TOP 10 NEWSMAKERS
With a tumultuous election year, there is little surprise half of the top newsmakers of 2016 were involved in some part of the electoral process. Throughout the year, the following people have left an indelible mark on our community.
Here, in no particular order, are the Palatka Daily News’ Top 10 newsmakers of 2016.
Having moved through the ranks at the Putnam County Sheriff’s Office, Sheriff-elect Gator DeLoach hoped his experience at the department would lead to a smooth transition to the top cop position.
Ten people initially crowded the field, and a close primary put DeLoach ahead on the Democratic side by only 164 votes.
Election night was closer with DeLoach initially losing by 18 votes as results were tallied.
Two days later, 428 absentee ballots counted Election Day, but not uploaded to the state server, changed the outcome of the election, placing DeLoach ahead.
After automated and a manual recounts, DeLoach maintained his lead, prompting his opponent, Republican Jon Kinney, to file an election contest complaint.
DeLoach is scheduled to be sworn in as sheriff Jan. 3, but a motion by Kinney’s attorneys to prevent DeLoach from taking office was filed, and a hearing is scheduled at the Clay County Courthouse Friday.
Also named in the election complaint is Putnam County Supervisor of Elections Charles Overturf III.
Slated for re-election this year, Overturf received no opposition in the 2016 election, a seemingly unanimous vote of confidence from Putnam County voters.
Overturf, the Elections Office staff and the Putnam County Canvassing Board quickly came under criticism and scrutiny after it was revealed two days after the general election 428 absentee votes were left on a flash drive and not uploaded to the state elections server.
In an election contest complaint filed by Kinney, other allegations included violations of public meeting laws by the canvassing board, of which Overturf is a member, misconduct by Overturf “sufficient to place in doubt the election” and for knowingly allowing two former Putnam County residents who relocated to North Carolina to vote.
After successfully winning re-election in August, Seventh Judicial Circuit Court Judge Scott DuPont was admonished by a judicial panel after probable cause was found he violated state Constitution and judicial rules during the election.
DuPont currently presides over civil cases in Putnam and Flagler counties.
In a response filed Dec. 20, DuPont claimed full responsibility for his actions, which included publicizing incorrect information against his opponent, Malcolm Anthony, as well as publicly stating in a forum he refused to find statutes unconstitutional.
“In taking full responsibility for my actions, I understand and accept that I will be subjected to sanction for my conduct,” DuPont wrote in his response.
A telephone status conference before the Judicial Qualifications Committee Hearing Panel Chair Eugene Pettis is scheduled for 9:30 a.m. Jan. 11.
First elected in 1983, Palatka City commissioner Mary Lawson Brown easily defeated her challengers in November, maintaining more than three decades of public service on the city commission.
In an election year where voters ousted many incumbents, Brown is now the only city commissioner in Palatka with more than one term in office.
“I am ready to go to work,” Brown said election night after securing her seat for four more years.
With an ambitious goal to “take the district to the upper one-half of the state in student achievement,” newly elected Putnam County School District superintendent Rick Surrency immediately began implementing changes at the district level shortly after taking office in November.
With 38 years of experiences in teaching and administration at Putnam County Schools, Surrency proposed more challenging programs at all of the school district’s elementary schools by offering the Cambridge program or honors programs.
On May 3, St. Johns School District released a letter stating First Coast Technical College, helmed by President Sandy Rayburn-Fortner, was in “a deteriorating financial condition.”
St. Johns County School District sponsored First Coast Technical College’s charter with the main campus in St. Augustine.
The college had recently moved its Palatka campus to Husson Avenue and renovations to the campus were being made through state legislative allocations requested for improvements.
Rayburn-Fortner was placed on administrative leave by the college’s board and resigned a month later after an investigation revealed misuse of finances at the college.
Rayburn-Fortner also allowed the school to fall two and sometimes three payrolls behind and there were no controls for the issuance of purchasing cards, which the St. Johns district team found “at best, wasteful and at worst, abusive.”
On July 1, the St. Johns County School District board officially took over operations of the college and terminated the college’s charter because of its state of financial emergency.
In 2015, the state Supreme Court deemed juvenile offenders sentenced to life in prison for a capital crime illegal.
In 2016, Morgan Leppert became the first Putnam County juvenile offender resentenced since the state’s high court ruling.
Leppert was 15 at the time of the 2008 murder of Melrose resident James Stewart and she was found guilty in 2009 and sentenced. The original sentenced denied Leppert a parole option.
Prior to resentencing, Judge Patti Christensen presided over three hearings to determine if Leppert qualified for a reduction in her life sentence without parole.
In June, Christensen vacated the prior sentence and resentenced Leppert to a life sentence for Stewart’s murder. After 25 years in prison, Leppert will be able to have her case reviewed for possible release.
With a renewed focus on mending relationships and working together for a healthy St. Johns River, local and regional leaders met with St. Johns Riverkeeper Lisa Rinaman in March.
The meeting was a stark contrast to 2015, when the Riverkeeper made a deal to not sue Jacksonville officials for their plan to dredge the river if Jacksonville assisted in a plan to breach Rodman Dam.
In November, the Riverkeeper organization released a documentary, “Troubled Waters: Connections and Consequences” to bring awareness to problems that threaten the St. Johns River.
Rinaman said the Riverkeeper organization is planning a January screening of the documentary in Palatka.
Helming Putnam County’s Emergency Services during the first hurricane to cause serious damage in the county in more than a decade, Chief of Emergency Operations and Preparedness Quin Romay successfully oversaw operations, before, during and after Hurricane Matthew.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency disaster assessment teams determined the storm impacted 687 local residences, contaminating residential wells, flooding homes and downing trees and power lines, causing millions of dollars worth of damage.
During the disaster, Romay quickly credited not only paid personnel but also volunteer first responders who were the front line in reaching people who needed help during the storm.
In October, Putnam County Commissioners gave the green light to Romay for construction of a new dormitory at the Satsuma Fire Department for paid firefighters and EMS personnel.
Commissioners also approved Romay’s recommendation to purchase three fire trucks and an ambulance. Romay also received the go-ahead to remount two rescue compartments for ambulances on new trucks.
Welaka Mayor Gordon Sands stirred controversy in the small South Putnam town when he added a fourth candidate to the selection process for a new police chief in September.
After the sudden death of former Chief Casimir “Charlie” Piwowarski, a selection committee was rapidly formed at Sands’ insistence to hire a new chief quickly.
Prior to a special meeting Sept. 10, Sands refused to release the names of the three finalists chosen by the committee, and during the meeting, accused residents in areas outside of incorporated Welaka for lobbying for one finalist.
Despite the selection committee’s choice of three candidate, Sands allowed a fourth candidate, former Crescent City Police Chief Robert Johnson, to become a finalist during the town council’s Sept. 14 meeting, forcing the council to table to decision until a special meeting Sept. 24.
According to the town charter, the selection of police chief rested solely on the mayor, with approval of the selection determined by the council.
On Sept. 24, Sands again surprised the council by selecting Jonathan Folbrecht, an original finalist, as chief.
After 15 seconds of silence, council member Brian Eltervoog made a motion approving the nomination. The motion passed 4-1, with council member Jamie Watts casting the one dissenting vote.