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Final “Meet the Candidates” for NCFTP before general election
By Gabrielle Stevenson
Seven local candidates from Suwannee and Columbia counties spoke at the North Central Florida Tea Party’s (NCFTP) “Meet the Candidates” meeting for a final time before the public decides which person will best serve in their respective elected positions. The meeting was held earlier this month and concluded the “Meet the Candidates” series the NFCTP has continued to host as a forum for our local candidates to better share their platforms with their communities. While most voters have already made up their minds at the national level, in this whirlwind election season, let us make sure we listen to what our local candidates have to say as well and vote for individuals we believe truly care about North Florida and the people who call it home. The elected positions they seek are important to all our connected communities. To get to know more of your local candidates, read past “Meet the Candidates” articles on www.suwanneevalleytimes.com.
William Don Hale, Jr. (DEM), running for Suwannee County Commissioner, District 1, was the first to speak at the final meeting and began by stating the whole idea is make Suwannee County great and keep taxes low, but according to Hale, the biggest problem he sees is a breakdown of communication, not just with the board of commissioners, but between other boards as well.
Hale argued, “We’ve got to start reaching across and working with others, whether it be the city, the tourist development, the county commission or the Live Oak City Council. Whatever it is, I think we’ve lost sight of what’s really important and that’s the community, the people of Suwannee County. So that’s something I want to bring back.” Hale then spoke about economic growth and drawing new businesses into the county. He said his biggest goal would be to work with the county’s economic director. Hale explained, “I just really think we have the tools in our toolbox, we’re just not using them because we’re not going after the right facilities, the right jobs. A lot of our people don’t come back to Live Oak to work. They get a job in Lake City or Gainesville or somewhere else. Nine times out of ten, they end up moving there because it’s just where they need to go to raise their families.” But, Hale stated he believes it is a double-edged sword because of the county’s elder and retired population that have told him they moved to the county because it is rural and they do not want to see it grow. Hale continued, “Then I’ve got people coming up to me that are my age or younger that ask what I’m going to do for their kids. What are you doing to lay groundwork now so they can go off, get an education and come back to raise their families here? It’s definitely not an easy task, but it can be accomplished if you do it responsibly.”
Ted Roush (REP), running for Suwannee County Superintendent of Schools, was next to speak and began with his background. Roush graduated from Branford High School, went on to North Florida Community College and then to Florida State University where we he received a Bachelors Degree in Social Sciences Education. He received a Masters Degree in Educational Leadership from Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University in 1997 and spent the last nearly twenty-two years in education. He has held various positions through out that time including substitute teacher, teacher, assistant principal, and principal of both Branford and Suwannee High Schools for the past twelve years. Roush laid out a four point platform and explained each at the meeting.
He said, “School safety has got to be first and foremost in all our minds. I think we all would have to admit that the things that have taken place around this country in the last fifteen or twenty years have been really shocking and eye opening as to what can happen on a school campus in any given day.” While improvements have been made to increase the security of Suwannee County Schools, such as fortifying of entryways and installment of some screening devices, Roush said there are still more things that can be done. “We’ve got a very supportive school board that also helped us fund these things moving forward. Along with that is the importance of the relationship that needs to exist between the county school board, superintendent and whoever the new sheriff will be. We have got to develop a great working relationship with our sheriff’s department and with our school resource officer program,” said Roush. His second platform point focuses heavily on K-3 education because, he explained, research shows students who fail to get on grade level in reading and math by the time they reach the end of their third grade year tend to struggle throughout their elementary, middle and high school years. “That starts with asking the best teachers about those things that work best to get kids where they need to be,” he said.
Roush’s third platform point dealt with dual enrollment, advanced placement and career and technical education. He said, “There’s a lot of opportunities that provide industry certifications in areas of auto mechanics, the construction trades, various medical licenses and any number of things you can think of that we offer in Suwannee County. We’re wanting them to go into the world with something in their hand other than just a high school diploma to be able to earn a decent living or have an entry level job while they go on and continue their education.” Roush’s last point was about local control of schools. He said it is his belief that Tallahassee has not always been friendly to public education and that he thinks they do not provide enough opportunity for the local school boards, constituents, administrators, teachers and superintendents to have a say in school affairs. He concluded by stating, “I’m not afraid of standards. I think there should be a standard, but the state has gone way too far in dictating the local school districts and school boards. I would advocate strongly for local control, local decision making by local citizens through their school boards and their superintendent’s office.”
B. Shawn Crocker (REP), running for Property Appraiser in Suwannee County, was third to speak at the meeting and began by telling the crowd how he came to call Suwannee County home. Crocker was raised on his parents’ citrus and cattle farm in Central Florida and after the freeze in 1989 that nearly destroyed Florida’s citrus industry, his parents and grandfather told Crocker he was going to college to get out of production agriculture. After college, he landed a job with a company in Central Florida working as a procurement manager in the citrus industry. He said after ten years of working in corporate America, he and his wife, a Live Oak native, decided to sell the family farm and move back home to Live Oak to start a family. Crocker said his wife had the opportunity to open her own business, Suwannee Spirit Cheerleading Gym in Live Oak, and in 2011, he became a state trooper.
Crocker said, “I was assigned to Gainesville from 2011 to 2015. Being a law enforcement officer is a very rewarding job, but it’s a very tough job. One of my specialities was handling traffic fatalities and it does wear on you. It really gets hard on your heart when there’s children involved.” He said he is often asked why he decided to transition from law enforcement officer to running for property appraiser and his answer is simple, “I feel like that’s the position in our county that I can do the most good. There are disabled veterans in our county that don’t have a veteran’s exemption. There are widows that don’t have a widow’s exemption. There’s classifications and values that I feel like are not done equally across the board for all people. What I want to bring to this office is equity.”
Crocker also argued that opportunities in technology have risen during the incumbent’s forty-four years in office that would improve the efficiency of the appraiser’s services. He explained, “Bringing that technology in leads to efficiencies that make for smaller government. That’s ultimately what I believe in, is smaller government.” Crocker concluded his statements by giving an example, “Then there’s some things you can do with the property appraiser’s office like put the FEMA flood maps right over the property appraiser’s map so you, the citizens, can take that as a tool to go to your insurance company and argue why your flood insurance is so high when you’re in ‘zone x’ and no flood is ever likely to come your way. So there’s some opportunities to really improve the property appraiser’s office.”
Sam St. John (DEM), running for Sheriff of Suwannee County, was the next candidate to speak. He began by stating he is a family man and has three children. His wife, Tori, is a Marine Corps combat veteran and currently a special agent with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. St. John is a retired law enforcement officer with thirty-six years of honorable service at the Suwannee County Sheriff’s Office. Twenty-four of those years, he held a supervisory position. During his career at the sheriff’s office he served in several specialized duties. He said he worked with blood hounds tracking fugitives and was part of the search and recovery dive team and SWAT team. St. John also said he’s been successful in operating a small business for the last sixteen years and believes it gives him the necessary administrative experience. He also argued that his many years with the sheriff’s department gives him the knowledge to organize the agency in a way that would best serve the community and agency.
St. John said, “If elected as sheriff, there’s several things I would like to accomplish. I want to actively recruit and maintain qualified law enforcement officers. I want to make sure our employees are up to date on training. I also want to upgrade technology and our communication system. I’ll aggressively continue the fight on crime and drugs. I’ll also work towards finding solutions to our traffic issues we have in Suwannee County.” He further explained that updating technology would significantly shorten the time it takes to identify criminals and solve crimes. Another point St. John discussed at the meeting was gun ownership. He stated that he is a member of the NRA and that he believes in the second amendment. He commented, “I believe in your right to protect yourself, your family, your property and others that may be in danger. That’s why, if elected, I will continue to protect you and your rights. I promise you no government will forcibly take your right to bear arms while I’m sheriff. If they do, I will stand arm-in-arm with you to keep it from happening.” St. John also said that he will be accessible to the community and made this pledge, “I have a stainless service record, I stand by my promises and I treat people with respect and dignity. I know the sheriff must demonstrate his commitment to serve God, his family and community. I know being sheriff is a 24 hour job. I’m committed to serving this community in good times and in bad. I’ll work to keep Suwannee County a safe place to live, work and visit.”
Julie Blake Ulmer (DEM), running for Superintendent of Schools in Suwannee County, was next to speak. She is a 1987 graduate of Suwannee High School and a 1991 graduate of the University of Florida with a degree in education. While in college, she met her husband of twenty-three years, Jerry, and they have two sons. Ulmer said she began her teaching career in Columbia County and eighteen years ago, she stepped out of the classroom to be Chief Financial Officer for Ulmer Construction. Fifteen years ago, she ran for and was elected to the Suwannee County School Board, District 3 seat and has served on the board for the past fourteen years. She said nine of those years, she has been either Chairman or Vice Chairman of the board. As a school board member, Ulmer said she’s proud of her record as a conservative leader. She said she does not believe in and voted against Common Core. Ulmer also discussed prayer in school and employees rights to show evidence of faith.
She stated, “I’m also proud that eight years ago we were one of five school districts in the state of Florida that were identified in as demanding that we remove all school prayer and not only that, we would require all employees to hide their faith. No wearing crosses, no evidence of faith whatsoever. We stood up to that. I led the charge, I was chairman at the time. School prayer is allowed as long as it’s student led and we still have that in our schools. Our employees have the right to be open about their faith and not be required to hide it. I’m very proud to have accomplished that.” Ulmer said she has advocated for career and technical education and dual enrollment programs. The candidate commented, “Increasing those programs, particularly in the health fields, is imperative to our community. People can come out of high school, either having already been to RiverOak Technical College earning an industry certification, or go back as adult students without having to go to college.”
Ulmer argued that she is the most diverse candidate in the race for superintendent because she has educational experience as a teacher and as a school board member. She said, “As a board member, I take pride in the fact that I’ve been involved in all of our schools. Being superintendent and being on the school board isn’t just about one school, it’s about understanding the unique dynamics at every one of our schools, and they are different.” Ulmer said she also served on an economic development committee that recruited business to the catalyst site in Suwannee County. She explained, “That business, last year, paid the school district almost half a million dollars in property taxes. That is really important because that property tax revenue is what helps fund our facilities. Being superintendent is not just our school system, it’s about understanding that our school system is the number one factor in economic development in our community. If we don’t have good schools, businesses won’t come.” Later in her speech, Ulmer said the jobs created at the catalyst site were what justified bringing on the plumbing, electrical and welding industry certification programs at RiverOak Technical College because they are not allowed to bring on new programs unless there is job justification for them.
In her speech, Ulmer also discussed school safety and said, “We are almost at a one to one ratio where we have a school resource officer on every school campus. I think we need to bring on one more to make that level. Having a trained law enforcement officer on campuses is the number one deterrent for an active shooter situation. That’s something that research has shown us,” she also added, “Campus safety should be number one on everybody’s mind because children aren’t going to learn if they’re not on a safe campus.”
Christopher Furst (DEM), running for Suwannee County Commissioner, District 5, was the fifth candidate to speak. He moved to Suwannee County in 1990 and married his wife, Alicia. They have two daughters. Furst is the owner of Furst Automotive & Cycle in Live Oak and said what he will bring to the table is a no-nonsense, common sense, business point of view.
Furst said, “I solve problems every day for a living. I know what it’s like to sign both sides of a paycheck. I know depreciation schedules. I know budgeting.” He also added that his business has been open and successful for almost twenty years and that it was out of debt in twelve years. According to Furst, “Budgeting is key here. Suwannee County needs some work. Economic development is a huge thing. For economic development, we have to make a business friendly environment, meaning the government needs to back off and let them do their thing. As a business owner myself, the less the government was involved, the easier things became.” In order to bring in more business to the county, Furst said the county has to work hand-in-hand with the school board because businesses will not come if there is not an educated workforce. He then added, “We want to work within our budgets where we don’t have to burden the tax payers with anymore taxes. We have to use what we have and use it wisely. There’s a lot of places to create revenue. We have interstate interchanges. We have a catalyst site that we can build. There are hundreds of opportunities.” This will require communication, he explained, stating that his own business was built on communication between customers and employees. He continued, “If you ask people about Furst Automotive & Cycle, they won’t get through the first line without the word honesty.
I’m honest to a fault. I’ll tell the truth even if somebody doesn’t like it. The truth isn’t always pretty and it’s not always popular, but it’s easy to remember.” Concluding his speech, Furst said he would be accessible and that he can be found at all times on any day. “There are people who are concerned about the ‘D’ behind my name. Well I want to tell you the ‘D’ stands for determined. I am determined to make a better county, to make us more conservative, to make us use our money more wisely and to make better decisions. It’s all budget conscious, it’s all business and we need to run it like one,” said Furst.
Scarlet Frisina (Non-Partisan), running for reelection as Columbia County Commissioner, District 5, was the final candidate to speak at the meeting and began by telling the crowd about her background. She was raised on a small farm in Columbia County and has been married to her husband, Ward, for the past seventeen years. Together, they own a forestry consulting business and small farm.
Frisina said her family’s roots run very deep in the county and her children, “Caitlyn and Chandler make eight generations of our family that have lived and worked in our community,” she continued, “I want you to know I understand these economic times that we’ve all been living through have been very tough. Living on a small farm and owning a small business, I understand as well as anyone the struggles that each of you go through every day because they’re the very same ones that we face. As owners of a small business, you have to stretch every dollar and mind every move. Working hard to do more with less seems to have been the theme since I was elected in 2008.” Frisina said she worked to help cut nearly seven million dollars from the county budget due to the recession and maintained fiscal responsibility, while making sure they are still able to provide the counties citizens with valued essential services. She also said she voted against raising the county mileage rate because of the strain it would put on the counties citizens.
On the topic of economic growth, Frisina said getting new businesses to locate in the county is a long process and one that is rarely made public until the business has almost decided to come to the area. She discussed the many factors involved in the process, stating, “They want to know what your demographics are like. Are they right? Is there a skilled workforce available? What’s the quality of the school system? Does the real estate in your area fit my logistical needs? So our county is constantly working to provide these options and opportunities to these locating industries, while continuing to ensure that our community grows the right way.”
Frisina also argued that while the majority of a board are the ones who make decisions, diversity on a board allows for varying viewpoints so the best decision is reached and looked at from all angles. She said, “I listen to the constituents of my district and I seek their advice on their opinions on these big issues as they come up. It doesn’t matter to me - white collar, blue collar or no collar, business owner, homemaker, man or woman. Each one has a voice with me.” In her closing statements, Frisina said a commissioner must have business knowledge, common sense, thick skin and a servant’s heart and assured her constituents that she will continue to be that servant if reelected. In regards to accessibility, she said her cell phone number is on the county’s webpage where it has remained since she was first elected and that her phone is always on. “I want you to know that I take the responsibility of being your representative very seriously. I want you to know my heart continues to be in the right place and I truly want what is best for our community,” said Frisina.
NCFTP President John Lacquey thanked all the candidates who came to this series of meetings throughout the election season and wished them all the best of luck. He said he is proud to live in a country where people will give up so much of their time and energy to make a stand for their cities, counties and states. To learn more about NCFTP, visit their website at northcentralflorida912 project.org.