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Campaign ads” thruthful or just slurs?

Gregory BohannonMost of the time local candidates running for public office focus on their own experience and qualifications in campaign ads. But in recent weeks some of the ads have taken a decidedly different approach, leveling attacks against the opposition.

The mud-slinging has been most apparent in the race for the Republican Party’s candidate for sheriff in the general election.Cameron Coward

Second-time sheriff candidate Gregory Bohannon, 50, has published multiple ads calling into question newcomer Cameron Coward’s conduct as a deputy with the St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office.

Mr. Bohannon has claimed his 28-year-old opponent failed to fulfill the terms of a school security contract by not neatly maintaining an on-campus residence and received a reprimand from his superiors. Another ad said he was suspended for failing to submit evidence, and as a result, a criminal case was dismissed.

A third ad asserts that Mr. Coward was disciplined and placed under investigation numerous times by his employer.

Mr. Coward responded with his own message, which was repeated in the newspaper and at The Press’ candidate forum July 28, that the attack ads were “outright lies” and misleading. He also conveyed his commitment to running a clean campaign.

In an effort to separate fact from fiction, The Press reviewed Mr. Coward’s personnel files at the St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office this week.

Mr. Bohannon had previously delivered 12 pages from the files, which consisted of several hundred pages in all, to the newspaper at the candidate forum about a week prior to the review.

Mr. Coward’s most recent annual evaluation was positive. He’s received seven letters of commendation since he joined the sheriff’s office in 2004 and multiple awards from his commanding officers including one for administering “life saving measures” to a heart attack victim.

Mr. Coward did, however, receive a one-day suspension for violating two department policies.

One prohibits officers from taking actions or making statements that “tend to bring the sheriff’s office into disrepute or ridicule ...” which an internal investigation found Mr. Cameron did by abandoning the mobile home he was residing in while serving as an on-campus security guard at Nease High School and allowing the property to become unkept.

According to the candidate’s personnel files, Mr. Coward also failed to register the trailer and his driver’s license was suspended when the citation issued in 2010 for the registration violation went unpaid. Mr. Coward had moved out of the residence, but failed to update his driver’s license address, which is also violation of the sheriff’s office policy.

Another internal investigation resulted in a letter of reprimand, but not a suspension as Mr. Bohannon’s campaign ad asserts, Mr. Coward said this week.

In that case, records show, Mr. Coward failed to turn into evidence a retractable baton confiscated from a suspect in 2008, and when confronted about it by an internal affairs investigator, he said he kept the weapon because he feared disciplinary actions by his superiors.

An assistant state attorney later dismissed the case against the suspect because “the chain of custody had been compromised,” the investigator’s report states.

Mr. Bohannan claimed that his opponent was suspended as a result of the investigation. While Mr. Coward’s personnel files note a one-day, unpaid suspension was recommended as punishment, Mr. Coward said the suspension never took place and he was not, as Mr. Bohannan’s ad stated, relieved of his duties as a training officer.

Rather, Mr. Coward said, he lost his training officer duties last year as a result of his off-duty activities, including launching his campaign to become Baker County’s next sheriff.

A number of other complaints against Mr. Coward, one of which has appeared in Mr. Bohannon’s ads, have been investigated by the sheriff’s office and found to be “unsustained.”

Mr. Coward took issue with a campaign ad stating he was placed under investigation for “refusing to assist a stranded elderly female motorist.”

Mr. Coward’s personnel file includes a complaint from a female driver who flagged the officer down for help in changing a tire that was going flat. The complaint says the motorist alleged the officer refused and her tire eventually went flat, leaving her temporarily stranded on the interstate at 10 pm.

The allegations were not sustained following an investigation, records show.

Mr. Coward said the driver was in fact not elderly, as his opponent says, and did not need her tire changed. Instead, Mr. Coward said, the driver was a UNF student, likely in her 20s, and the vehicle’s tires were not flat. Still, he directed her to an air pump at a nearby gas station, he said.

Other candidates have been criticizing their opponents as well, though some more directly than others.

‘Absentee candidate’ vs. ‘career politician’

In the District 1 contest on the school board, 28-year incumbent Dwight Crews has noted that his challenger, Clayton Griffis, has not attended a school board meeting since he announced his run for office last spring.

Mr. Griffis does not dispute his lack of attendance. He said he last visited the school board more than two years ago.

“I went one time and that’s all I needed,” Mr. Griffis said this week, adding that his experience before the school board, in part, spurred him to seek the office. Furthermore, the duties and responsibilities of school board members are clearly outlined by the Florida Department of Education, he said.

Mr. Griffis’ campaign, meanwhile, has been directing its ire at Mr. Crews’ lengthy stay in office and using buzz words like “career politician” in its ads. Mr. Crews has indeed been in office nearly three decades, but he contends that’s a testament to his effectiveness in the post.

Competing portraits of local schools

In the other school board race, in which incumbent Patricia Weeks is facing Macclenny businessman Andy Johnston, the campaigns haven’t become personal, but they do present differing images of the school district.

A recent ad from Mr. Johnston’s campaign points out the district is ranked 51st out of 67 in the state, 43 percent of children here failed the FCAT reading test, almost 40 percent failed the math FCAT and 64 percent failed the science test.

A examination of the 2012 FCAT results shows that two of the three percentages are accurate, with the share of students failing the science test being 10 points lower at 54 percent.

Mr. Johnston and Mr. Griffis, both seeking public office for the first time, have also used the  local graduation rate to make their case that new leadership is needed in the district.

Mr. Griffis’ campaign ad states the graduation rate here is lower than in Nassau, Union, St. Johns and Clay counties, and that less than two out of three minorities graduate.

Both assertions are true for the 2010-11 school year. More specifically, however, the graduation rate for black students was 64.3 percent that year.

The Florida Department of Education has not yet released the 2011-12 graduation rates.

Mr. Johnston’s contention that the Baker County “is significantly behind surrounding counties in graduation rates” is partially accurate.

The gap between Baker County’s most recent graduation rate, 83.3 percent, and the rates of Nassau, St. Johns and Union counties is roughly 10 percentage points.

The difference between Baker County and Columbia County’s 86.8 percent graduation rate is 3.5 percentage points, and Baker County tops Duval, Bradford and Putnam counties in terms of the share of students it graduates.

What expense account?

There hasn’t been many jabs thrown in the District 1 county commission contest between former commissioner James Croft and first-term commissioner Michael Crews in the weeks leading up to the August 14 primary.

Both men are registered Republicans. Due to the lack of an opponent from a different party in the general election, all registered voters may cast ballots in the race.

Still, Mr. Croft’s recent ad detailing his plans should he win the election included his pledge to support eliminating “expense accounts” for commissioners.

County Manager C.J. Thompson clarified this week that commissioners are given monthly stipends for their cell phones ($50) and travel ($100), but do not have county-issued credit cards or access to any other public funds for personal use.

The stipends are intended to cover travel expenses and calls related to their official duties, like attending meetings of various regional boards on which the county has a interest or  taking calls from constituents. Commissioners are not required to submit receipts, however.

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