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Flowers launches campaign to be re-elected sheriff

STORY BY RAY MCNULTY (Week of June 8, 2023)
Photo: Sheriff Eric Flowers and Deryl Loar.

Deryl Loar couldn’t help but notice two things about the news release issued last week by Sheriff Eric Flowers when he announced the launch of his campaign for re-election in 2024.

First: Flowers didn’t mention Loar’s name even though Loar  – who served three terms as sheriff before retiring from law enforcement 2 ½ years ago and running successfully for a seat on the County Commission – had handpicked and groomed him to be his successor.

Second: Flowers portrayed the Loar-led Sheriff’s Office as being behind the times, ill-equipped and out of touch with modern policing – an agency that relied on antiquated approaches to everything from fighting crime to operating a jail to caring for its personnel.

“He makes it sound like I was there for 12 years doing nothing,” Loar said. “I’m not thrilled with it, either. He talks about the previous administration. He was part of that administration.”

Under Loar, in fact, Flowers became the third-highest-ranked deputy in the 500-member agency, rising from lieutenant to major and skipping past captain.

Despite being a key member of Loar’s command staff, however, Flowers’ announcement last Thursday – when he filed the required paperwork with the county Supervisor of Elections Office – strongly emphasized his efforts to transform the Sheriff’s Office into a “21st century law enforcement agency.”

The news release lists several improvements made to the Sheriff’s Office including:

• The creation of a Real Time Crime Center, which allows a crime-analysis team to work with patrol deputies, detectives, jail staff and dispatchers to address problems in real time.

• The installation of license-plate readers throughout the county.

• The implementation at the jail of new programs aimed at reducing recidivism by providing vocational training designed to help inmates lead productive lives after they’re released from incarceration.

Loar, though, defended the agency’s performance during his reign, which began as the Great Recession brought the nation to a halt and forced him to substantially cut spending.

“I reduced my budget, and still kept the crime rate low,” Loar said. “Sure, it would’ve been nice to invest in body cameras, but I walked into a recession and the money wasn’t there. I had to make some tough decisions.

“I thought it was more important to give my deputies pay raises than spend the money on body cams and other gadgets.”

In contrast, Loar said, the economy was doing well last year, when Flowers asked the County Commission for an $11 million budget increase – an unprecedented 18.27 percent bump from what was then the agency’s $60 million budget.

He settled for a $5.6 million increase.

Flowers, who called serving as sheriff a “privilege beyond compare,” said he has received overwhelming support from backers anticipating his announcement, which made him the fourth candidate to enter the 2024 race.

The other candidates are Sheriff’s Captain Milo Thornton, 45, and Fellsmere Police Chief Keith Touchberry, 59 – both are running as Republicans, as is Flowers – and Deborah Cooney, 60, who lists no party affiliation.

Based on campaign money raised, Thornton is the early frontrunner. In his first financial reporting period, he collected an unprecedented $127,275, plus $1,000 in in-kind contributions, in April.

The next reporting date is June 10, and Thornton said he took in more than $75,000 in May. He has spent only $317.

The Supervisor of Elections website shows that Touchberry has raised nearly $55,000 and spent almost $12,000. Cooney has collected only $5,400 and spent $4,000.

Flowers, 43, has not yet reported any campaign contributions and isn’t required to do so until July 10.

“If Milo keeps up this pace, he’ll be tough to beat,” Loar said, adding that he doesn’t believe any other candidates will enter the race. “He’s already made a statement, but it’s early. Let’s see what kind of numbers Eric comes up with in July.”

Flowers, though, must overcome a mistake-filled 2022, which began with the public exposure of an extramarital affair.  His troubles didn’t end there.  His deputies were involved in two controversial shootings. He gave a TV interview in which he told a reporter where his school resource officers store their AR-15 rifles on campus. And he got pulled over for driving a car with stolen license plates.

Earlier this year, three members of Flowers’ command staff – Deputy Chief Lonnie Rich and captains Pat White and Tony Consalo – suddenly retired, forcing the sheriff to restructure his agency’s upper echelon.

Their retirements came roughly a year after Flowers demoted Thornton from deputy chief to captain following an 11-week, in-house investigation into curiously timed complaints about Thornton’s management style.

The investigation ultimately cleared Thornton of any wrongdoing, but Flowers demoted him, anyway, putting him in charge of school security and reassigning him to an office in the School District’s administration building.

Two months ago, Thornton filed to run for sheriff, challenging his boss for the most powerful elected office in the county.  Loar said he believes Thornton can win.

“Incumbency is worth 10 percentage points,” Loar said, “but Eric has had some issues that could mitigate those 10 points.

“Milo is impressing people,” Loar said. “He also seems to have the younger generation behind him. He coached football at Vero Beach High, so a lot of younger people know him.

“He’s also got a lot of volunteers willing to get out there and help him, and they’re energized,” he added. “That’s an indicator, too.”

However, Loar said an incumbent sheriff has the advantage of being able to keep his name and face in front of the public at no cost, adding, “Eric can hold a press conference over a missing dog.”