Okaloosa Candidates Converge For Niceville Town Hall

In Brief:

  • Candidates for Sheriff, County Commissioner, and School Board seats in Okaloosa County participated in a forum at Niceville High School to discuss key issues for the upcoming August 20th primary elections.
  • Discussions included public safety, transparency, mental health initiatives, infrastructure improvements, and budget priorities.
  • The event was attended by notable local figures and sponsored by the Emerald Coast Association of Realtors and the Niceville-Valparaiso Chamber of Commerce.

Table of Contents

With a pageant-like atmosphere and Q&A session, all fourteen candidates for local elected office in Okaloosa County filed into the Niceville High School Auditorium to discuss politics for the upcoming August 20th primary elections. Each candidate got one minute to answer questions given to them by the moderator.

This summer’s primary will serve as the general election for the Sheriff and three board of county commissioner seats up for reelection – as all candidates are registered Republicans. Having only Republicans on the ballot means all registered voters in Okaloosa County can vote in all of the contests, regardless of where they live or what they are registered as.

The event, sponsored in part by the Emerald Coast Association of Realtors and the Niceville-Valparaiso Chamber of Commerce, saw the three Sheriff’s candidates speak first. A crowded group of nine took over the stage next as all candidates for all county commission seats were interviewed together, which gave way to the two candidates for the Okaloosa School Board.

The veritable who’s who of the Okaloosa County Political class, from Former State Senate President Don Gaetz to Former County Commissioner Graham Fountain and Current Okaloosa Superintendent of Schools Marcus Chambers, joined almost all the Niceville City Council, some school board members, and other constitutional officers in the crowd.

Sheriff’s Office Forum

The first group to speak were the three candidates for Okaloosa County Sheriff; Incumbent Eric Aden, in his green Sheriff’s uniform, took up the stage left, while Highway Patrol Sergeant Ron Livingston claimed the center, and former Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Deputy Eddie Perillo took the right flank.

Aden began the night by talking about the most significant event in the Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Election thus far – the killing of Senior Airman Roger Fortson by an Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Deputy in May. However, Aden did not mention Fortson’s name or the incident specifically but did thank the community. “We’ve proved ourselves to be transparent, certainly trustworthy. And we continue to build those through the recent event that has certainly been a tragedy event in our community – that’s rocked our agency. But we’ve been building those building blocks of trust,” Aden said, “that’s what’s gotten us through this time, and I’m proud of our agency and I’m so proud of our community and how it came together.”

Livingston was asked a question about Sheriff’s Office recruiting and training needs immediately afterward and declined to push further on the idea of compromised accountability or trust. Livingston mentioned his credentials as a trainer for almost a quarter century at the Florida Highway Patrol – and noted that he would begin the process to poach law enforcement officers from Walton County and Santa Rosa County to work in Okaloosa County at the beginning of his administration by getting the trust of the deputies currently at the Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office and then using those deputies to recruit officers in neighboring counties.

Candidate Eddie Perillo, however, immediately laid into the current Sheriff’s administration by talking about his desire to bring what he called accountability back to the Sheriff’s Office. “If an investigating officer or deputy did something outside and did not handle themselves appropriately or professionally,” Perillo said before trailing off, “And transparency to the public – I would explain what actually occurred. Not trying to cover up anything.”  

Perillo mentioned he’d institute mandatory counseling sessions with a professional mental health expert at least once yearly to ensure the good mental health of deputies.

Aden countered and, in some cases, pre-empted his opponents’ claims that their training was insufficient and Perillo’s mental health counselor idea by telling the audience that the Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office has already implemented those initiatives.

“Mental health is a huge concern and something that I addressed before the county commission today at our budget presentation,” Aden said. We went ahead and put somebody on staff ourselves to be proactive with the mental health and wellness of our employees, from our dispatchers to our frontline people.”

As the session drew to a close, each candidate was given a final minute to speak about their candidacy. Both Livingston and Perillo gave standard minute-long campaign elevator speeches on why they’d be the best. Livingston focused once again on his long tenure as a trainer “If there’s a training if taught it,” he told the crowd of partisan supporters of various candidates in attendance. For his part, Perillo told the audience he’d focus on transparency or accountability, but did not specify how that might differ from the current regime in place.

Sheriff Aden seemed to take umbridge with both Perillo’s comments on the stage as well as on social media and ended the town hall asserting that Okaloosa voters are “an educated public,” and that “one of my opponents who made comments on things that I never said. Go back and look at the record – some of those things were never said and never written. But, I say all of that to explain this to my opponent: You are woefully underestimating the intelligence of our voters,” Aden said. “I was born and raised here, too,” Aden added with ire, “I’m the only candidate that has come through the Sheriff’s department from deputy all the way up to Sheriff. I’m the only one with executive leadership management.” He turned to the audience: “why don’t you, the public, why don’t you spread the word to your friends and family – do the homework, research these opponents. Research their education, experience and background. And if you think someone is more transparent and trustworthy than me – vote for one of these guys.”

Finally, all three told the moderator they believed Okaloosa County Deputies were not compensated well enough, when asked.

County Commissioner Forum

While all of the commissioners for all three county offices were on stage simultaneously – for this article and the writer’s sanity, this portion will be split by individual race.

Okaloosa County District 1 Race

Paul Mixon, Okaloosa County’s incumbent commissioner for District 1, and De’Carlo Garcia graced the stage compete for the public’s vote to represent the northeastern portion of the county.

Remember, it doesn’t matter where you live in Okaloosa County. All registered voters vote for all candidates.

Garcia and Mixon agreed on almost everything – though Mixon’s familiarity with the minutiae of the issues as a sitting commission during the budget season gave him a speaking advantage he used well on the more technical elements of questions – especially regarding the county’s future land-use planning that is taking place for the north end of the county. “This is the first time in Okaloosa County history that we are giving the residents the opportunity of having their voices heard. I believe we represent all live in a wonderful, integrity-filled county. And so, with that, you have the opportunity of coming to all of the advisory meetings and having your voice be heard and become part of the future,” Mixon said.

Garcia, the election challenger, relied on his position as an outsider, a political newcomer.

Both were asked about their biggest issue for the county going forward and answered it differently.

Mixon said told the audience he believe his priority concerns public safety. He wants to focus on EMS response and hurricane preparedness – as well as upgrading the jail in the county. “Those are issues that could be overlooked, especially when the commisison does not have a public safdety representative,” Mixon added. Mixon worked as an Okaloosa Sheriff’s Deputy for several years before going to seminary to become a pastor.

Garcia said he would focus on transparency, though he did not mention any specific areas where more transparency was needed at the county level. “People feel more comfortable when you let them know what decision you make,” Garcia said, “and [when they don’t] have to seek and find out what [that decision] is.”

Okaloosa District 3 Race

Five candidates have thrown their hats into the race for the seat that County Commissioner Nathan Boyles currently occupies and announced he wouldn’t run again this election cycle. The candidates, like those for District 1, were only asked a few questions in common:

What is Your Priority Should You Get Elected?

All five candidates in the District 3 election answered this question and stayed within the minute timer given to them by the moderation team.  

Former Niceville Councilman Heath Rominger told the audience that he saw safety as the commission and his number one priority – and noted that that idea of safety extended to more than physical safety. “Safety for all – in our tourism, our local community, as we grow,” Rominger said, “as well as protecting our tourism, so that we maintain this beautiful county in which we live and all of the resources that we have.”

Sherri Cox, a Republican State Committeewoman for Okaloosa County, said her focus would be on raising capital to improve the infrastructure in the area. “People don’t want to live here or work here if they can’t get to and from the quality of life amenities to their jobs. So, my number one priority is infrastructure.”

Current Crestview Councilman Andrew Rencich said his goal if he were to win the election was to bring an additional “leg of the stool” to the Okaloosa County economy. “I want to be sure that we foster what we already have and continue to strengthen our military.” He added that he is passionate about the need to diversify the local economy so that high-paying jobs for people who aren’t in the military or tourism can find meaningful work in the area. “Those are jobs that our kids can go away to school and come back, and they can stay in the area – they don’t have to go off somewhere else to be in a [certain] job sector.”

Wade Merritt told listeners he wanted to “bring transparency and try to have unbiased government,” if the voters sent him to the county courthouse in Crestview. He noted that he would work to have all commissioners have at least four town halls every year “so [commissioners] can go face-to-face and be accountable and representative.”

North Okaloosa County resident and Air Force spouse Keri Pitzer told the audience her goal would be to work on a balance of the growth and urbanization taking place in Okaloosa County in the near term. “We are definity going to see large growth and our county is not prepared for it at this moment. We have to address our involvement in our comprehensive plan to ensure that we protect the character of our county, from the beaches to the farmland,” she said, “everyone’s rights need to be protected. Every taxpayer in this county deserves a voice.”

Change The Budget

Candidates in District 3 also had a couple of different opinions on the changes in the current budget.

Former Councilman Rominger said he would want to fund the county’s stormwater programs more heavily to prevent flooding. As a former councilman and licensed general contractor for the city of Niceville, Rominger is more than likely aware of the significant flooding, drainage, and other stormwater issues the Bluewater Bay area faces in the near future.

Although the school district and the needs of various schools are the responsibility of a different group of elected officials – Sherri Cox noted that she would want to invest county money into local schools – because that is what she says a potential new homeowner in Okaloosa County looks at when making a decision on whether or not to move to this area.

Andrew Rencich said he’d stay with what has become a winning formula for him: meeting with organizational leaders in the county’s bureaucracy to determine needs and working the system in Tallahassee to earn the most money possible back in Okaloosa County.

Wade Merritt took the opportunity to complain about the size of the printed budget and the number of visual aids therein. “It’s very complex,” Merritt said, “with pie charts, bar charts and any other kind of graph you can think of.” Merrit then pivoted and added he wants to set aside money for a consistent campaign to reach rural residents with news about the county in a way that does not rely on the internet. “Not every taxpaying citizen in the county has internet. We need to figure out a way to get to every single mailbox, to every citizen that pays taxes, so they can understand what is going on.”

How’s Crab Island Doing?

We won’t spend much time on this one: The moderator asked all candidates about the policing of Crab Island. They all agreed – Crab Island benefitted from regulations created and enforced locally. None of the candidates for District three, or any other district for that matter, were against the rules placed on the commerce taking place on Crab Island.

“Well, it sounds like im the only candidate up here that actually enjoys Crab Island,” said Heath Rominger to the loudest laughs of the night, “the regulatory actions have taken place over the last few years have obviously improved the waulity of attendance out there.”

Okaloosa District 5 Race

The Okaloosa District 5 race between Destin residents Drew Palmer and Mary Anne Windes began with a surprise announcement just a couple of months ago that sitting Commissioner Mel Ponder would not run for reelection.

Both Windes and Palmer touted their business experience in the town hallalbeit both candidates have differing experiences. Windes owns almost 20 businesses she manages – varying from a real estate brokerage to charter fishing. Palmer works as a site manager for Lockheed Martin on Eglin Air Force Base and says that he has managed projects worth billions of dollars for the company and the military.

The pair diverged more clearly when they were asked about their priority on the commission. Windes recalled the scandals in Okaloosa County that took place about two decades ago and promised integrity. Palmer noted, as Windes had, that the scandals had not been repeated in recent years and that strong safeguards are in place now. “I think the county is already transparent,” Palmer said, “we have sunshine laws,” he said, referring to state laws about open meetings and local government business.

Windes noted that she is excited about the budget season taking place in Okaloosa County right now and was the only person who wasn’t employed by the county at the county’s budget hearing earlier in the day. “It really is fascinating,” she said. She added that she would like to see the county pursue additional land next to the Okaloosa Sheriff’s Office Traning Center in Crestview for other uses.

School Board District 2

The evening capped off with the Q+A with Parker Destin and David Schmidt – the two candidates for School Board for the district that covers Destin and most of Fort Walton Beach. The school board races, like the county commissioner races are open to voters of all political parties and every resident of the county votes for every school board seat, regardless of where the voter lives.

Destin hammered home his belief that the residents of Okaloosa County must fix the county’s infrastructure – especially school buildings.. or risk paying even more later. He noted that the school district ranks dead last in Florida regarding the age of school buildings. “We haven’t built a new high school since 1972,” Destin noted. For reference, Okaloosa County held roughly 90,000 people, according to the 1970 US Censusmeaning that the population has grown 250% in the last 50 years, but has added no new high schools in the same period.

Schmidt stayed with the theme of his campaign for the majority of his time on stage, highlighting his agenda to push more students into the trades to increase their utility and earning potential after high school. “We have a lot of marketable skill sets and vocational training programs,” Schmidt noted. ” We had about three percent of [graduates] going to a post-secondary technical institution.” He added that he’d like to see that number increase dramatically.

Your Next Steps

All of the candidates made it to the forum – which you can check out from our live stream here. If you don’t have the hour and a half to watch the candidates, check out our elections pages here. We have interviews with all but one of the candidates, Sherri Cox, and have bio’s, backgrounds and links to their websites and social media profiles.

We also have some frequently asked questions about the election and campaign finance data for you to look over.

Finally – remember these voting details:

📆 Last day to register to vote: JULY 22

🗳️ Election Day: August 20

📍Find your voting precinct here

💵 Amount average taxpayer gives to Okaloosa School District and Board of County Commissioners every year:  $3,408.35

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