County Debates – Clear Victories for Ellis, Ivey, Blickley
By Keith Malone // May 25, 2012
BREVARD COUNTY • VIERA, FLORIDA – Deep-seated personal animousity flared during a heated political debate between Brevard County Clerk of Court candidates Mitch Needelman, who’s currently in office – and his challenger Scott Ellis, the clerk who served before him and who claimed a clear debating victory on Thursday night, May 24.
This was a tasty dish served up for the 500 people or so who filled the Viera Holiday Inn Conference Center to listen to a total of three political debates, held for Brevard’s leading county constitutional officer posts.
‘God Help Us’
The event was sponsored by the Brevard County Conservative Coalition – comprising Brevard 912, Republican Liberty Caucus of East Central Florida and the Space Coast Patriots.
“God help us to get it right,” was the opening salutation and prayer led by Pastor Charles Roland, of Ocean Side Community Church in Satellite Beach, who also led the Pledge of Allegiance.
“We have drifted from the political and spiritual foundations set by our forefathers,’ he said.
The Needelman-Ellis encounter was the last and main contest on the bill. Money management, leadership style and contracting procedures were among the contentious issues debated.
If you go by the straw poll conducted on the night, Ellis knocked the incumbent to the canvas with some heavyweight argument. Ellis won by 387 votes to Needelman’s total of just 93.
The second debate between Brevard County Sheriff candidates Wayne Ivey and Todd Maddox was won by Ivey, with a clear majority of more than 100 votes. Incumbent Jack Parker is retiring after two terms.
The debate that kicked off this keenly-anticipated public session in Viera was between Property Appraiser candidates Jason Steele and Dana Blickley, both challenging the incumbent Jim Ford.
Steele was absent due to a family crisis, his place taken by fiancee Lori Halbert. But she was also having difficulty on the night due to her recovery from recent major surgery. Halbert had to remain seated throughout the debate, which Blickley won with a massive majority of nearly 200 votes in the straw poll.
So back to the Needelman-Ellis encounter. At issue were disputes between the two men regarding Needelman’s claim of a $2.6 million deficit when he entered office after Ellis’ previous tenure; Ellis’ claim of new layers of unneeded bureaucracy under Needelman’s watch – and a disagreement regarding appropriate contracting procedures.
The personal animosity was all pervading as the two candidates exchanged verbal blows during their 50-minute debate.
Needelman began by claiming Ellis had previously quit the post with two years left on his term as “he had no choice because he had no answers” over budget shortfalls.
He also accused Ellis of “making things up” in a discussion about no-bid contracts.
But Ellis countered by saying the current clerk’s office was “an absolute disaster” and that employees were only doing their jobs because they were “scared” of Needelman.
In defence of his time in the Clerk’s office, Needelman said he’d accomplished the people’s goals of smaller government and lower taxes and that his office was now “running in the black.”
Claims and Counter Claims
But Ellis hit back, claiming many current employees of the office were “temporary labor” and there was a lack of work ethic because people were “just passing through with no hope of being badged.”
Ellis said his top priorities upon election would be to remove “the extra layer” of management hired by Needelman, to rescind recent pay raises because of state mandates against them – and to turn outsourced employees into regular employees.
Needelman defended by saying he would continue to reduce the budget and to modernize the clerk’s office through a major digitizing effort.
Throughout the debate, Ellis said that Needelman could not claim he’d achieved budget savings when that money was being used to hire more managers and grant pay raises.
Needelman countered by saying his was a successful policy to “re-invest” in employees, so the Clerk’s office could compete with the private sector for quality workers.
The public had the last word – proclaiming Ellis their man by giving him a massive majority of 294 votes.
The efficient and smoothly-run straw poll was conducted by the Brevard County Supervisor of Elections with electronic voting machines, supervised on the night by officer Shirley Kennedy.
The debate for Brevard County Sheriff replacing Jack Parker saw two candidates coming up against each other, both with huge experience in law enforcement – but Ivey clearly has the upperhand in this long-term battle as he has Parker’s endorsement.
Maddox, 22 years with the Brevard Sheriff’s office and ten of those with the SWAT team, pledged he would cut the budget by 5% initially and by 10% over four years. “I know it can be done because I’m there,” he declared.
He cited examples of “shutting down hot-shower time” for inmates and stopping their water-wasting habit of washing clothes in the toilet through multiple flushing – as ways of saving money.
Plus he pledged a major budget audit, to stop the practice of “double dipping” by retirees and to oppose the construction of a new $4m sheriff’s building earmarked for Titusville.
Ivey stated that “keeping the people safe” was his first and foremost priority – and he was also determined to achieve a reduction in the crime rate, which he said had risen by 11.7% in the last year.
Ivey supported an audit and would consider innovative cost-saving measures. But he would maintain deputy numbers and achieve a better balance of deputies around the county, with equal performance in north, south and central Brevard.
Concluding, Ivey accepted both he and Maddox had huge and laudable experience as law enforcers, but what separated them was his ability to be a successful and visionary community leader.
The public backed Ivey, giving him 310 votes in the straw poll, compared to the 205 votes cast in favour of Maddox.
Change of Culture Needed
In the debate for the position of Public Appraiser, Dana Blickley made her case by highlighting her 20 years’ experience of working in property tax administration.
Blickley said she’d make immediate savings by cutting out several layers of administration and “frivolous expenditure.”
She said many current salaries were too high and “not commensurate’ with the ability of the people doing those jobs.
The biggest challenge for the new regime in 2013 she concluded, would be to bring about “a change of culture” in the Clerk’s Department, to properly assess all of Brevard’s properties and to achieve better financial accounting and transparency.
Jason Steele is Blickley’s rival in challenging the incumbent Jim Ford, who also did not attend. Steele’s enforced absence was covered on the debating stage by his fiancee Lori Halbert, who emphasized Steele’s 40 years’ experience in real estate.
“No one is more qualified to do this job than Jason,” she said.
She accused the current regime of pursuing frivolous lawsuits with outside counsel and said Steele would rapidly “remove the politics” from the Property Appraiser’s office.
Brevard had been made to “look like a derelict county,” she said.
She also stated that Steele would ensure staff were “better instructed in customer service.” She claimed there were many instances where staff had been “rude and uinkind.”
Clock Winders or Watch Makers?
“Do you want watch makers or clock winders,” she said was the question people should be asking themselves when they go to vote to put the next person in office.
In the straw poll held in the room next to the conference chamber, the public backed Dana Blickley to be that next person in office, above Steele, by 339 votes to 152.
Note From This Writer:
As a news broadcaster and reporter from the United Kingdom these past 30 years, I am struck by the genuine enthusiasm and backing for the grass roots political system here in the United States – and for the sense of fairplay exhibited by the people listening to the candidates at the debates I witnessed Thursday night in Viera.
This was a leading hotel conference venue in Brevard filled to capacity by conservative activists and the public, who came to support and listen to the people on stage – and who cheered and applauded them loudly, but not to the detriment of their rivals.
As opposed to the UK, where there is often a general apathy and ignorance at this local level of politics, people who attended Thursday night were well informed on the issues and genuinely concerned the best candidate should be elected to serve them in these important posts, specially that of County Sheriff.
I have been struck by a much stronger law enforcement presence on the roads of Brevard than in my home county of Hampshire in southern England – and I find folks here have a more respectful and supportive attitude towards their law enforcers.
That may be because there is a greater incidence of violent crime over here – but nevertheless we, in the UK, can and should learn from the people of Brevard.
My sincere thanks to long-term Brevard political blogger Charles Parker, an English teacher at Merritt Island High School, who will also be teaching a new course in journalism there after the summer break.
Charles gave me invaluable assistance in understanding and reporting some of the proceedings and filling in the gaps in my local knowledge of the candidates. Hats off to you, Charles – your students are in safe hands! Thank you once again.