ORANGE PARK – The Clay County Federated Republican Women invited sheriff candidates to a forum on July 22 to state their qualifications ahead of the upcoming primary on Aug. 18.
Four of the candidates – Ben Carroll, Catherine Webb, Michelle Cook and Mike Taylor all took part in the round-robin question and answer session, while incumbent Darryl Daniels, Harold Rutledge and write-in candidate Francis Bourrie didn’t attend.
Each candidate boasts strong qualifications for the position.
Carroll is a recent retiree of the Clay County Sheriff’s Office, who has over more years of law enforcement experience in both Georgia and Florida.
Webb is a retired U.S. Navy Chief Master-At-Arms with 24 years of service who served as the Antiterrorism Force Protection Officer Commander Navy Region Southeast.
Cook rose through the ranks of the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office, eventually holding the position of Director of Operations before moving on to become the Atlantic Beach Police Chief.
Taylor also has a long law enforcement history, having experience as a patrol officer, traffic homicide investigator, detective, instructor, and more.
“Clay County deserves a Sheriff who understands professional integrity are inseparably connected who will live his personal and professional life in a manner so as not to bring dishonor to himself, his office, or the community he serves,” said Taylor, ostensibly referring to an ongoing investigation into Sheriff Daniels’ past improper relationship with a former subordinate.
“Clay County is my home,” Cook said. “I’ve always considered Clay County my home. I just feel a calling to come home and run Clay County.”
Webb touted her experience as a senior non-Commissioned Officer in the Navy and leader of large numbers of Sailors and a vast geographical region. “With what we are facing today, it’s going to take each and every one of us who are experts in our field to keep all of us safe,” she said. “Our job is to make leaders. I want to
come into the sheriff’s office, and I want to help those folks that live here that keep you and us safe to lead our county.”
“I’m running for sheriff; I don’t really have an agenda, other than the men and women of the Clay County Sherriff’s Office,” said Carroll. “They are my agenda. I want to put them first; as I serve them, so I believe that they will serve the public.”
As with any race for office, the budget was a primary concern, and the candidates were questioned on it.
Carroll has taught college-level budget management and said he isn’t a proponent of any tax hikes. “We already pay between 40-50% of our income in taxes. We have to stop this; there’s other ways to do it,” said Carroll.
Webb referenced her experience managing large amounts of people and budgets in the Navy.
Cook’s first statement on the budget was to express that one will remain. “First thing, we’re not defunding the police. Absolutely not,” she said. She then spoke of her time managing the budget with the JSO as valuable experience that she could carry into the position of CCSO Sheriff.
Taylor perhaps made the most hardline statement on the matter. He mentioned cutting what he deemed frivolous expenditures, such as sending CCSO staff to Disney World to learn about customer service. He also spoke of cutting up to 100 non-essential civilian support staff positions to free up money.
The job of Sheriff, most importantly, is about handing crime in the applicable jurisdiction. The candidates were asked how they would address crime in the county.
Cook plans to utilize the part-time officer position to augment the force while limiting spending. Part-time officers, according to Cook are fully sworn law enforcement professionals who work only up to 29 hours a week.
Taylor says he will lean on his experience of fighting against drugs and organized crime as his basis for dealing with crime in the county.
After more questions and answers, each was allotted one minute to make their closing statements.
“You have several candidates who are very qualified,” said Taylor. “I am the only one who that’s recognized as an expert by the courts. I’ve taught thousands of police officers. I’m here because I love this county. I’m here because I want to make a difference.”
“I earned and promoted my way up the ranks to retiring as Director of Operations,” Cook said. “I can walk in day one and be effective. I love this county. Clay County is where my roots are; Clay County is where my family is, and I’d consider it an honor to be your sheriff.”
“I was the watch commander at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, which is the worst correctional facility in the world,” said Webb. “I was also privileged to bring leadership and diversity. I speak two other languages. I speak Japanese, and I speak Spanish. So how much more effective can you be in communicating with people?”
“I’ve been around law enforcement my whole life,” said Carroll. “I’m here today because I am retired from the CCSO. I don’t have to walk in and go, where do I get started? I already know. I already know where Clay County needs the help. Ladies and gentlemen, there’s good things at the sheriff’s department. But there’s things we can do better, and that’s what I’m here to do.”