I frankly don’t know what’s going on with our soon-to-be sheriff, Eric Flowers – because, well, he no longer seems to be speaking to me.
Actually, he’s not speaking to anyone at Vero Beach 32963, Vero News or our veronews.com website, and hasn’t been for some time. He doesn’t return phone calls or messages left on his voicemail. He doesn’t accept texts. He did not respond to an email I sent last week.
This is strange behavior, considering he is the Sheriff’s Office public information officer, whose job is to talk to the news media and provide information about local law-enforcement matters and other goings-on within the county’s largest police force.
This is also a really bad way for a sheriff-elect to start a new administration, which Flowers will do on Jan. 5.
Everyone in the county should be concerned, even worried, about a new sheriff shutting out local news outlets – particularly the community’s most-read newspaper, the island weekly that most holds our city and county officials accountable.
We’re not the enemy of the people, regardless of what some politicians might want you to believe. We’re the enemy of bad people who do bad things. We’re the enemy of lies and deceit and corruption.
We’re the allies of truth and transparency.
Trust me when I tell you – and, after nearly 19 years as a columnist and reporter in this market, you know you can – nobody in our operation is doing this for fame or fortune.
Most of my colleagues are career journalists with serious credentials and long past any need to make names for themselves with gotcha-type stories.
We do what we do because we take pride in our profession and care deeply about our community. For us, covering the news you need and making sure our local public officials conduct governmental business openly and honestly is as much a calling as a job.
The troubling aspects of what Flowers has been doing, however, go beyond the difficulties his communications blackout has caused us. We can and will continue to work around this obstacle, utilize other sources and report news about the Sheriff’s Office.
But it’s important our readers know that when our public officials don’t talk to us, they’re not talking to you.
That means they can attempt to operate under a cloak of secrecy, share only the information they deem necessary and hide what they don’t want you to know – at least until watchdog reporters and other civic-minded residents start filing public records requests.
Still, public officials who want to control the flow of information and resist being held accountable can make the news-gathering process unnecessarily challenging.
In many communities, tweets and Facebook posts have replaced press conferences, allowing governmental agencies to bypass the news media and avoid public questioning and any immediate scrutiny of their words and deeds.
Such tactics are more difficult for county commissions, city councils and school boards, because they’re required by law to hold public meetings. Law enforcement agencies, however, have no such obligation.
Don’t be surprised, then, to see Flowers and his as-yet-unannounced command staff try to strictly control any news and information that comes out of the Sheriff’s Office through the creation of an agency-run, news-production division.
My sources at the Sheriff’s Office, in fact, say he already has begun hiring.
If this new entity is designed to help the local media by providing more information than we’ve been getting, then Flowers is to be commended for wanting to run an open and transparent agency that publicly admits wrongdoing and doesn’t fear scrutiny or even criticism.
But if Flowers tries to use such an operation to circumvent the local media, hide wrongdoing and avoid scrutiny by spinning the news in his favor, then we’re going to be confronted with an even more alarming problem.
No news is bad. Fake news is worse.
Of course, I’d like to look beyond these past months and give Flowers the benefit of the doubt as he replaces Sheriff Deryl Loar, who is now in the final days of his third four-year term.
I can only hope that Flowers, as he embarks on the next phase of his law-enforcement career, sets aside any ill feelings from his campaign, and that he possesses the maturity and wisdom to start with a clean slate.
Not everyone at Sheriff’s Office voted for him in the August primary. Not everyone in the community endorsed his candidacy. Not everyone in the local news media was a cheerleader.
Some of us reported news stories and authored columns offering opinions that he, for whatever reasons, didn’t like. I wrote some of them. It wasn’t personal.
Longtime readers of this column know I’ve written numerous stories and columns about the Sheriff’s Office and, at times, Flowers. The news stories were always fair and objective. The columns reflected opinions that were based on my reporting and knowledge of the issue or situation.
Indeed, until this past summer, l enjoyed what I believed was a good, professional and even amicable working relationship with Flowers, with whom I often interacted during my first six years at this newspaper.
I’d call him. We’d talk. If he didn’t answer, I’d leave a message and he’d call back.
Most of the stories and columns I wrote pertaining to Flowers were, I’d venture to say, more positive in tone and topic – but only because that’s where my reporting took me.
Indeed, I was the first local columnist to suggest he someday would be our sheriff.
But I also was the only local columnist to question his involvement in former School Board member Tiffany Justice’s foolish and failed crusade to criminally pursue a school district employee who had posted inappropriate remarks on Twitter.
Even then, though, we continued to talk.
As recently as January, I wrote a column about the Sheriff’s Office being flooded with public records requests that appeared to be targeting Flowers in an attempt to derail his campaign.
Some readers thought the column was too sympathetic toward Flowers – so much so that a few wondered if he had asked me to be his PIO, which he hadn’t.
Then, just days before the August primary, I wrote a column saying that no candidate in any of the local races had benefited more than Flowers from the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
I wrote that his high-profile position as the Sheriff’s Office’s PIO gave him far more notoriety and visibility than his political opponents, who were hampered in campaigning during a pandemic that prevented candidates from making public appearances and interacting personally with voters.
I wrote that the pandemic allowed Flowers to run as the de facto incumbent without being forced to publicly defend the Sheriff’s Office’s policies and conduct under Loar, or explain what he would’ve done differently, even if it meant criticizing his boss.
Finally, I wrote that Deborah Cooney’s entrance into the race also helped Flowers, because it closed the Republican primary to nearly 65,000 Democrats and voters with no party affiliation, and he enjoyed strong support from the local Republican establishment.
As it played out, what I wrote proved to be true as Flowers easily won the primary and then trounced Cooney in November to win election as the county’s 11th sheriff.
But I haven’t spoken to him since.
I’ve called and left messages. He doesn’t call back. I’ve tried to communicate through intermediaries. He hasn’t responded. Last week, my email went unanswered.
And it’s not just me: Flowers hasn’t returned calls from anyone at this newspaper since the summer.
So before writing this column, I reached out to Loar last weekend, sending him a text message asking why his PIO won’t take or return our calls. He didn’t respond, either.
Clearly, there’s something going on, but I can’t tell you what it is – because Flowers won’t tell me. All I know is that this is no way for a new sheriff to start his administration.
He should know better.
You should demand better.