The four Republican candidates for the August sheriff primary contest got down to business Friday at a forum, which was top-heavy with questions about how they can use their position as top county cop to assist local employers and foster economic development.
This was a virtual candidate forum, sponsored by the governmental affairs committee of the Citrus County Chamber of Commerce and attended by a select number of people due to social distancing concerns. Republicans Patrick Crippen, Mel Eakley, Michael Klyap and incumbent Mike Prendergast showed up to answer pre-selected questions.
They will compete in the August primary and the winner will face no-party-candidate Lee Alexander in November’s general election. Because Alexander is not competing in the August primary, he did not attend Friday’s forum.
No Democrats filed to run for sheriff.
Held in a meeting room at the county chamber of commerce building in Crystal River, the forum lasted one hour and was filled with plenty of barbs from the three challengers directed toward Prendergast.
That prompted Prendergast to remark to the live crowd (and the folks who will view the forum on the internet Monday) not to listen to the “political mudslinging.”
After opening statements from each touting his experience and why he is the better candidate, the questions began. Here are some of their responses:
How do you see your role as sheriff in interacting and protecting local businesses?
Crippen: The sheriff and deputies, he said, must be visible in the community and familiarize themselves with businesses. He favors creating a citizens’ advisory board that crosses demographic boundaries and with representation from business owners and citizens. Routine security checks at local businesses are imperative, he said.
Eakley: Building relationships with business owners is vital to nip problems in the bud before they arise, he said. Eakley said he would open communication between the sheriff’s department and businesses and talk to them about forming a security plan to keep employees and customers safe.
Klyap: Right now, business owners feel isolated from law enforcement so it’s vital to open up the communication lines, Klyap said. Community policing has all but disappeared in Citrus County, he said. When business owners encounter problems, they often don’t know who to call because there’s no working relationship, he said.
Prendergast: The sitting sheriff said his department is already engaged with businesses in the county and that’s been proven with the COVID-19 pandemic and nationwide civil unrest. Detectives, he said, are getting out in the community and if an employer or employee doesn't know to get in touch with them, they can call him personally, Prendergast said.
What is your plan to foster relationships with other law enforcement agencies, The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), EMS, fire services, county commissioners and the school district?
Crippen: Transparency is the key, he said. Also, he wants a concerted effort in recruiting our neighboring counties and having a united front to form strong bonds. He would consider forming a task force to ensure people are placed in the most advantageous positions to gain information.
Eakley: Eakley said he has already built these relationships with these agencies given his experience in law enforcement and working on various boards with neighboring counties.
Klyap: Klyap said he would re-establish a drug task force and make sure the drug problem in Citrus County is handled at the source and not just on the street level.
Prendergast: The sheriff said he and his department are already forging those relationships with task forces and the results — especially in the county’s war on drugs — is evident. Citrus, he said, has great relationships with other law enforcement, EMS and security agencies.
Citrus County is a water-based tourism community. What resources will you deploy to make our waterways safer?
Crippen: One idea is to recruit citizens who own boats, train them and assist deputies on the waterways, he said. He also wants to stop people dumping trash and other pollutants in the water and perhaps assign someone to oversee that task.
Eakley: Eakley said he would assign deputies at ramps and possibly do safety inspections. He would also encourage the use of life jackets.
Klyap: Klyap said law enforcement officers must be on the lookout for boat violations and use marine patrols to the maximum advantage in Crystal River and Homosassa. The sheriff’s department must be more proactive and get out in the water and let boaters see them so they will know they won’t tolerate unsafe practices.
Prendergast: Prendergast said he’s expanded the sheriff department’s marine unit by 66% for full-time assets and another 66% for part-time assets. The department, he said, continues to work closely with the the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the U.S. Coast Guard and is on the waterways almost daily with federal and state partners.
The chamber is hopeful the next scheduled candidate forum — representing county commissioners — will take place July 10 at Citrus Hills Golf & Country Club. That forum would follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.
The video from Friday’s forum will be posted on the chamber’s Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/CitrusChamber at 6 p.m. Monday, June 15. It will also be available at https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCtE4RiPSw8QgXDZ4O98weIg.
The Chronicle will also have it at https://www.facebook.com/citruscountychronicle.