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Sheriff’s Citizens Advisory Committee has done little, and drawn little notice

STORY BY RAY MCNULTY (Week of December 23, 2021)

With no fanfare and scarce mention, Sheriff Eric Flowers established the first Citizens Advisory Committee in the agency’s history this past spring.

It has already held three quarterly, open-to-the-public meetings – the most recent of which was two weeks ago – and has been pretty much invisible to date.

Sheriff’s Lt. Joseph Abollo, chosen by Flowers to chair the nine-member committee, said the virtually subterranean profile of the panel was unintentional.

“The sheriff has had a large number of tasks on his to-do list for his first 100 days, and not everything has gotten the same amount of publicity,” Abollo said last week.

“We haven’t done anything big with it yet, but we will as we go down the list, thrown in with everything else we’ve got going on.”

According to the sheriff’s April 1 executive order that created the committee, the panel will not have oversight responsibility, nor will it investigate or determine fault in active cases.

“Instead, the committee is responsible for assessing how relevant policies and procedures operated under the circumstances,” the order stated, “and if the case poses an opportunity for learning and constructive change.”

Under the order, the sheriff may refer questions of concern to the public about agency policies and procedures, including how they were applied in a particular case, to the committee.

Those concerns include allegations of “official misconduct or excessive force,” the order states.

Abollo said the committee’s first year of meetings were orientation sessions designed to introduce members to the agency’s mission and operations.

“They’ve been more educational than anything else,” Abollo said. “There have been presentations on training, use of force, body cameras, warrants, accreditation, public records, media relations, the traffic unit, etc. – just to familiarize them with different aspects of the Sheriff’s Office.

“Essentially,” he added, “they get to peek behind the curtain.”

The committee has not yet tackled any particular issues, though that work could begin at its next meeting on March 10. Abollo will set the meeting’s agenda, which must be approved by Flowers.

Joining Abollo on the committee are: Vice Chairman Bob Schlitt, a local insurance executive; Sheriff’s Sgt. Ron Garrison, union representative; Tony Brown, president of the county’s NAACP chapter; Dr. Nick Coppola, a local physician; Casey Lunceford, president of Indian River State College’s Mueller Campus in Vero Beach; local businessmen George Colon and Paul Lucas; and Cindy Davenhall, who is retired.

Flowers selected the chairman, vice chairman and one “citizen at large,” which was Brown. The deputies’ collective bargaining union nominated Garrison as its representative. The other members were appointed after being nominated by each of the five county commissioners.

The members are volunteers, serving without financial compensation. They must be county residents, at least 21 years old, pass a background investigation and have no felony record.  Elected officials and candidates for public office may not serve on the committee.

Also ineligible are individuals who are pursuing claims against or defending law enforcement agencies in legal proceedings or before a legislative body, whether as parties, counsel or lobbyists.

“To support the mission of the committee by providing appropriate expertise, its membership should reflect a variety of occupations, specifically including when available government, health care, law, education, public relation and law enforcement,” the order states.

“Consideration should also be made to other diversity issues, so there is representation from a cross-section of the community.”

Committee members are appointed for a two-year term and may serve no more than two terms. The committee is required to meet quarterly.

County commissioners – and any member of the public – may refer a question to the sheriff for possible consideration by the committee.

The video-recorded meetings are held in a conference room at the County Administration Building – not the County Commission chamber – and are open to the public and subject to Florida’s open-meetings and public records laws.

Committee reports are forwarded to the sheriff, who is required to respond in writing. The agency may post those documents on its website.

“Community support is mission-critical to the Indian River County Sheriff’s Office,” the order states.

“It is the policy of the agency to continually cultivate productive working relationships with citizens and other stakeholders within the community.”