Six candidates for local office squared off debate-style at the high school the afternoon of October 20, exactly seven days before early voting begins here and across the state.
It was the second election forum organized by The Press this year and featured a more lively format allowing candidates to respond to their opponent’s answers.
The first forum in late July did not include rebuttals and each candidate for the same office answered the same questions. This time around, some questions were posed to specific candidates while others were answered by all the commission or sheriff candidates.
Questions were collected from both readers and the newspaper’s staff during the weeks leading up to the debate, which started at 3 pm in the school auditorium and drew 100-200 attendees. Commission hopefuls fielded nine questions and the sheriff candidates seven.
County commission debate
Candidates for county commission took the stage first, addressing issues like the Barber Road closure, sand mining, their political affiliation and others during the 40-minute portion of the program dedicated to the county’s governing board.
Democrat Mark Hartley, the District 5 incumbent, is facing Republican Eddie Davis, Jr. while Gordon Crews, the board’s current chairman and a Democrat, is up against Republican Leonard Davis in the District 3 race.
Their first question from debate moderator and Press publisher Jim McGauley: “Why would you be a better commissioner than your opponent?”
Both incumbents said their respective experience on the commission and in the community sets them apart from their challengers.
Mr. Crews pointed to his eight years on the board and his nurse management experience in Fraser Hospital’s ER. Mr. Hartley cited his 12 years in office and ample volunteer work in the community.
Leonard Davis leaned on his resume as well, noting his experience in the Civil Service managing large budgets, planning, and developing policies and procedures for the government.
“I think we (the county) need more detailed policies and procedures ... and more long-range planning,” he said.
Eddie Davis, meanwhile, drew a contrast between his personality and the demeanor of his opponent. He said Mr. Hartley was a “fine fella,” but his stronger, more forceful personality, in his opinion, was better suited for the office of commissioner.
“Mr. Hartley is a little more reserved,” Eddie Davis said.
A package of constitutional amendments on the November ballot could give many new tax breaks to various groups of property owners and reduce funding for local governments.
The commission hopefuls were asked to express their positions on Amendment 4, specifically, which would save money for first-time home buyers and owners of commercial real estate, but put more strain on cash-strapped local governments.
None of the candidates opposed the amendment outright, but some commented on how difficult it will be to make-up the lost revenue should the amendment pass with 60 percent of the vote in November.
Mr. Crews said he was undecided on the measure, but could support other amendments that would cut property taxes for seniors and the disabled.
“They need a break,” he said.
Leonard Davis said he’s already voted for Amendment 4, but called it, “a double-edged sword.”
“Our county is hurting for funding right now. So I’m for it, but we still need more creative ways to finance our county down the road,” he said.
Eddie Davis also expressed support for the amendment. He also said he would like to see the county eliminate its impact fees, too. “That would be my biggest way to cut,” he said.
Mr. Hartley said he would support “anything that would help senior citizens,” but did not address Amendment 4 specifically. “We’ll have to look at our budget and decide what we have to do to compensate for that cut, as we do any other time,” he said.
There was also general agreement on reducing the salaries and benefits of commissioners to show their personal commitment to lowering county spending. Commissioners receive travel and cell phone stipends, about $29,000 in salary, plus health and retirement benefits.
“We have to look at everything,” commented Mr. Hartley.
“It’s going to be tough times coming up,” his opponent, Eddie Davis, said.
“We should start from the top down,” said Leonard Davis, adding that he would also like to cut other expenses in the county commission’s office.
Leonard Davis was also asked to defend a recent campaign ad in which he pledged to attract more volunteer firefighters to the county department and reduce homeowners insurance rates by improving the department’s response to fires to lower the county's ISO ratings. He was asked how he would you fund these improvements.
The candidate reviewed changes in the county’s ISO ratings, which determine insurance rates, over the last few decades, but did not point to a funding source. After the debate, however, Leonard Davis, who served as the county’s fire chief until the 1990s, suggested increasing the special assessment for fire services.
Instead of an across-the-board increase, though, he said a tiered approach — based on how far homes are located from a fire station — would be more appropriate. He said homes located closer to fire stations receive better service and lower insurance rates, so they should pay a higher assessment than those located farther away.
Still, when candidates were on stage, responding to a question about the best way to close the county’s budget deficit, they were unanimous in avoiding any talk of tax or fee increases.
Asked if they favored spending cuts, tax or fee increases, or a combination of both strategies “to minimize the impact of each,” to reduce the deficit, the panelists focused on spending reductions and growing the tax base rather than ways to boost revenue directly.
The candidates did have differing viewpoints on the closure of Barber Road, which three commissioners — Mr. Hartley, Mr. Crews and Michael Crews — voted to do last May.
“And you thought you were going to get out of here without a question about Barber Road,” said Mr. McGauley, the moderator, to gently rib the candidates.
The road was closed due to safety concerns and complaints from the residents living on what used to be a popular shortcut between SRs 228 and 121.
The county still maintains the dirt roadway, and as such, the candidates were asked if they would support deeding the right-of-way back to private property owners and ceasing maintenance of the road.
Mr. Crews said he would not pursue that course, at least not yet.
He said the county has requested funding from the state to build a bypass road from US 90 near the Walmart Distribution Center to 228 near the Walmart store, and then from the store west to 121.
“That might happen,” said Mr. Crews. “If we get that appropriation, then we can consider turning over the right-of-way.”
Mr. Hartley agreed, adding that the bypass road would also keep tractor trailers out of downtown Macclenny.
Both he and Mr. Crews defended their votes to close Barber Road, citing safety concerns about the narrow wooden bridge over Turkey Creek and a sharp curve that leads to it from the west.
But Leonard Davis and Eddie Davis (no relation) used the opportunity to reiterate, as they did at the last forum, their support of opening the road back up to traffic.
Leonard Davis acknowledged the safety problems, though, saying the road should be improved to address those issues before it’s reopened.
Last week Mr. Crews announced his opposition to proposed sand mining plans and in doing so joined the rest of the candidates, who have also publicly stated their resistance to the plans.
Multiple reviews of the mining plans by both a county consultant and state regulators are still ongoing. So, during the debate, Mr. Crews was asked why he changed his previous position, expressed at the last forum in late July, when he said wanted “to hear all the information” before taking a stand.
Mr. Crews attributed his opposition now to his own research and prayer time. “Nowhere did I find it would be beneficial to Baker County,” he said.
The debate between 16-year incumbent sheriff Joey Dobson and his youthful challenger Cameron Coward grew more contested as the 25-minute affair moved along.
The candidates sparred over crime statistics, the new jail and enforcing traffic laws as backers clad in campaign T-shirts applauded and hollered in sometimes raucous displays of support.
Like the county commission candidates who preceded them on the stage, Mr. Dobson, the Democrat, and Mr. Coward, the Republican, were asked initially why voters should select them to serve as the next sheriff rather than their opponent.
“I have nothing against the sheriff,” responded Mr. Coward. “I think he’s done this county extremely well.” But, he said, it was time to “pass the torch to another generation” and his dual experience in small business and as a sheriff’s deputy in St. Johns County make him the better choice.
“I think I’ll do a great job. I know I will with your help,” Mr. Coward said.
Sheriff Dobson talked about his experience managing the department for more than a decade, adding that, “I know what my agency does. I know how we have run Baker County and helped the people of Baker County and we will continue to do that in the next four years.”
Then the sparks began to fly.
At the last candidate forum in late July, which the sheriff did not attend, Mr. Coward cast doubt on reports that crime has fallen in Baker County. He reasserted that claim at last weekend’s debate when asked why he believes crime is down, despite data from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) showing crime rate drops in three of the last four years.
“My answer is simple,” Mr. Coward said. “A 26 percent increase one year and a 12 percent decrease the next year is not a true decrease. You haven’t even gotten even ... Nothing has decreased.”
The candidate then cited, mostly accurately, three years of crime rates: for 2009, up 26 percent; for 2010, down 11 percent; and in 2011, down 12 percent. “We’re still paddling up stream,” said Mr. Coward.
The candidate, however, failed to include years prior to 2009 in his analysis.
FDLE’s uniform crime reports show that the crime rate here spiked considerably in 2005 and again in 2009; but the net change depends on when you start tracking the changes.
For instance, between 2008 and 2011, the latest year for which FDLE data is available online, the net decline was 15.8 percent. Over the last decade, since 2002, there was a net decrease of 30 percent.
At the debate, Mr. Dobson offered preliminary crime data for 2012, which he said has been submitted to the state, but not yet released officially. For the first six months of 2012, he said, the crime rate fell 20.7 percent, presumably as compared to the same period in 2011.
“If these figures are lies, I guess the FDLE tells lies also,” said Mr. Dobson.
Then the sheriff was asked about a recent claim made by his opponent in a lengthy campaign ad. It noted that the sheriff’s office had not completed an audit of its property and equipment in three years according to the BCSO’s most recent audit.
“Is this claim true or false and please explain why?” questioned debate moderator and Press publisher Jim McGauley.
Mr. Dobson initially dismissed the claim as “false,” but added, “We do have an accounting of what we have at the sheriff’s office ... Did we have some issues moving to the new facility? We absolutely did.”
The sheriff alluded to not having enough staff to conduct the inventories, saying a position was created to include that job but it was never filled.
In his rebuttal, Mr. Coward held up a letter from the sheriff to auditors in which Mr. Dobson addressed the lack of an inventory. “It’s signed by you,” Mr. Coward said to the incumbent.
After the event, Mr. Dobson clarified the point further. He said each department keeps a separate property inventory, but nobody tracks property and equipment agency-wide for auditors to review.
Next the candidates tackled a reader’s question regarding speed limit enforcement, specifically in 121, 228 and 125. “Are you willing to direct officers to set up speed traps on major thoroughfares?” the moderator asked.
Sheriff Dobson immediately said he was not a fan of speed traps. He said he prefers that deputies enforce speed limits in the course of their normal duties, but he’s not in favor of targeting specific locations or times to write tickets.
His opponent, meanwhile, said speed limits and drunk driving laws “are not enforced as they need to be.”
While he didn’t address speed traps specifically, Mr. Coward said, “I understand there’s a good ole boy system in place, where you’ve had a little too much to drink, you run off the road and clip a mailbox, and we’ll take you home. That’s going to end under my administration.”
Another recent ad from the Coward campaign criticized the sheriff for his support of the new jail, which was built with no taxpayer money but costs the county 75 percent more than the old facility did to house local inmates.
He was asked what a better course of action would’ve been, given the dilapidated state of the former jail and estimates for its repair topping $1 million. Mr. Coward did not cite an alternative beyond saying he would’ve used “creative thinking.”
Mr. Dobson responded by correcting a detail in a statement from his opponent. Mr. Coward said that in 30 to 40 years, the facility would be outdated, and when it fails, local taxpayers will bear the burden.
“He has no idea about our facility,” said the sheriff.
Mr. Dobson added that the project’s duration was only 22 years, and some 18 years remain before the Baker Correctional Development Corporation, the nonprofit which owns the facility and sold bonds to fund its construction, is scheduled to pay off the $45 million debt.
“It will be paid for in 18 more years, not 40 years, and it will belong entirely to you, the taxpayers of Baker County, and there will be revenue for the county commissioners,” said the incumbent.
Another reader question broached the subject of race.
The reader asked, “I have been a lifetime resident of our county and I can’t remember a time when there were no black deputies on patrol. What’s your plan to recruit and retain such deputies?”
Though neither candidate detailed a plan for hiring and keeping black patrol officers, both expressed a commitment to diversity and hiring any employees qualified for the position.
“I believe everyone deserves an opportunity to do what they love,” said Mr. Coward. “If they’re willing to take the proper courses, get the training, to devote their lives to keeping you and your family safe, I don’t care if they’re black, white, purple or green, they’re welcome.”
The topic of hiring, however, gave the sheriff an opening to note that the sheriff’s office passed over Mr. Coward when he applied to the department following completion of his law enforcement training.
“If they apply properly and come to us, we will hire African-Americans,” Mr. Dobson said. “What we don’t hire are people that we don’t think fits in our mold. And I can tell you that’s something we made a decision on with Mr. Coward.”