By ALICIA LEONARD
The Walton County Prevention Coalition joined forces with the DeFuniak Herald-Beach Breeze to present a candidate forum on June 12 at the Freeport High School auditorium for the upcoming Walton County Sheriff’s race. Six candidates came out to meet, greet and answer questions on a variety of topics. About 100 concerned citizens turned out to hear their answers. Kevin Howard served as mediator for the event.
Those in attendance were Michael A. Adkinson Jr., Richard S. Brown, Thomas M. Cooper, Tony Cornman, Jimmy L. Macon and Dennis Wise. Danny H. Griffith and Sheriff Ralph Johnson did not participate.
What follows is a condensed account of the evening’s questions and answers.
During the first hour the candidates answered 11 questions on the issue of substance abuse in Walton County. The first question regarding underage drinking in Walton County and what would the candidates do to resolve the issue was answered by Tony Cornman, “I deal with a lot of that in my current position. It is certainly something we need to pay attention to. The key to it begins with enforcement and education. Ninety percent of our stores are in compliance, but we have to keep on that 10 percent and the young adults who purchase the beer for their underage friends.”
Cooper agreed and said, “We have to take the appeal of the alcohol away from them. Just pouring it out doesn’t go far enough. I don’t think the idea of putting everybody in jail for a six pack of beer is going to solve it either. Educating the parents and the kids is another step in the process to improve compliance and the outcome.” Adkinson told the crowd, ” I think that there are a few specific measures we can take to handle this situation. DUI check points, going after businesses that sell to minors has proven to help curb this, as well as working with kids before they become involved with alcohol. I’m a very big supporter of the Boys and Girls Club in DeFuniak and I think organizations like theirs are the type of things we need to see encouraged in Walton County to cut down on the idle time we see kids have and that idle time is when they reach for things they don’t need to be involved with. Dennis Wise joined in and said, “We need to go out and educate the sellers and the public about reporting those who sell to the underage.
Brown said, “I think we need to see an underage drinking court in this county. I’d like to see us mirror the underage drinking court in Koalas County. They have a very good programs that works.”
Macon rounded out the responses and said, “I think we need to get involved with the kids. I think if we need to educate and enforce the laws but we also need to get involved with our kids so we know what they are doing.”
The question of deputies being able to smoke in county cars and in uniform was the next question to draw a response. Adkinson responded, “I think it’s a known fact at this point the health damage that smoking can lead to. At the DeFuniak Police Department, we have adopted a zero tolerance policy while in uniform. As adults, when off the clock, they can choose to do as they like, but not while in uniform. It has to do with the message it sends to the children.”
Brown took the stanch against tobacco products a little further and said, “I think they should be outlawed in law enforcement. I’ve seen several deputies in the last two and a half years of working at the WCSO that have dip or Skoal running out of the side of their mouths. That’s a bad and sloppy image portrayed by the sheriff’s office.” Statistics about the issue of drugs in Walton County were mentioned by Cornman. “The static’s are disturbing. Walton County ranks higher on state average for high school and middle school drug and alcohol use. The numbers show 72 percent of high school students and 42 percent of middle school students reported using drugs or alcohol. 24 percent of high school and eight percent of middle school students say they have come to school high or drunk. I’m telling you we have a problem here and we need to address it.” Wise agreed and said, “If a student shows up at school in this state the parents should be notified and the parents need to be educated on helping to stop the problem.” Cooper said educators need to be taught how to recognize the symptoms of a student under the influence. “Once they recognize the symptoms, we need to get that child some help,” he said. “There is an underlying problem if a kid comes to school drunk or high and we need to find that problem and help them take care of it.”
The moderator asked the candidates about the equality of drug charges across racial lines. Macon responded, “I don’t care what color you are, if you break the law, you will have to pay for it. I lost my brother to drugs and personally I will be a very aggressive sheriff against drug and drug dealers.” Cornman said, “I’m like the other gentlemen up here. Color has no play in it. You break the and you are going to jail. I’d put out notice if I’m elected sheriff and you are dealing drugs, you are going to jail.”
Cooper said hitting drug dealers in the wallet by using the law to claim property can also help. “We need to take their funds and shut them out of business.” Adkinson said, “The budget request for the sheriff’s department is $14.5 million, which is roughly a $1.5 million increase over last year’s budget. The priorities of that budget are set solely by the sheriff. I think we would be remiss to say anyone here would not actively pursue drug dealers, but we have to be smart how we use those funds and target individuals that are bringing it in. We must must target the source,” he said. “We got around $65,000 to $75,000 in asset forfeitures for the DFSPD last year. That is a small drop of what is available. We have to take a concise, intensive plan and not just throw money at the problem.”
Cornman agreed and said putting an officer in place that is trained to track assets of drug dealers will help as well. “We need to take every dime from the dealers we can to get them off the streets.” A grant writer for the sheriff’s department was also mentioned by Cornman, “We need a grant writer to get the federal grants and funding that is offered to law enforcement across the country to help enforce drug laws.” Brown told the audience that his plan of accreditation for the WCSO would also help with grant funds to pursue drug dealers.
Wise brought the idea of using more informants and road patrols would help cut down on dealing in the area. Macon said he agreed with Wise, but had received a lot of complaints from citizens that they would call in activity and never get a response from the WCSO. “We need to go out and check these things out when someone calls and let them know they, the public, are helping.”
One question involved forming and training a “Crisis Intervention Team.” Adkinson said, “It’s becoming mandatory as it’s tied into federal dollars. Training our officers to deal with citizens who suffer mental illness keeps everyone involved safer and will become standard modern policing.” Cooper and Cornman agreed. Wise said, “That’s a positive today. I can’t believe the WCSO still doesn’t have that in place, but it will when I’m sheriff.” Macon agreed and said it would be one of the first improvements made to the office.
The high cost of living in the county was brought forth and how would the candidates handle pay increases,. Adkinson spoke up first, “Implement a step-pay plan integrating training, experience and things of that nature. You need to stagger a cost of living adjustment and tie it in with longevity and pay bands and that way everyone can see up front what they are making and will make in the future. That’s how it’s done in modern professional agencies across the country and that’s the way we need to do it here. It’s also extremely cost-effective.”
Cooper agreed with the step pay plan but wants to add merit increases, as well as a career education plan, so deputes will have a clear view of what they need to advance.” Wise concurred and said, “Right now, deputies are not being paid for their overtime. It a major issue. I think if a deputy works he should be paid for every hour he works and not through comp time.” Cornman took it a step further and said, “I’d also like to look at providing extra merit incentive for deputies that are nominated for awards and such, for their extra efforts.” Adkinson countered and said he was not a particular fan of merit-based raises and said the biggest problem with the pay structure now is they are on a 172-hour per 28-day cycle. “That means deputies work an extra 11 hours each month for which they are not compensated. If we go to a 40-hour work week, you get paid for 40 hours.”
Brown said, “It doesn’t really matter what type of plan you use, if they work over an hour, they get paid that over time. Pure and simple. We need to support our officers.”
Illegal immigration can up as the next question. Wise said it is not a local law and deputies had no rights to enforce those federal laws, but if deputies were deputized by U.S. Marshal’s office, then they would be able to enforce those laws.
Cornman said he had no issues with legal immigration, “I only have a problem with those who come into this country illegally. Most have no drivers license or insurance and are dangerous to our legal drivers on the road. I think we do have the ability to enforce some laws dealing with illegal immigration and I will support enforcing those laws. I would also push to make those laws we can assist with stricter, if possible.”
The next three questions poised by the moderator dealt with personnel changes of a new administration, employees living outside of the county or state and recent firings of deputies that were pregnant.
Wise responded first, ‘There would be no changes to personnel to begin with. Everyone’s files would be reviewed to ensure they were doing what they were hired to do. I’ve been through a lot of administrations that when a new leader was brought in, they turned into absolute bloodbaths and 90 percent of the people that were let go, were fired because they were loyal to the prior sheriff and I think you should give those people time to become loyal to you. You shouldn’t be fired just because you were loyal to the last sheriff.”
Adkinson countered, “I am very cognizant that all the deputies at the WCSO have families and careers to protect, but I do not believe their loyalty lies to the sheriff. I believe their loyalty should lie to their career and citizens of Walton County. I believe that’s part of the problem, their loyalty should not lie with the sheriff. That being said, it’s the leader’s job to make sure people are doing their job. I agree with Dennis that time should be taken to review personnel, but a change at the top of management may need to be looked at to allow everyone to perform their job better. To say you’re not going to do it, I believe, is out of touch with reality.”
Cooper said, “When any new management take over personnel has to change, management has to change and focus and vision has to change. That’s not to say that people have to change. The sheriff’s office is a business and it works because of the people there who are doing their jobs. I don’t think that anyone is in touch with reality if they say they are going to step in and no changes. You have to give the employees a framework to work in and if they support that vision, then they can work within that framework. A successful leader will surround themselves with people who know how to do their job “
Macon said, “I will come in with 21 years of military and I understand leadership. I will tell everyone they will be evaluated every six months. I want everyone to have job security.”
Brown said, “Everyone here has a basic idea of what they want to do with the position. I want to have a customer-oriented office, because for years and years, our job is to protect and serve. We need to be accessible and we need to get rid of the ‘good ole boy’ system in place now. I can attest to it because I just resigned last week. It is unreal what goes on in that department. New administration is needed to put this department back on track. Cornman kept his answer short and sweet, “I was a deputy here for many years and I was concerned by that as a deputy, so, what I say to those that are working there now is – if you are doing your job now, you will still have a job. If you are not doing your job, then you need to be concerned. Treat people with respect, train, do your job and you don’t have to worry. “
All candidates agreed that morale would improve with new leadership. They agreed that if they took office as sheriff, patrol cars would not be allowed to be taken across state lines. They would be parked at substations. And when the panel was asked whether as sheriff, they would fire a pregnant deputy they each responded singularly ‘no’ one by one, down the line.
The Walton County Prevention Coalition and the Herald-Breeze, sponsors of this event, are discussing another possible forum in the future.
CANDIDATES FOR SHERIFF at the recent forum sponsored by the Walton County Prevention Coalition. They are (L-R) Michael Adkinson Jr., Richard Brown, Thomas Cooper, Tony Cornman, Jimmy Macon and Dennis Wise. (Photo by Alicia Leonard)