Loar finds his voice on County Commission

PHOTO BY JOSHUA KODIS

County Commissioner Deryl Loar said he has heard the growing rumors that he’s weighing a 2024 run for sheriff – the position he held for 12 years before retiring from law enforcement in early 2021.

“People ask me every day, and a lot of them say they want me to run,” Loar said during a phone interview last week. “I’ve even heard from a few people at the Sheriff’s Office, and that’s flattering.

“But unless something catastrophic happens, I don’t see it,” he added. “I enjoy what I’m doing now.”

As of Monday afternoon, only two candidates had filed to run – Fellsmere Police Chief Keith Touchberry and 2020 candidate Deborah Cooney, who lost to Loar’s hand-picked successor, Eric Flowers.

Flowers, though, has struggled noticeably in his first term as sheriff, particularly in his second year, when his extramarital affair was publicly exposed, his deputies were involved in two controversial shootings, and he inexplicably told a TV reporter where the agency’s school resource officers store their AR-15 rifles.

“That’s not how I trained him,” Loar said, expressing some disappointment with Flowers, who announced last year in a news report that he planned to seek re-election but hasn’t yet filed the required paperwork.

As for Loar, 55, he spent his first two months as a County Commissioner learning on the job, meeting with department heads and staffers, and limiting his remarks from the dais.

He said he was determined to do the homework necessary to become well-versed on the topics being discussed, so that he would earn the respect of the other four commissioners and ensure that his words carried weight.

“Yeah, I was holding back a bit,” he admitted.

But over the past few weeks, as Loar continues his transition from heading a 500-employee law-enforcement agency to being one of five members of a board, he has been more forceful and outspoken.

He appears to be more confident and comfortable interacting with the other commissioners during meetings. He doesn’t hesitate to ask questions and challenge opposing positions. He seems to have found his voice.

“And it’s going to get stronger,” he said.

As a three-term sheriff, Loar annually would present his proposed budget to the commissioners, who some years forced him to defend his spending plan. The process was, at times, contentious.

That was the backdrop to his arrival on the dais in November, after he defeated funeral-home owner Tom Lowther and political newcomer Joann Binford for the District 4 commission seat vacated by the retirement of Peter O’Bryan.

“I don’t want to say they were intimidated,” Loar said, “but I think they were curious, because they knew me only as the sheriff.”

Through his first three months, Loar has often sided with five-term commissioner Joe Flescher on issues – they recently cast the only votes against the county’s new 30-year franchise agreement that continues Vero Beach’s water and sewer service to the southern tier of the barrier island – and the two men seem to have developed a bond.

Loar said he and Flescher, who was a police officer in New York and a deputy here, share perspectives on some matters.

“I’ve grown to like the guy,” Loar said. “He’s not only knowledgeable, but he’s a funny guy to be around. And because we both come from law-enforcement backgrounds, we think alike on some things.”

It’s only a matter of time, though, before Loar steps out of Flescher’s shadow and leaves his imprint on the commission, where currently Joe Earman serves as chair and Susan Adams as vice chair.

“I’m going to emerge as a leader,” Loar said. “It can be difficult when you’re just one of five up there – and I can count to three – but I’ve always been a leader. My mannerisms, my voice, how I carry myself … It’s who I am.

“As we go forward, you’re going to see me being more vocal, bringing up issues I believe we need to address.”

Those issues include expansion of the county’s urban services area, affordable housing, water and sewer services, recruiting and retaining staffers, and the ongoing search for a new county administrator.

Unlike his years as sheriff, however, Florida’s government-in-the-sunshine law prohibits Loar from walking into another commissioner’s office to discuss county business.

“When you’re the sheriff, it’s completely different,” Loar said. “You just call somebody into your office and tell them what you want to do. As a commissioner, you can talk with the other commissioners only when they’re brought up on the dais at meetings.

“I understand why we have the law, but it does make it tougher to get things done.”

Does that mean he misses being sheriff?

“No, sir,” Loar said. “I certainly don’t miss getting those calls in the middle of the night. And I think my blood pressure has gone down a bit.

“Being a commissioner is a unique job, because you’ve got to work together to get anything done,” he added. “It’s also a fun job, because every day is different and you get to help people who come to you with problems.

“I really enjoy it.”

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