Getting drugs off the street, reducing traffic accidents, paying deputies more and making Citrus County safe.
Those were identified at a candidate forum as some of the big issues facing whoever is elected Citrus County sheriff in November.
And, as to be expected, the three Republican challengers hoping to oust current sheriff Mike Prendergast, all said they could do a better job and disagreed with his current direction.
Republicans Patrick Crippen, Mel Eakley, Michael Klyap Jr. and incumbent Prendergast were at the Citrus County Chronicle political forum Tuesday, July 7, 2020. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the event was closed to the public and recorded for later broadcast.
They will compete in the Aug. 18 primary and the winner will face no-party-candidate Lee Alexander in November’s general election. Because Alexander is not competing in the primary, he did not attend Friday’s forum.
No Democrats filed to run for sheriff.
Prendergast said voters made it clear when they elected him in 2016 that ridding Citrus County of drugs was the top concern. He believes he’s succeeded, thanks to the hard work of his deputies. As proof, he mentioned several record drug seizures during his tenure as sheriff. It’s so effective, he said, that word has gotten out among dealers that it’s best to steer clear of Citrus County.
Prendergast came loaded with statistics: 688 folks arrested in 2017 for possessions of drugs and related crimes; 774 people arrested for illegal drugs and $300,000 in drugs seized in 2018 - not to mention taking down 94 drug dealers.
In 2019, Prendergast said his office seized nearly $1 million in illegal drugs and arrested 923 folks for drugs and related crimes.
“Our drug strategy is absolutely working,” Prendergast said.
But his challengers don’t think so and don’t believe he’s made a dent in the local drug trade.
“I don’t believe so,” Crippen said. “I think the drugs are still there.”
Most arrests, he said, have been small drug amounts and paraphernalia.
“Granted there have been some bigger arrests but to have the drugs taken care of or rid from our county we have to have a multi-pronged approach,” Crippen said. “We have to go after the people that are making it (and) bringing it in. We have to go after the street-level guides.”
Crippen said the sheriff's office also has to provide more help for users so the problem doesn’t keep occurring and “finally rid the county of the drugs that are tearing our families apart.”
Klyap said Prendergast’s drug programs are not working.
“You’re never going to stop the drug problem,” he said.
Currently, Klyap said most of the arrests are for low-level activity.
“We need to put into place what we had years ago — a multi-jurisdictional drug task force,” Klyap said.
Eakley cited his undercover work as detective-corporal handling drug cases while at the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office.
“Talking about drug arrests is one thing but actually doing them and understanding what drug arrests to focus on is something I truly understand,” Eakley said.
Eakley added that a high number of low-level drug arrests has been ineffective “and has been for over 20 years.”
Drug addiction recovery and mental health should be a priority, Eakley said.
Prendergast said he did a “bottom-up review'' of his budget when he took over.
“The one thing that is lacking right now and I have not put into place yet because of the costs associated with it is a life-cycle replacement plan for our tasers that will cost approximately $360,000 to implement,” Prendergast said.
But his challengers believe more could be done.
“We’ll bring common sense innovative programs to the sheriff’s office, such as a citizen advisory board and a citizen impact unit (and) both will answer directly to the citizens,” Crippen said.
Crippen said he would put the sheriff’s budget on its website and will not charge for public information requests.
Regarding the budget, Crippen said “we’ve got to spend money right.”
“It's the taxpayers’ money, we've got to look at the vehicles we can't have expensive vehicles for command staff."
Klyap said he will go through the current budget and make changes where needed.
“There's a lot of wants, not needs,” he said.
“We need to make sure the money we get from the county commissioners are put toward the salaries of our deputies,” Klyap said.
Discussions about outfitting police officers with body cameras surfaced after the death of Minnesotan George Floyd by a policeman.
The idea is to prove transparency should conflicts evolve. Commissioner Jeff Kinnard said recently the sheriff has never requested them.
The reason, Prendergast said, is because he doesn’t believe they are the most effective use of money.
“They’re not going to solve the problem,” he said.
Prendergast said the use-of-force incident rate in the Citrus County sheriff’s office is one-sixteenth of the national average.
“Great training and leadership from top to bottom” will make a difference when it comes to use of force, he said.
His challengers all said they would ask county commissioners for money to fund body cameras.
Crippen said he will make purchasing body cameras for deputies a priority
“If you don't ask, you don’t get,” he said. “I think it’s time we represent the employees the way they need to be represented.”
“It keeps everyone on a level playing field,” Crippen added.
Klyap said body cameras are a necessity today and helps protect deputies from illegal and unlawful complaints and the incidents will be on video in case a citizen complaint is falsely accused.
Eakley said body cams are a priority to protect citizens and officers alike and said he can outfit deputies in Citrus County for less than $140,000 a year.
Crippin, Klyap and Eakley said deputies’ 3% annual cost-of-living raises is not enough and will fight for higher salaries at the county commission.
Prendergast said under his current proposed budget, “deputy pay, effective (Oct. 1, 2020) would be 17.6% higher than it was when I took office back in 2017.”
Safer in Citrus?
Is Citrus County safer than it was four years ago:
• Crippen: "I don't believe so,” he said, and cited continued traffic fatalities, speeding problems and increased assaults.
• Klyap: No. He cited Florida Department of Law Enforcement statistics showing the number of violent crimes is up in Citrus County.
• Eakley: Property crimes are up, the traffic fatality problem continues to rise, he said.
• Prendergast: “We’re extraordinarily better than we were four years ago because we've got great deputies out there working the roads of Citrus County day in and day out.”