Hot debate topics: conservatism, Mid-Bay Bridge, state justice system reform

Tom McLaughlin
Northwest Florida Daily News

FORT WALTON BEACH — State representative candidate Patt Maney was obliged to defend his conservative Republican bonafides Tuesday when questions arose concerning his stance on criminal justice reform issues and “judicial-type funding.”

Asked how he would differentiate himself from the other conservatives in a crowded Republican field for the District 4 State House seat, candidate Jonathan Tallman disagreed with the premise of the question.

“This race is not chock full of conservative Republican candidates. Some are, some are not,” Tallman said.“I believe in law and order in the courts, but I will just say there are others in the race ... we don’t believe in the same policies.”

Tallman, speaking at a socially distanced forum hosted by Fort Walton Beach Chamber Director Ted Corcoran and recorded by Crestview Community Television, didn’t mention Maney by name, but he didn’t have to.

Maney a retired County Judge, is the only one of five candidates in the state race who has made reforming aspects of the state’s justice system a core campaign issue.

When Maney was given his turn to address viewers, he was asked about his conservatism being called into question.

“I don’t think I have ever been called a liberal, I have a strong conservative record,” he said.

Maney was instrumental in helping Okaloosa County secure a state pilot program designed to steer those suffering from mental health issues out of the jails and into a more productive setting.

“Mental health is a public health issue, it is an issue that affects many in this county. It affects law enforcement in this county and it costs the county money,” he said. “I don’t think it’s liberal if we treat people before we take away their liberty.”

Maney and Tallman have been joined in the race for the state House by two candidates with deep ties to the county’s Republican Party. Jeff Hinkle is the president of the county’s Republican Executive Committee and Sandra Atkinson the former elected Republican State Committee woman.

Hinkle shared his plan to access funding from Triumph Gulf Coast, an organization charged with distributing BP oil funds to assist economic development in Northwest Florida, to end or lessen tolls on the Mid-Bay Bridge.

“A lot of people say, ’You can’t accomplish this’ “ he said. ”But there are so many ways to skin a cat.“

On his website, Hinkle claims county residents have been double taxed by the toll for years and “paid the price for mismanagement, poor investment decisions and risky finance schemes by the Mid-Bay Bridge Board.”

He said Tuesday, Triumph could assist in helping the county pay off interest and bring down existing debt, and the bridge could then be turned over to the Florida Department of Transportation to run at a much lower cost

Atkinson said she would work with state Sen. George Gainer to help Okaloosa County’s school district find operational funding and seek to return lost gun rights to some young people.

She also said she opposed Okaloosa County’s formation of a COVID-19 task force, which she called an unnecessary expense.

“I want to stop the people who say they’re going to do one thing and then do another,” Atkinson said.

She compared herself to Florida First District Congressman Matt Gaetz, like herself a staunch defender of President Donald Trump.

“I’m tired of politics as usual,” she said. “I’m a person of my word and I’m not going to say I’m going to do something and not do it.”

Candidates for the Okaloosa County Commission District 5 seat also attended the Chamber forum Tuesday.

Paul Mixon, a political newcomer who has worked as a county deputy and now serves as a minister, said he believes it is important to have a commissioner with law enforcement experience on the board.

Graham Fountain, the man who Mixon is running to replace, was also a veteran of law enforcement. Mixon said Fountain approached him about running when he decided he was stepping down.

“I think it’s a good thing,” when asked about the governing board having a law enforcement presence. “It’s one of our facets of government, public safety, law enforcement. Our local Sheriff’s Office needs that coverage, it needs to be represented on the county commission.”

His opponent, former two-term commissioner Wayne Harris, said he believes his experience in county leadership is crucial during a time of crisis caused by the coronavirus.

“We’re in perilous times, we need leadership, we don’t need a trainee,” he said.

Harris said he favors looking at privatizing the county’s Convention Center and he stands by his controversial decision several years ago to join a group that wanted to explore opportunities presented by oil drilling in the Eastern Gulf.

“I do believe we ought to be able to drill in some areas,” he said. “I don’t think we ought to just run out and drill.”