Last-minute candidate swap unfolds in Okaloosa School Board race. Why it's raising questions

Tom McLaughlin
Northwest Florida Daily News

NICEVILLE — As the week of qualifying to run for office in Okaloosa and Walton counties got underway Monday, incumbent School Board member Dr. Diane Kelley's name remained noticeably absent from the Okaloosa Supervisor of Election's list of pre-filed candidates.

The name of Niceville businessman Joe Fagundes still appeared next to that of Cara Marion as a candidate for Kelley's District 5 seat.

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Strangely enough though, Kelley is in the race. And Fagundes is out.  

Fagundes revealed at a June 6 candidate forum in Niceville that "Dr. Diane Kelley's heart has called her back to run for Okaloosa County School Board District 5."

In a prepared statement, he said he was thrilled to see Kelley step up. It was never his intention, he said, to supplant her on the board. Fagundes declared he would immediately bow out of the race and throw all of his support Kelley's way.

"We have been on the same page for years and our School Board needs her. I was willing to follow her, and now that she has made the best decision for our School District I will gladly step aside," he told those gathered in Niceville.

Okaloosa County School Board member Diane Kelley speaks at Choctawhatchee High School earlier this year. Kelley has decided to run for another term on the board.

While Kelley was not at the meeting, an acquaintance of hers in attendance did confirm what Fagundes had said to be true. 

Kelley, who had just returned Monday from out-of-town business, said it is her intention to immediately pre-file to run and to officially qualify some time later in the week. 

She said she decided to run for a second term at the urging of former students, parents and associates. She said she also feels there are issues she wants to continue working on.

The timing of the Kelley/Fagundes candidate swap has raised questions. The announcement came just three days after Marion pre-filed to run. In an interview last week, Fagundes was adamant that, despite rumors, there was no conspiracy behind Kelley's sudden decision to run and his response to that decision.

"I was never going to run against her. I was going to be the next person up," he said.

Fagundes, who had collected $16,000 in campaign contributions, said he'll have his  candidacy shut down by the time qualifying ends Friday.

Marion, who created some controversy last October when she attended a School Board meeting to call out a Niceville High School educator's showing of the R-rated movie "Alexander" to a class, questioned the legitimacy of what she called Fagundes' "switch-a-roo announcement."

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She said she was actually in attendance at the candidate forum and speaking to Fagundes when she received a text notifying her of Kelley's decision. He revealed at that time he was aware of what had transpired and then went on to publicly announce his decision to leave the race and endorse Kelley.

"This is when my previous inkling was fully realized: that there appeared to be some back-room collaboration to put in place whomever is deemed worthy of the District 5 seat, taking advantage of the system for whatever reason, who knows?" she said in an email. 

Marion said she had begun to suspect "something was afoot" in the District 5 School Board race when Kelley waited until May 27 to announce she did not plan to run for a second term. 

"I was disappointed by the way Diane Kelley announced she would not be seeking re-election, as it was done late on Friday, May 27th, and right before a long holiday weekend when the Supervisor of Elections office would be closed on Monday in observation of Memorial Day," she said. "In this same announcement it was stated Joe Fagundes would be running, and that she (Diane) vowed her full support to Joe Fagundes ... that she had spent a lot of time talking with Joe about this decision."

Marion said she found it odd, firstly, that Fagundes would get such unfettered access to a School Board member that plans were discussed about who should step down and who should run in their place.

"Should I be elected, every citizen will be treated equally and afforded equal access to their representative, instead of what appears to be just a few select chosen ones from some established inner circle," she said.

She also questioned Kelley's late announcement of her intention to leave the race being coupled with an endorsement of Fagundes.

"(Her) decision to throw her full support behind a candidate without the knowledge of any other candidates possibly entering the race before the deadline really proved to me she lacks good judgment and has the propensity to make decisions without gathering and reviewing all the information," Marion said. "(That's) a trend I already had concerns about based on her interplay during her first term serving on the School Board."

Kelley said she was aware that questions had been raised about her timing in announcing her decision not to run, and again when she suddenly decided to get into the race. She said she did not intentionally delay either announcement.

"People who know me know that's not how I work," Kelley said. "I believe that anybody who wants an opportunity to perform public service ought to be afforded that opportunity."

Kelley's late arrival in the race will put her on an even footing with Marion where fundraising is concerned. The Supervisor of Elections website does not list Marion, as yet, having any money in her campaign account.

In 2018, Kelley was able to raise over $40,000 to fund her race for the District 5 seat. She received donations from former Okaloosa County school superintendents Don Gaetz and Alexis Tibbetts, as well as donations from, among others, then-deputy and now Sheriff Eric Aden, and deep-pocketed developer Jay Odom.

At the June 6 forum, one person in the audience asked whether Marion had received significant funding from Pat Ryan, who heads Truth4Okaloosa, a group that has called for removal all of the county's incumbent School Board members. She said no, and referred the questioner to her campaign financial statement for evidence of her lack of funding.

Ryan, who confirmed Monday he knew Marion and had met with her and two other candidates opposing incumbents in this year's School Board race, said he has made no financial commitments thus far this election cycle to any candidate for office.

He said he was not responsible for directly recruiting any of the three candidates running against incumbents. 

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Along with Kelley, Linda Evanchyk is seeking a second term to represent District 3. She is opposed by Darrel Barnhill, who formerly served on the Walton County School Board.

Lamar White, who is running for a third four-year term, is opposed this year by Jerry Buckman. Buckman served in the Air Force and as a defense contractor before retiring and becoming a substitute teacher.

Okaloosa County races 

If no one jumps in to qualify in Okaloosa County's District 4 County Commission race, Trey Goodwin will secure a third term in office. He was also unopposed in 2018.

Commissioner Carolyn Ketchel, also seeking a third term, has seen two opponents, CareySue Beasley and Matt Turpin, pre-file to run against her.

Destin this year features a mayor's race and races for three City Council seats. Current council members Rodney Braden and Bobby Wagner, who was appointed in November to replace suspended Councilwoman Prebble Ramswell, have pre-filed to run for mayor.

Just a single candidate, newcomer Torey Geile, has stepped up to run for one of the three council seats up for grabs.

In Crestview, Joe Blocker, Shannon Hayes and Thara Manwell Larkins have declared their intention to qualify this week to run for the Precinct 1 City Council seat. Ryan Bullard has pre-filed to run for the Precinct 2 seat, and John Matthew Boughton and Douglas Capps are slated to oppose one another for the Precinct 3 seat.

Walton County races

In Walton County, incumbent Commissioner Danny Glidewell appears to be unopposed for the District 2 seat while four contestants — David Buchanan, Charles Galloway, Michael Harbin and Donna Johns — have all indicated they will qualify to run for the District 4 seat, which is presently held by Trey Nick.

Bill Eddins Jr. has drawn apparent opposition for the District 3 Walton County School Board seat from Gordon Michael Porter, Likewise, incumbent Jason Catalano will compete with Matt Carr for the District 5 seat.

Kim Kirby is thus far unopposed for the District 2 School Board seat.

Dan Curry and Ryan Messer enter qualifying week as pre-filed to run to replace Bobby Beasley as the Walton County Supervisor of Elections. 

Okaloosa County County Judge Joe Ward and Walton County County Judge David Green are both unopposed in seeking a return to office.

Walton County also features races this year for the South Walton Fire Commission, the Liberty Fire District Board, the South Walton Mosquito Control Board and the Choctawhatchee River Soil and Water Conservation District Board.