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Final push for county candidates

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Primary is Tuesday, Aug. 30

By Jeff Bryan
More than a dozen candidates, their supporters and area residents packed themselves into the American Legion Post No. 58 hall on Tuesday night for the Dunnellon Business Association-sponsored Candidate Forum, as they began their final push before the Aug. 30 Primary.
The forum brought out 20 candidates seeking offices in Marion County races as well as one Dunnellon race. However, it was the candidates in the most talked about race throughout Marion County, which drew a number of questions from those seeking to replace former Sheriff Chris Blair, who resigned in late June after striking a plea deal with the State Attorney’s Office. He was suspended in May after charges were levied against him. Because of the deal, the charges were dropped after he resigned as sheriff and withdrew from the race.
Dennis McFatten and former Sheriff Ed Dean are vying for the Democratic nomination in the Nov. 8 General Election; while Billy Woods and Kerry Crawford are seeking the Republican nomination. Both McFatten and Crawford retired from the Marion County Sheriff’s Office, having served under Dean during his 12 years in office. Woods’ 26-year tenure in law enforcement has been with the Ocala Police Department, where he is still employed as a lieutenant.
Woods touted his vast experience working with budgets in various units. Key, he said, if he is elected starts with fiscal responsibility.
“It starts at reducing top management,” he explained. “If you do that and restructure, you are reallocating funding back to the bottom. You have men and women in uniform, and when you dial 911, those vacancies that have existed are filled.”
Trust is a factor within the community, and rebuilding trust is essential, Woods said.
“You build a rapport with business leaders, the community and county commissioners,” he said. “It must be rebuilt. Once it is gone, it’s nearly impossible to get it back. We cannot do the same things over and over and expect different results. A successful past does not guarantee a successful future.”
Woods’ opponent, Kerry Crawford, is excited about what can do at the Marion County Sheriff’s Office. He said the agency isn’t broken, despite claims the past few months that’s the case.
“That’s been a theme that has been passed around,” Crawford said. “We’re one of premier agencies in the state. I would encourage you to shut the book on (the past). Stop talking about it. We don’t have to have someone come in to to be the knight in shining armor.”
Having spent 31 years with the agency; he said he cares about the organization.
“I was going to come back and try to help make things better,” he said. “Ladies and gentleman, we don’t’ have archaic management. My knowledge base (of the agency) is strong. I know what the problems are; I believe my temperament, my solution-based relationships will resolve those issues.
“Your role is make sure you put the right person in office.”
As the Marion County sheriff, Crawford said he has have two sets of customers: the internal customers, who are representing the agency and the public.
“I will sit down with my people, and we’re going to clearly define the boundaries of conduct, solicit their energy and feedback, over and above what we’re doing,” he explained. “They need to know they’re valued. They need to know you (the public) respect them and will do what you can and show them they are valued.”
As for hiring outside the agency for top posts, Crawford said, they need to recruit people within the organization.
“There are good people who are there,” he added. “We need to empower them to make differences.”
McFatten explained he’d spent plenty of time in various posts throughout Marion County during his career. Key to the agency’s future, he added, is simple.
“It is about being progressive and seeing the needs of the future,” he explained. “Make sure we take care of the people of the community and the MCSO. I’m here to tell you, I owe men and women of MCSO my life to ensure. I want to make sure they are no longer bullied by any administration, that they get competitive wages. I am here to tell you, yes I owe them and I intend to pay them back. They need to see who actually cares about them. I’m worried about men and women of the MCSO and Marion County. Just think about who you believe is going to take care of the community. I’m all about the community.”
McFatten also wants to see the law enforcement agency return to community policing, an aspect which went away during the past administration.
“I actively went out in community, every summer,” he explained. “We were given an option of continuing or disbanding. I was the only lieutenant who continued doing summer program. The only one. There was community policing for a long time. But the past administration took that away.”
The sheriff has to set the example, as their leader, in the community, McFatten said.
“If you’re not doing it as their leader, how can you expect them to do it?” McFatten asked the crowd and his challenge. “As a sheriff and leader, you have to be active in the community. It all stars with leadership. We need fresh ideas, progressive ideas. That’s what you’re going to get from Dennis McFatten.”
Dean, who was first appointed sheriff in 1998 by then-Gov. Lawton Chiles, was successful in election bids in 2000, 2004 and 2008, before choosing to retire from office in 2012, when Blair won the election.
“Everything they said was true, it is a complex organization, with all kinds of things going on,” Dean told the crowd. “It’s extremely complex. We achieved premier status in the state of Florida. We had a reputation. We have had a lot of problems past 3 1/2 years.”
It’s a great honor to be sheriff of Marion County, Dean said, but most important, for him is the principles of caring leadership.
“The culture has been torn up, been through a meat grinder,” he said. “You have to re-establish a value-center core of guidelines. When the last administration took over, they took down all of the core values. You must be guided by values that mean something. Everything is associated with values. When you care, people trust you and that’s what this is all about.”
In the race for County Commission District 1, candidates John Townsend and Daniel Owen were both present. Townsend will be on the Nov. 8 General Election ballot as a no-party affiliate; while Owen, a former city of Ocala councilman, is running against incumbent David Moore in the Aug. 30 Primary. Moore was not present.
“You, the voters, if you look at length of this table, there are a lot of people, each have passion about Marion County,” he said. “If things were going well, this table might not be as long as it is. You have a big table with a lot of decisions. Marion County can be great.”
In the County Commission District 3, Don Browning, Danielle Damato Doty and Roy Abshier touted their respective platforms and why they are seeking office as well as their experience. Jeff Gold, who is also on the Primary Ballot, was not in attendance.
“We’re wasting millions of dollars, all sorts of dollars,” Browning said of budgetary figures approved by the current County Commission. He added funds given to the now defunct Coates Golf Tournament would have allowed the sheriff’s office or Marion County Fire Rescue to hire additional deputies or firefighters, or give current employees raises. “It would change their life, bring them up to normal living wages, that’s the kind of thing I do. It’s just go out and do it.”
Doty told the crowd she’s s fifth-generation Floridian, who was born in Citrus County. Her grandmother was the first female commissioner in Citrus County history. A former Marion County public information officer, who’s been on the campaign trail since 2015, she said that time has allowed to her listen to many constituents and hear their concerns.
“We need to see change on commission, we need better government, better leadership who won’t kick the can down the road,” she said, noting she and her husband reside in Ocala and are raising two boys. “That’s why I am running, for Marion County’s future.”
Abshier said his experience from two previous terms on the County Commission should speak volumes. “I have more experience than necessary,” he added. “I made a difference. I like making a difference. I am leader and I seek consensus.”
In County Commission District 5, Brigitte Smith, Anthony James, Michelle Stone and Russell Matzinger, who was not present, are challenging incumbent Earl Arnett for a four-year term on the Commission.
“Is anyone here OK with the status quo?” Smith quizzed the audience. “I’m disgusted with government. It’s our taxpayer dollars. You need common sense sitting on commission. We have too many vacant positions; we can’t pay our first responders enough. Something has to stop, we have a half a billion budget. Something needs to be done with common sense. My plan is to reduce your taxes by 10 percent; don’t tell me we can’t find a way to reduce the budget by 3.24 percent in wasteful spending. I’m going to promote clean water and natural resources.
Stone, the wife of former Commissioner Charlie Stone, touted her 35-year career in the financial industry with banks. She told the crowd she began her career at the age of 17 and “continued to progress” in her career as a banker.
“We need better, stronger leadership,” she explained, noting the county needs to first set aside proper funding for first responders. “That’s first and foremost, we have not prioritized that. We really must make proper accommodations for first responders.
“Secondly, we’re losing our water expert, we must protect our water quality and quantity. Thirdly, we need transparency in government.”
James, who said he’s running, because he was told he can’t, noted the key for Marion County is developing a proper vision of Marion County.
“Without a vision, the people perish,” he said, questioning his opponents and the audience about the future for youths to find solid, well-paying jobs upon returning to Marion County. “We have to write the plan, make it simple. What is the vision for this county? Is it manufacturing, aerospace, stick with it and not stop.”
It is imperative the young people in Marion County have a figure, someone they can see, and look up to.
“You can’t elect same people all of the time and expect different results,” he added.
The key to creating jobs in Marion County is removing the road blocks and encouraging businesses to come here. He cited the addition of FedEx and the soon-to-be $49 million AutoZone facility planned in the near future as two examples. “We’ve added several different companies with decent paying wages,” he explained. “Why is it we incentivize? Because if we don’t, then another community will. We need to continue to do so to encourage these businesses to come to Marion County.”
Also in attendance at the Candidate Form were Cynthia Moody and David Ellsperman, both who are vying for the role of Marion County Clerk of the Court & Comptroller. Ellsperman is the incumbent in the race, having held office for the past 16-plus years. In addition, Beth McCall and Rich Evans, candidates for School Board District No. 2 seat were on hand to discuss their candidacies and experience.
Not attending the event were George Tomyn, School Superintendent incumbent, and his challenger, Heidi Maier, both of whom had previous commitments.