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Sheriff candidate Larry Jones, a Democrat, speaks during the forum Aug. 8. (Photo by Jonathan Simmons)
Palm Coast Wednesday, Aug. 10, 2016 4 years ago

Sheriff candidates debate issues in final forum before Aug. 30 primary

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The race has drawn nine candidates.
by: Jonathan Simmons News Editor

Candidates for Flagler County Sheriff debated such issues as marijuana legalization and tensions between black communities and law enforcement Aug. 8 in their last forum before the Aug. 30 primary.

The forum, organized by the Daytona Beach News-Journal at Buddy Taylor Middle School, drew an audience of about 300.

Four candidates were running in part on their records as law enforcement officials within Flagler County: incumbent Sheriff Jim Manfre, a Democrat who’s served as the county’s sheriff since 2012 and previously was elected in 2000, serving until 2004; Donald Fleming, a Republican who defeated Manfre for the seat in 2004 and then served until Manfre ousted him in 2012; Rick Staly, a Republican and Manfre’s former  undersheriff; and Larry Jones, a former deputy who retired as a sergeant after more than 30 years with the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office and who is the only one to challenge Manfre in the race’s Democratic primary.

Of the remaining candidates, one — teacher and retired New York City cop Thomas Dougherty — has no party affiliation. The others — Jacksonville County Sheriff’s Office Lt. John Lamb, Holly Hill Police Department Lt. Christopher Yates, former Flagler County sheriff Donald Fleming, U.S. Coast Guard Chief Warrant Officer Mark Whisenant and former New York City prison warden Gerard O’Gara — are Republicans.

When asked during the forum, none of the candidates said they’d support actual marijuana legalization — including Manfre, who has helped press a proposed county initiative that could let deputies give first-time offenders a civil citation instead of making an arrest. Staly said he could see the value of such  a program, but cautioned that the ordinance would have to be clear.  Lamb said he’d support lenient treatment of a young person caught with some pot, but, he said, “We have to hold the line somewhere.” Yates said he’d support a citation program. 

Manfre, who’s been fined $6,200  by the Ethics Commission, said he’s taken responsibility for his mistakes, but called the Ethics Commission case politicized, and said he’d made a “big mistake” by hiring Staly.  

On the subject of tensions between black communities and law enforcement, candidates gave very different answers, but many mentioned the importance of building trust through outreach programs and good communication. O'Gara, Dougherty and Lamb all said it was important to educate local youth — with O'Gara saying "the youth ...  have to learn, really, about respect and civility" — while Staly said that "there have been issues" in the past in the South with cops' treatment of minorities. Manfre mentioned the initiation of the Sheriff's Office's body camera program under his leadership as an instance where his administration has responded to concerns of the black community. 

Jones, the only sheriff candidate who is black, drew applause when he said it was time to “move on” from such racial tensions.

“I can’t believe we’re still dealing with this black, white issue today,” he said. “We should all be brothers and sisters, and let’s move on. Let’s move on: Forget about this black and white issue. It’s over and done with. Let’s move on and bridge the gap between the communities, and get involved and support each other.”

On the same subject, Fleming said, “Black lives matter, blue lives matter, all lives matter. … We have to instill in our children, in our schools in the early stages, how we can get them involved in our community, not involved in drugs, not involved in crimes, but work with them on a steady basis to get them to start respecting the law enforcement officer and respecting themselves.” As sheriff, he said, he’d established lines of communication with minority communities. “I believe also that this community here does not have the problems that the nation has,” he said. “This community here is a very tight-knit community. Basically speaking, everybody gets along very well.”

O’Gara said there was “a vast misunderstanding on what police do, and the cultures outside in the streets, so yes we have to bridge those gaps. … We have to educate the youth early that it is not OK to call the cops on mom because you didn’t like what she’s asking you to do. It’s not OK to yell at police officers and throw anything at them. They have to learn really about respect and civility and common laws.”

Dougherty, who repeatedly in his answers emphasized the importance of education, said he was “amazed at the fact that we don’t have a law enforcement awareness program going on in the schools here. That’s the key.”

Lamb said the issue revolved around communication. “We need to communicate,” he said. “People we’re stopping in traffic stops, who’re engaging in domestic violence, need to understand why we do what we do.” He said that law enforcement officers already undergo diversity training.

Yates said he wanted everyone in the community to feel like they would be treated equally by law enforcement. “I look at this as:  It’s not a ‘black lives matter,’ ‘blue lives matter,’ it’s an all lives matter, a human lives matter,” he said. “I want everybody to feel that the agency is going treat everyone the same. They’re not going see color, they’re not going to see black, Hispanic, white, purple, blue green —  they’re going to see human beings. …  We’re going to instill training that will take it beyond just a race and just make it human beings.”

Whisenant said he did not “see color.” “We need to look at it as one,” he said. “We’re all one people, regardless of our color. I do not see color as a squad leader and as a member of an organization. We are all caring together and we’re all going to work together as one.”

Staly emphasized the importance of trust building. “Historically, there have been issues in the South in law enforcement and the way law enforcement has treated the minority community,” he said. “The reality is you have build the bridges before an incident happens. You have to do the community outreach. You also have to reach out to schools in the minority community to increase the participation in hiring,” he said. Attracting minorities to the Sheriff’s Office would require having competitive pay, he said, because otherwise, “they’re going go to surrounding areas that pay better.”

Manfre said he had a record of building trust with minority communities. “I’ve been a member of the NAACP for some 20-odd years,” he said. “I have great communication with them. And the things that that they are looking for, and the black community is looking for, is a sheriff who they can trust, not just with words but with deeds. … We have installed body cameras, which is a huge issue for the minority community.”  He said the Sheriff’s Office should do more to recruit minority staff. “We need to do more in terms of reaching out to the community and recruiting minorities as law enforcement, and making it a career that they want to invest their lives in,” he said. 

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