Only in Nevada do American voters have the option to check “None of the Above.” If it were available on the ballot here, that is what we would recommend in the election for Broward County sheriff.
There is a next best alternative. By declining to vote in that one race, the people of Broward could send a powerful message to county leaders and the Florida Legislature. When it comes to filling the county’s most important office, the election process has failed.
We cannot endorse any of the three people on the ballot. That is a rare position for us, and we do not come to it lightly.
We know some readers will be disappointed, and others appalled, by our decision. But the time has come for Broward County to face the painful truth that the system of electing Broward’s chief law enforcement officer is irretrievably broken. It has been made so by the governor’s hasty appointment of incumbent Gregory Tony, the inexorable dominance of one political party, the distorting effects of lavish campaign spending, the lack of a runoff primary and the absence of any minimum requirements for an extremely demanding job.
Tony, whom Gov. Ron DeSantis appointed after suspending Sheriff Scott Israel, has not shown himself to be up to the job.
He remains under the cloud of a preliminary investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement over his failure to tell the governor that he was charged with murder, although acquitted, as a 14-year-old in Philadelphia.
Tony’s inexperience was highlighted Sept. 16 by yet another arbitrator’s order to restore to duty a deputy who deserved to be fired for failing to confront the shooter in Parkland in 2018. As in the first case, the arbitrator ruled that Tony had violated a deadline set by state law to dismiss the man.
But Tony is the Democratic nominee even though nearly two-thirds of the party’s voters in the six-way August primary rejected him and voted for someone else. Given how this overwhelmingly Democratic county votes in general elections, Tony will win the election. Neither H. Wayne Clark, the Republican nominee, nor Charles “Chuck” Whatley, who is running as a no-party candidate, has managed to mount an effective campaign.
The challengers impress us as well-intended. But neither has the breadth of experience necessary to run the large and complex sheriff’s office. Tony didn’t, either. The high point of his experience was as a Coral Springs police sergeant. While he is now familiar with the office, he has not grown into it.
Seasoned leader needed
The sheriff employs about 5,400 people for the diverse functions of road patrol and investigations, firefighting and rescue, regional communications, maintaining four jails and operating the 911 emergency communications system. The budget is nearly $1 billion.
An elected sheriff system might be ideal for a mythical Mayberry and a homespun Andy Taylor, but it is all wrong for a county of nearly 2 million people. Requiring the county’s top law enforcement official to also be a partisan politician is not just unwise, it’s dangerous. It’s a failure.
These glaring problems did not start with Tony. The political factors have created a sheriff’s office that has repeatedly been engulfed in controversy and scandal.
If Broward were a single municipality, it would be the fifth most populous city in the United States, behind New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Houston. Hardly any city anywhere in the U.S., and none of any size, elects its police chief.
Neither should Broward. The county commission should appoint a public safety director, as Miami-Dade County decided to do long ago after a succession of scandalous sheriffs.
Unfortunately, a constitutional amendment run past unsuspecting voters two years ago condemns every county in Florida — including, now, Miami-Dade — to elect its sheriff and other constitutional officers. It would take another amendment to correct that. Legislators from Broward and other urban counties should put their shoulders to that wheel now.
Tony’s character in question
At present, however, there is an election.
Voters who want to identify with a likely winner will doubtlessly mark their ballots for Tony despite his temper, poisoned relations with BSO’s unions, questionable management of the public’s money and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement inquiry.
As we said when we called on Tony to resign or for the governor to suspend him, and when we endorsed former sheriff Scott Israel in the Democratic primary, Tony’s failure to disclose the youthful homicide arrest is a serious issue.
Worse, the affidavit he signed to secure DeSantis’s appointment wasn’t the first such offense. He also failed to divulge it in applications to the Tallahassee Police Department, which did not hire him, and in 2005 to the City of Coral Springs, whose police chief said he wouldn’t have hired him had he known. Tony did tell Tallahassee that he had tried LSD one time and was not hired. Thereafter, he did not reveal that fact to Coral Springs. That is a troublesome record.
The FDLE form he signed under oath for his appointment by DeSantis asked whether he ever had a criminal record sealed or expunged, and he checked the box that meant “no.” In May, Tony’s campaign consultant said it was a truthful answer because Tony had been acquitted in Philadelphia and so “it was not a criminal record, it was not a crime.”
However, Florida requires an applicant to divulge any “arrest”— not just a conviction — if he or she is a candidate for a job in criminal justice or for admission to the Florida Bar. The reason is clear. Law enforcement is different. Police have a license to kill. Everything they have ever done is pertinent.
This is how Tony explained himself in the written questionnaire he submitted to the Sun Sentinel:
“Some are speculating about an incident that occurred over 27 years ago, but they were not there. They did not witness the terrified 14 year old boy who felt his and his brother’s life were in mortal danger try to protect his family. In Pennsylvania, juveniles are not arrested, they go through a petition of delinquency before a case is adjudicated. The juvenile justice system reviewed my actions and after witness testimony in front of a Judge I was ruled innocent.”
As previously reported, Tony has spent as much as $750,000 to buy bleeding control kits from a South Carolina company with which he previously had a business relationship and which was the source of $10,000 and $5,000 in contributions to his political committee not long after the contract was signed.
The Florida Bulldog, which first disclosed that, also reported recently that Tony had spent more than $10,000 on ceremonial green and-gold-painted shovels, hard hats and souvenirs for the groundbreaking last December of a training center and garage that has yet to get off the ground. The hard hats were rated for show only, not workplace safety.
Clark, 46, is an attorney with no experience in law enforcement. Florida law does not require sheriffs to be certified in that field, so they cannot personally make arrests. Voters should not regard that as disqualifying, since there are other careers, including the law and military command, that could prepare someone to be a good sheriff.
Clark’s career, however, has been devoted primarily to civil rather than criminal law. Other than advising corporate clients on security concerns, he has no relevant management experience.
Whatley, 58, is a former Broward sheriff’s deputy whose last assignment was at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. In his interview with us, he said he left BSO because Israel had failed to make changes after the 2017 mass shooting at baggage claim, which left five people dead and six injured.
Tony declined to participate in a Sun Sentinel candidate interview. He did submit a questionnaire, which can be read online.
Neither negligibly financed challenger is remotely competitive with Tony’s direct contributions of $186,773, let alone the nearly $1.5 million in his separate political committee, Broward First. More than half of that, $810,000, has come from one person, the billionaire hedge fund manager S. Donald Sussman, who lives in Fort Lauderdale.
It is a disgrace to Florida that the Legislature allows such enormous contributions — regardless of their motive — to distort elections for any offices that are supposed to be decided by the votes of the people.
That is another reason for Broward voters to vote for none of the candidates on the ballot for sheriff. It is the only way to send a message that county leaders, the governor and the Legislature need to hear — as well as to the sheriff himself.
Editorials are the opinion of the Sun Sentinel Editorial Board and written by one of its members or a designee. The Editorial Board consists of Editorial Page Editor Rosemary O’Hara, Dan Sweeney, Steve Bousquet and Editor-in-Chief Julie Anderson.