December 18, 2014

Politics

Gunning for Sheriff

Three northeast counties face heated battles from candidates vying to be the next sheriff.

Bob Snell | 7/1/2004

Sheriff Taylor Douglas sees the irony in his 16-year career. Though conflict is part of his daily routine, the self-described "most controversial" politician in Putnam County is also its most popular.

The same can be said for most northeast Florida sheriffs, who, once elected, are rarely replaced. But the region's law enforcement community is bracing for an unprecedented changing of the guard -- particularly in Putman, Clay and St. Johns counties.

Shortly after Douglas announced his retirement in January, St. Johns County Sheriff Neil Perry -- a 20-year veteran of the office -- did the same. Both cited family obligations.

While Douglas and Perry are leaving on their own terms, three-term Clay County Sheriff Scott Lancaster is fighting for his political life following allegations that he improperly used a county credit card.

"We're not in a job that often wins popularity contests," says Douglas. "By its nature, our job makes a lot of people angry. So when we're re-elected -- often without opposition -- I believe it's a real achievement."

Douglas and Perry's retirements and Lancaster's troubles set the stage for some of the region's most hotly contested races. In Putnam County, nine candidates will square off in an Aug. 31 primary. Contenders include Douglas' second-in-command, Undersheriff Dean Kelly, and Palatka police Sgt. Alex Sharp.

By contrast, the sheriff's race in St. Johns County is already a two-man affair. Glenn Lightsey, a former detective, will face St. Augustine Police Chief David Shoar, who has Perry's endorsement.

In Clay County, Lancaster faces a serious challenge from former State Attorney's Office chief investigator Rick Beseler and several others. The sheriff received good news in May when a grand jury failed to indict after Lancaster agreed to repay the county nearly $6,000 in personal expenses. Still, the panel's report sharply criticized Lancaster.

No matter who wins, Douglas believes sheriffs in the three counties will face a similar dilemma -- how to maintain staffing and equipment levels in the face of continued record growth. In Putnam County, Douglas' budget has risen from $5 million to more than $14 million in little more than a decade. Still, his 245 employees have a difficult time covering the sprawling county.

Douglas says his successor will have to stay in touch with residents in every corner of the county -- something he claims as his key to success. "I'm responsive to the concerns and complaints of the people," he says. "Heck, I'm even listed in the phone book. Not too many sheriffs in this state can say that."

Tags: Politics & Law, Northeast, Government/Politics & Law

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