws to Manfre and tried the same schennigans in Orange County. You are not what Flagler County needs in a Sheriff and you cannot buy the election. Your big money deposits in your campaign acount will not earn my vote. I too agree what we need some new blood around here. I would vote for Lamb if I knew he wouldn;t get sucked into the good old boys network of corruption around here should he get elected. Manfre should hang his head in shame. He once served as Sheriff and this second time around he should have gotten it right, and he didn;t. He has embarrassed law enforcement and the citizens of this county. Why would anyone in their right mind fight a complaint like he did if they did wrong and not admit it, apologize and move on? You can go work for Morgan and Morgan Jim Manfre. I am sickened that we had some good law enforcement officers on the force and now only have kids!

  5. Buddy Negron says:

    I actually thought Staly was the only one who answered any of the questions, had any knowledge, and actually had a plan for things. Boy Manfre looked like Nixon during watergate with the sweaty blank stare. Lol. Good job though. Informative forum.

  6. Mark says:

    I am not a democrat but Jones is the man!

  7. r&r says:

    It shows you how knowledgeable the voters are. First they elect Obama and then RE-ELECT him after destroying much of the country. Then they throw out Manfre then RE-ELECT him. How stupid ie that?????

  8. footballen says:

    I didn’t think Jones needed to say a word. He did exactly what he needed to, let his opponents all talk.

  9. Ken says:

    I thought that John Lamb was, by far and away, the most prepared and qualified candidate. One of his many attractive qualities is that he is not part of this local “cabal” that seems to interbreed and continue with the “he said, she said” mentality that continually forgets about honor, integrity and good moral character. He background and experience and brilliant organizational mind have led him to be the only viable choice for Sheriff in this election. He, in my opinion, would take the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office forward in a positive direction, improve morale and retention while providing our county first rate law enforcement.

  10. happeningnow says:

    Talk is cheap. End of conversation.

  11. Realist says:

    I have met John Lamb as well as his family. He has the experience and attitude that this department needs. He is an outsider and that is certainly what the county needs.

  12. David B says:

    I still feel that anybody that runs for Sheriff, should have reside here for at least 20 years. That would solve a lot of issues.

  13. Donald Trump's Tiny Fingers says:

    Hey r&r, the same residents of flagler county voted for romney 53% to obama’s 45% in the same election that they voted in manfre. So big surprise, the idiots voted for both the losers.

  14. Watching to see where this all goes says:

    Donald Trump’s Tiny little fingers…. I agree 100 % with you. Yates seems to be the best so far. Lamb appeared to be a fast talking car salesman and like he was reading from a book. Yates appeared to be genuine and I feel that this is what our county needs.

  15. Goodfellows. says:

    Manfre reminds me of John Gotti and his “Teflon Don” moniker. He has a short memory about all the drama he participated in while Sheriff. In a bold letter he wrote to the editor of the Palm Coast Observer today,you would think he could walk on water. All the accolades he lauded on his grown children attending Division I universities and all the things he’s “accomplished” since he’s been Sheriff. It’s your job.sir, to do these things. It’s your responsibility. You don’t get a pass because you did some things for this county. Who in the hell do you think you are? IT’S YOUR JOB. Next time tell the Observer about all the underhanded things you have done and would ARREST the average Joe or one of your deputies for had they done the same. You are a typical politician sir, not Sheriff material.

  16. jim says:

    after sitting there for a LONG hour and a half, it became clear to me that Lamb is the man with a plan. He has a clear vision, direction, and most of all, conscience.

    Fleming, Manfre and Staly have ALL BEEN SMACKED BY THE ETHICS BRUSH!

  17. Flaglerfrmkid2adult says:

    Yates is what this county needs. He will stand by his deputies and he knows what is currently going on in law enforcement. He isn’t corrupted by having been employed here or having lived her so long to be vested in special interests. He will take this department onwards and upwards from an active law enforcement perspective.

  18. Robert Lewis says:

    Ronald Reagan puppet Jerry O’Gara behaved himself? I would of for sure thought he would of tried to liven up the crowd with examples of his angry Facebook post. He is RRR through and through.

  19. Katie Semore says:

    O’Gara is scary and needs to stay retired from any type of law enforcement activities.

  20. Donald Trump's Tiny Fingers says:

    I hadn’t realized that O’Gara was a RRR wingnut. If you look at his alleged policing methodology using teaparty mad whitey goggles then things make sense I guess.

  21. VOTE LAMB says:

    Lamb definately is the man with a plan. I will vote for LAMB because I think he can best get Flagler back together again after Humpty Dumpty is out of there. We need strong leadership in the FCSO and not more of what we have had. We have lost too many fine lawenforcement officers and need to get more mature, trained, experienced officers back on the force. It is sinful that we are expected to be protected and feel safe with all the kids Manfre has hired to replaced the men on the force. I will be voting for LAMB and hope you will too.

  22. anonymous says:

    Myself, family and friends are voting for mr. Lamb all the way. Some of them were independent and changed status to vote for Lamb.
    I personally have met and spoke with mr. Lamb. He for one is for doing the right things. Protect and serve as well as give officer incentives.
    He is a family man. He does live in Palm Coast. He is an active law enforcement lieutenant for Jacksonville, FL .
    He commutes daily to and from his job. He is current and up to date on all facets of Florida statutes and certifications.
    I don’t believe in voting in any other candidates for sheriff that are crooked, have been off the force for a long time and only kept credentials up. Staly is very two faced as he never told the public that manfre and he were good friends, he was manfres s undersheriff and never mentioned a word of this to any person. He also is the one who rented out his private cabin to manfre. With of course Flagler county funds. He was also aware that manfre was using Flagler sheriff vehicle to go on his lovely vacation on the county of Flagler, Florida. The county with the highest unemployment rate and the lowest paid sheriff’s anywhere. These ladies and gentlemen put their lives on the line daily for starting pay of $29k per year. This is horrendous. When I was in my twenties in South Florida as a correction ofc. I started off with $35k a year. There is something very wrong with this picture. I damn sure wouldn’t put my life on the line for 29k per year to start. I know that Lamb is a man of good ethics and values. He is raising his family and wants us all to live in a safe environment. This place has changed so much just in 3 1/2 years. It’s absolutely unreal. They run this entire County like the good old boy red neck system. This is a bit out dated and also a very corrupt way to run a county or constituents working with you. It’s no wonder this city is going down and fast.

  23. Robert Lewis says:

    Just take a look at the Facebook rants of O’Gara. Angry Jerry is exactly that. He claims we don’t need a cop, we need managers. Last time I looked the voters elected a non-cop manager and look at where that has gotten us. Sorry Mr. O’Gara, you’re quick with a one liner on Facebook, but when it came time to forums, you were an empty suit.

  24. Anyone but O'Scary for Sheriff says:

    I whole-heartedly agree with Katie & Robert, O’Gara is very scary. He has become un-hinged and is ranting on social media like a “Crazy Man” because people disagree with him or don’t campaign the way he thinks they should. Imagine what he would do to his employees, the Palm Coast Mayor or City Council, the Flagler County Commissioners, the citizens or even visitors to our great county when they disagree.
    He has attacked Flagler Live constantly trying to make folks believe he did not say what he did say.
    Does anybody have a straight jacket we can put him in until after August 30th?

  25. The Oracle says:

    Dare to compare, no one comes close to having the overall credentials of RICK STALY. Look at the education, training, certifications, local, state and national professional leadership background. With several exceptions, most of these candidates are actually Florida Certified Law Enforcement Professionals, but none come close to the leadership achievements, in the public and private sector, that RICK STALY has. Flagler deserves a real cop, that has no ethics problems. It’s time for a clean slate, with proven leadership. Thank you.

  26. 30 Year Cop says:

    Apparently the Oracle does not know Rick Staly very well. Rick Staly worked side by side with Manfre for two years and was responsible for all of the terminations from the outset of Manfre’s current term. Rick Staly has changed from a life-long Democrat to Republican just for two years probably because his Sheriff was a Republican then went back to being a Democrat, moved to Flagler as a Democrat , then went back to being a Republican ,probably because he realized Flagler is mostly Republican. He sold vitamins out of his Pollice Car against the rules and set-up Manfre by giving him the use of his mountain cabin.

  27. Since 1987 says:

    Enough of the outsiders. Is there not a local among us with police Command experience that can do the job? Flagler has not had a home bred Sheriff is decades and since then it has flip flopped since. Jones is local, but no experience in supervision, not even first line.

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