There was a clear winner Thursday night in the first debate among Republican candidates for Indian River County sheriff.
It wasn’t Maj. Eric Flowers, Sheriff Deryl Loar’s handpicked successor and spokesman for the office.
Flowers has been the early favorite, having plastered signs around town while leading four candidates by raising almost $135,000 compared to his closest competitor, Rich Rosell, at $27,715.
But after listening to about 30 minutes of debate at the Republican Club of Indian River Inc. in a packed room at Grand Harbor Club, Fellsmere Police Chief Keith Touchberry stood out.
“I said it at the beginning and I’ll say it again,” Touchberry said when asked by moderator Joe Saul what was the primary administrative issue the next sheriff must address. “Leadership and accountability.”
Throughout the debate, Touchberry’s comments were measured and concise.
Touchberry, Vero Beach Police Department’s second in command before modernizing Fellsmere’s police force, said he’s heard complaints about the Sheriff’s Office while on the campaign trail throughout the county.
Among them: slow or no response to calls for service and women getting Facebook messages from deputies who pulled them over.
“The people are speaking up,” said Touchberry, who noted the importance of officer training. “We have to fix leadership in Indian River County. It starts at the top and goes all the way down. Every officer is a leader. Everything an officer does or fails to do reflects upon the rest of the organization.
“I don’t want to be judged by the actions of other officers who I have no control over. I know I can fix my organization if I’m in charge.”
Earlier, Touchberry cited the “five super rules” every sheriff’s employee would have to follow:
Be yourself; be honest about who you are. You will make mistakes, but hold yourself accountable. Officers must hold each other accountable and take the high road, not sweep things under the rug. Exercise discretion wisely, including when it comes to use of force. The No. 1 priority: Always remember your actions must ensure maintenance of the public’s trust.
Rosell, a New Jersey state trooper who retired as captain after 27 years before becoming a public safety director in three towns, including Indian River Shores, also stressed leadership. He was blunt in criticizing the Sheriff’s Office.
Without naming Flowers, Rosell blasted him for personally looking into a cyber-harassment complaint filed by Indian River County School Board member Tiffany Justice against an anonymous tweeter. Flowers’ investigation uncovered a school district employee spread innuendo about Justice and the district’s former superintendent. No charges were filed.
Rosell told GOP club members their most important vote this fall would be for Donald Trump. The second, he said, was voting for the candidate with the most experience for sheriff: himself.
He cited a litany of successes, almost always invoking the pronoun “I,” to explain why he was the best candidate. He said the Shores department was a “joke” when he got there in 2015.
If Rosell showed the most bravado Thursday night, Flowers was the most calm. He wasn’t defensive despite some blistering attacks from Rosell and Chuck Kirby, a retired sheriff’s captain.
“Customer service” would be Flowers’ top administrative issue if elected, saying he’d try to emulate the great service Carole Jean Jordan gives residents as tax collector.
He talked a lot about family and commitment to community as reasons why he’s running.
Flowers and Touchberry seemed the most 21st century when discussing the greatest law enforcement challenge the sheriff’s office needs to face.
Flowers cited crimes like identification theft, online, phone and credit card scams as the No. 1 issue, followed by radicalized home-grown terrorists.
“A big room like this is a target for bad guys,” he said.
Touchberry was passionate in focusing on two issues causing a disproportionate amount of crime nowadays: the opioid epidemic and mental health. He’s also worried about proposals to legalize marijuana, citing problems in other states.
“We cannot protect you as law enforcement when someone’s smoking marijuana and driving their vehicle,” Touchberry said, citing a lack of technology.
Rosell said the next sheriff must fix burglary investigations, noting the county’s poor record at solving those crimes. He’d also bring in “true professionals” to handle cold cases.
Kirby cited Treasure Coast-high crime rates, poor clearance rates, too many violent crimes and traffic-related deaths. He’d add more traffic deputies to patrol accident-prone areas.
Given the experience and quality of these candidates, this race has the potential to be close, especially if no other Republicans file by June 12.
If the field remains the same, all county residents could vote for the four. If there are Democratic, independent or write-in qualifiers, only Republicans could vote.
Unfortunately, given the stakes and what’s happened in past sheriff’s races, this campaign has the potential to devolve into a nasty war of negativity and innuendo where Flowers and/or another perceived front-runner are attacked.
The four-question debate Thursday was done well, but it was only the first of many stops along the way.
Judging from what I saw and what I heard from others I asked, Touchberry clearly won Round One.
This column reflects the opinion of Laurence Reisman. Contact him via email at email@example.com, phone at 772-978-2223, Facebook.com/larryreisman or Twitter @LaurenceReisman