OKALOOSA ISLAND — At a town hall forum Thursday at the Fort Walton Elks Lodge, challengers for county office positions lamented, not for the first time, that their incumbent opponents had failed to show up to participate.
When asked specifically how many debate opportunities Okaloosa County School Board members Lamar White, Diane Kelley and Linda Evanchyk had skipped out on, Cara Marion, who is running against Kelley, counted six.
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That total includes four forums like Thursday's — each set up by one of the challengers — and two events put on by local Republican clubs, with the latest being one sponsored by the Crestview-based Shoal River Republican Club that was to have been July 26.
Carey Sue Beasley, who is running for county commissioner against Matt Turpin and incumbent Carolyn Ketchel, told forum attendees she had received a call informing her the Shoal River event had been canceled because incumbents declined to attend.
"The Shoal River has some kind of water in it that won't let incumbents come north of it," quipped Evanchyk opponent Darrel Barnhill, who lives north of the river in Baker.
White, the incumbent opposed by Jerry Buckman, said that he will have attended "seven or eight" forums by the time the Aug. 23 election rolls around. He has skipped the town halls hosted by his and his fellow office holders' opponents for obvious reasons, he said.
"Why would you go to a campaign event that's paid for by your opponent?" asked White. "In my mind there are all kind of issues with attending your opponent's event."
The opposition candidates countered by saying they've attended forums at which the event moderator is a contributor to at least one of the incumbents.
Evanchyk said she has chosen to attend forums more stringently structured than the town halls. And she hinted there might be other, underlying, reasons the incumbents are staying away. One of which could be the contentiousness that has invaded the School Board races.
"These town halls tend to be very open and unrestricted, where anybody can say anything," Evanchyk said. "I have seen the tension. The open mic thing might just lead to more tension. I'm not saying it would, but it could, and that's why I choose not to participate."
School Board races in Okaloosa County have traditionally been button-down affairs, and as such have received little notice and garnered few headlines. But this year's forums have gotten rowdy, with shouting matches between candidates and opponents' family members rumored to have occurred at at least one.
The campaign angst has also spilled over into the School Board meeting room, and a television "set the record straight" moment has resulted in a law enforcement investigation.
A unique feature of this School Board race is that the challengers — Buckman, Marion and Barnhill — are receiving substantial financial support from a single source: the YES For Okaloosa County Schools political action committee funded by Pat Ryan.
One woman at Thursday's forum at the Elks Lodge, the administrator of a Facebook page called Okaloosa Political Circus, had calculated Ryan has spent about $360,000 on an anti-incumbent "Elect New School Board Members" campaign.
Buckman, Marion and Barnhill insist that while they respect Ryan and don't mind his message, he does not directly support their candidacies and has not contributed to their campaigns.
"My opinion is Pat Ryan is a great American and can spend his money any way he wants to," Buckman said. "When I drive around and see another billboard, I say 'great.' "
The incumbents, not surprisingly, hold a much dimmer view of Ryan, who also opposed a sales tax to fund school improvement projects.
Perhaps because they're not seeing their opponents as often as they'd like, candidates Marion and Buckman have brought campaign issues to School Board meetings, and addressed those issues during the portion of the meetings set aside for public comment.
Buckman had posted a photo of a tattered American Flag on his campaign website and said he had visited more than one Okaloosa County school where such flags were flying. He spoke on his campaign Facebook page of confronting school administrators about the issue and opined that the disrespect being shown the flag is symptomatic of problems the School District — and America — are experiencing today.
When he attended a School Board meeting and addressed members about his flag encounters, White — who had seen the Facebook post — was ready for him. He lectured Buckman for several minutes about the proper procedures for reporting issues within the School District — by going to the district superintendent.
White called upon Superintendent Marcus Chambers and School Board Attorney Jeff McInnis to bolster his comments. By the time the encounter had ended, Buckman — who insisted he was speaking not as candidate Jerry Buckman, but as "citizen" Jerry Buckman — objected to White's "turning this into a campaign moment."
Marion brought her husband and children to a board meeting and used her speaking time to lambast the board and the district for allowing her opponent, Kelley, to obtain a copy of an unredacted investigative report compiled after Marion lodged a complaint claiming a Niceville High School teacher had allowed her daughter to view an R-rated "obscene" film.
Kelley would later hold the report bearing the name of Marion's daughter briefly in front of a television camera when defending the School District's handling of the movie incident. She also texted the contents of the report to Crestview Community Television producer Ken Nielsen.
"It was determined that the excerpts of documents sent to CCTV contained personally identifiable student information," an email sent to the Northwest Florida Daily News said.
Marion filed a complaint against Kelley with the Okaloosa County Sheriff's Office and Chambers issued her an apology for what had occurred. On Thursday, the Sheriff's Office had shared Marion's complaint with the State Attorney's Office and confirmed that an investigation had been launched.
Marion said Friday the Sheriff's Office had notified her it had completed its end of the investigation.
On Thursday, the candidates at the Elks Lodge forum were asked to assess the rancor of this year's School Board campaign.
Buckman said for him this School Board run is for the children, and he's not worried if he rubs "status quo politicians" the wrong way.
"The reason we're running is to make some real change," he said. "I want to hold people accountable. I want people to follow the rules. Right now we're in a situation where they're not doing that."
In response, White said he felt he has run a positive campaign.
"To me, I think discussion of issues and things regarding policies and actions or inactions are appropriate," he said. "Personal attacks are not appropriate."
Marion — whose campaign Facebook page tells viewers "you're being lied to, manipulated and deceived by the incumbent" Kelley — on Thursday somewhat echoed Buckman's sentiments.
"They are not accountable, and we want to hold them accountable," she said. "When we're picking up rocks and showing people what's going on, we're getting attacked for doing so."
Marion also spoke of what she feels are attacks launched by Kelley on her child.
"When a politician does something like that, it's not my nature to sit back," she said.
Kelley did not return a phone call seeking comment.
Ahead of the forum, Evanchyk expressed gratitude that her race against Barnhill had for the most part remained above board.
"With my opponent and I everything has been civil; we've had no real discord. We answer the questions. There have been disagreements, such as when he claims I've raised taxes and I say 'no, I haven't.' We've not said anything to downgrade one another."
That evening though, Barnhill charged Evanchyk was using her supporters to attack him.
"My opponent let loose some unbelievable things about me," he said.
"I don't know why (the incumbents) want to get down and dirty," Barnhill said, "unless they're scared for their jobs."
This article originally appeared on Northwest Florida Daily News: Okaloosa School Board incumbents skip political forum; details on race