Voters had an opportunity to hear from several office-seekers Thursday, July 23, during a candidates’ night at the Ponte Vedra Concert Hall.
The event had been originally scheduled as a debate between two St. Johns County sheriff candidates, but the focus was changed after it was learned one of the presumed debaters would not be participating. The event was sponsored by the Ponte Vedra and Nocatee Republican clubs.
Much of the forum was devoted to the sheriff race, though only St. Augustine Beach Police Chief Rob Hardwick attended. He will face former Sheriff’s Office director Chris Strickland in the Aug. 18 primary.
Hardwick touted his experience as a law enforcement officer and as a 25-year member of the U.S. military, as well as his service on the Criminal Justice Standards and Training Commission. He also recounted how he saw the St. Augustine Beach Police Department through its accreditation process.
Asked how he would recruit and retain quality officers, Hardwick pointed to success he’s had in hiring young men and women who grew up locally as well as experienced officers who have “retired” to the county from points north.
He said he holds his officers accountable by demonstrating leadership.
“You start at the top,” he said. “You lead by example. I wear a uniform every day. I answer calls for service.”
Hardwick scored one of the loudest rounds of applause after being asked what he would do if asked by the governor or a mayor to stand down.
He pointed out that the sheriff is an elected official who can’t be told to stand down.
“So, when you tell me to go into the houses in St. Johns County and take people’s guns … that’s not going to happen,” he said.
The closest thing to a debate came later at the event as county commission candidates James Johns and Christian Whitehurst answered questions.
Neither candidate favors imposing a countywide mask ordinance.
Johns agreed that wearing a mask was important and said he wears one when he cannot observe social distancing, but he stopped short of requiring face coverings.
“I don’t know what your personal healthcare needs are or whether you are capable of wearing a mask or not,” he said, “but you do.”
“Your rights start where my rights stop,” said Whitehurst. “I’d never mandate masks for the general public.”
Asked about managing growth, Johns said he wanted to hear from his constituents find out what’s important to them. He called the county’s different areas unique and said he wants to maintain their “special qualities” as the county grows.
Whitehurst said he was in favor of “smart-managed growth.”
“Do we have the infrastructure to support it?” he asked rhetorically. “Do we have the roads? Do we have the schools? Do we have the beach access points? … That’s the filter through which my decisions will pass.”
Other candidates who spoke at the forum included District 4 congressional candidate Erick J. Aguilar, 7th Circuit judge candidate MaryEllen Osterndorf, school board candidate Nick Graham and Matt Metz and Anne Marie Gennusa for public defender. George Burden, another candidate for public defender, could not attend and was represented by his campaign manager, John Terhune.