By ALICIA LEONARD
On July 31 the Walton Republican Women Federated (WRWF) sponsored a forum for Republican and nonpartisan candidates. Dotty Nist covered the second half of the forum for all other candidates.
The forum began with the pledge of allegiance and Walton County Board of County Commissioners chairman Larry Jones, led the invocation before questions were asked of the candidates. Candidates in attendance were incumbent Ralph Johnson, Mike Adkinson Jr., Tom Cooper, Rick Brown, Tony Cornman, Dennis Wise and Jimmy Macon. Each candidate was given two minutes to introduce themselves to the audience. This was followed by three questions that were drawn randomly onstage. Each candidate was given a minute to respond and two minutes for a rebuttal.
Incumbent Sheriff Ralph Johnson addressed the crowd, “In 2001, you chose me to take the position of sheriff in Walton County. I was tasked with bringing the amount of deputies and patrol cars up to meet the increasing population. We have built a narcotics division that is known to be one of the best in our area. We have also provided our deputies with updated electronics and tools to do their job. We have updated our equipment in our offices to make sure all citizens are safe. We have kept up with the growth of Walton County. We have done a good job of keeping down the crime in Walton County and will continue to do so while keeping our citizens safe.”
DeFuniak Springs City Marshal Mike Adkinson Jr. said, “I am the police chief of DeFuniak Springs and I’d like to tell you a little bit about why I’m running for sheriff. I believe that the role of sheriff is the role of a leader. Leadership is often confused with being a manager. The role of sheriff is a leader. The sheriff should hire people who have the experience necessary and are capable of doing their jobs. A leader should surround himself with capable, trained managers. A sheriff sets the tone and the tempo of his agency. A sheriff should inspire those that work with him to do their best job possible. Motivation is different from inspiration. Motivation is temporary, inspiration stays with the people and inspires them to work harder and do their best job possible. That’s my vision for the sheriff’s office of Walton County.”
Rick Brown covered his resume, too. “I have over 30 years of law enforcement experience. I have over 15 years of supervisory or managerial experience in law enforcement. I have had experience as a field trainer, supervisor, in traffic patrol, investigations and working with other agencies, such as Emergency Management Operations. I am well-versed in immigration laws and I want to put back the trust in the sheriff’s department that is missing now,” he said. “I will work on accreditation for the sheriff’s office when I am elected. It will be one of my first missions to start the accreditation process. We need to be responsible, accountable and we need to have the communications back in the sheriff’s office. We need to open a line of communications with our media, we need to open communications between our deputies and the citizens of Walton County.”
Tom Cooper introduced himself, saying, “I began my career in 1987 with the Walton County Sheriff’s Department. I worked my way up through the ranks to the sergeant of the beach patrol unit. We will rebuild our sheriff’s department on communication, values and cooperation. You have a right to know what is going on in the sheriff’s department and the sheriff’s department needs to know what is going on with you. It’s a big business and big business is based on communication. I will have values and all in my office will be treated fairly and I will deal with crime and put ‘crime on the run,’ as your sheriff.” Cooper emphasized that he wanted to cooperate with all other agencies and he wanted to bring the WCSO into the future for the benefit of Walton County.
Tony Cornman told the audience, “I have 25 years of full time law enforcement experience. That includes corrections, patrol, investigations and management. My service began as a deputy sheriff, right here in Walton County, in 1982. I served as a sheriff’s deputy for many years and then I was offered a job as an investigator in the Department of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco. I now serve as law enforcement lieutenant with this agency.”
Cornman continued by saying that in his present job, he manages and oversees enforcement, budget concerns, communications with other agencies and personnel for his agency in seven counties, including Walton. Cornman also stated that he has experience in policy decisions and accreditation. Cornman urged voters to check out all of the qualification of those running and to then make an informed decision.
Jimmy Macon told the crowd, “I began my career in law enforcement when I joined the Army in 1975 and I spent over 21 years there until I retired from the military. I was the operations commander for law enforcement on base, staying on top of any threat that base might face. In 1996, I became a deputy in Walton County. Then I became involved in working in the schools as a school resource officer, working with our kids. If I am elected sheriff, you will see me out and about every day. I will not stay in an office and not be accessible by the people of this county. I will be out meeting with the people and working to rebuild the sheriff’s office.”
Candidate Dennis Wise said, “I will be available anytime that you need me. I have 35 years of active law enforcement behind me and good communications is a must to put this agency back on track. Twenty of those years were with the Broward County Sheriff’s office. I started out when Broward was in the same place as Walton is right now. I’ve seen the changes that a sheriff’s office will undergo and I know what we have to do to keep crime down in a community this size and as that community grows. I will be here to help lead law enforcement into the 21st century and to be available for every citizen in Walton County.”
The candidates were then asked three questions drawn randomly by the candidates from a bag. The first question proposed to the candidates involved communication with the public. All agreed that such communication is vital and necessary.
Sheriff Johnson said, “We do speak to the news media, we have a community relations person and have just hired a second and we have reworked our Internet site to make it easier to communicate with us and make us more accessible.”
Adkinson responded, saying, “Normalized office hours, thus letting people walk in and ask questions. I don’t believe a sheriff should be hiding behind a PIO and should be in public answering their questions and explaining their actions.”
Cornman said, “I would like to set up town hall style meetings across the county to listen to the public and have an open-door policy in our office and repond to citizens’ concerns quickly.”
Wise said, “A strong, well-informed public information officer (PIO) that is able to respond quickly to answer citizens and the media’s questions is very important.”
The candidates also discussed drug traffic. Macon responded that education and parental involvement can help with the problem. Cooper agreed that education and going after suppliers would help control the issue. Brown advocated rotation of the narcotics division and a street crimes division as part of his approach.
The last question concerned implementing coordination with emergency agencies with rapid growth and during the threat of hurricanes. Johnson responded first by saying that they work closely with emergency services and they would continue to support and lead all emergency services. He also mentioned the new 911 system to support emergency responders.
Adkinson responded that he disagreed with with Johnson’s comments on the upgraded 911 systems and told the audience that the WCSO was not on the 800 megahertz (MHz ) channels that many emergency responders have switched over to and should be integrated so everyone could be on the same frequency during times of emergency. Cooper said that the 911 system was a cooperative effort to keep the public safe, while Brown said the radio communication should be advanced and that there are some locations in Walton that deputies could not communicate with dispatch and consolidation was an answer.
Tony Cornman responded that he believed that the system needed to be more centrally located and all responders should do more training with all agencies involved. Wise said that having one system coordinated together and additional training was the answer. Macon responded that he agreed that consolidation and training was the key.
In their closing remarks, all the candidates spoke more on their experience and experiences in law enforcement, as well as thanking the audience for attending. The only variation on this closing theme was when Sheriff Johnson used his last two minutes to rebut Adkinson’s comments on the 911 systems. Johnson told the audience that there was a second alternative to spending extra funds on purchasing new 800 MHz radios and that system was called BAP. Johnson said that this system would integrate any older system into the 800 MHz territories and could be accomplished by a small component addition to patrol cars and stations.
As these and other candidates appear at various forums and rallies throughout Walton County, the Herald-Breeze will continue to provide complete local coverage of the 2008 primary election.
THE SIX CHALLENGERS took the stage alongside incumbent Ralph Johnson for a candidate forum at the South Walton High School. (Photo by Alicia Leonard)