Sheriff Paul Blackman and Avon Park Councilwoman Maria Sutherland

Sheriff Paul Blackman and Avon Park Councilwoman Maria Sutherland converse outside the Avon Park City Council Chambers after discussion during the City Council meeting about the Highlands County Sheriff’s Office.

AVON PARK — Miscommunication and misunderstandings came to a head at Monday’s Avon Park City Council meeting where Sheriff Paul Blackman offered to end his department’s agreement for law enforcement coverage with the City of Avon Park.

A series of events, including talk about Avon Park starting a police department again, led Blackman and his administrative team to attend Monday’s City Council meeting.

Councilwoman Maria Sutherland said she has received phone calls from citizens who wanted more law enforcement coverage.

“Since the last administration we haven’t really had any sheriff’s reports of any kind,” she said. “I think we need to start up with that again so we know what is going on with our current law enforcement concerns, if there are concerns.”

Sutherland told Blackman she had tried to reach him.

Now that she knows that a report is coming soon she is OK, Sutherland said.

Deputy Mayor Jim Barnard said some citizens believe there is a lack of service or slow service on non-emergency situations like barking dogs and noise complaints.

Blackman said noise and barking dogs are city ordinance issues and his department has attempted to address that several times over the past two years by trying to get copies of the city’s citations to the deputies. But, his department has had no results with the city.

“We have to have your citations so that our deputies can issue them,” he said.

Mayor Garrett Anderson asked City Manager David Flowers to set up a meeting with the Sheriff’s Office to resolve the issues.

Blackman said on his way to work Monday he heard on the radio about the council’s agenda including concerns about the Sheriff’s Office.

Hearing it on the radio, and not getting a call from city staff about the issue, rubbed him the wrong way, he said.

City Manager David Flowers apologized, saying that he was busy putting so much on the agenda it had slipped his mind.

Blackman said he received a call from a citizen who said the City Council was thinking about starting an eight-man police department for less than what the Sheriff’s Office charges, which is $1.3 million.

Blackman said he received an email from Lake Placid Police Chief James Fansler in which Fansler said Sutherland met with him to talk about starting a police department.

“I think that is unprofessional and you should have reached out to me,” he said. He said he would have preferred direct communication to inform him of concerns so he had an opportunity to reply.

Blackman provided an extensive overview of the services the Sheriff’s Office provides to the City of Avon Park and he noted that the two department service zones for the city are busy and accounted for 25% (23,125) of the calls for service in the county in 2018.

Deputies are being pulled from the unincorporated areas to answer calls in the city, but his department does not let the deputies covering Avon Park go outside the city unless it is an emergency situation.

The City of Avon Park continues to grow and under the previous city managers, Blackman said he has attempted to grow the Sheriff’s Office services to the city, but he has been told there is no money.

“I am prepared and I have written up a [termination-of-agreement] letter,” Blackman said. Under the contract with the city there has to be a 365-day notice to terminate the agreement. Blackman offered to sign the letter and turn it over to Flowers.

“It seems like there is some drama,” he said. “I have been the sheriff here since 2017, but I have worked at the Sheriff’s Office for 27 years and drama seems to follow the Avon Park City Council around.

“I will not let my organization be a part of that, so we will separate our ways and go,” Blackman said.

Sutherland said if there was any consideration of starting a police department she would want the voters to make that decision.

Mayor Garrett Anderson said he had no idea any of this was going on.

He told Blackman there had been no formal conversation by the City Council about starting a police department or ending its agreement with the Sheriff’s Office.

Councilwoman Brenda Gray said she is very satisfied with the Sheriff’s Office.

Blackman said research has shown a population of 40,000 to 50,000 is needed to make it cost effective to have its own police department, but Avon Park is a long way from that.

Barnard said according to the contract he believes the Sheriff’s Office is supposed to provide a quarterly report. Blackman said he is supposed to meet with the city manager.

Barnard said that is a great idea, but it would be good to come before the City Council for the citizens to hear the reports.


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