Hopes for a substantive debate between two candidates for St. Johns County sheriff appear to have been dashed following a dust-up at the last such event.
An argument between Sheriff David Shoar and a supporter for candidate Chris Strickland disrupted the July 16 debate at the Shrine Club, prompting Strickland to depart after just two questions.
The dispute started in the men’s restroom during the debate and spilled into a room filled with 150 residents who had gathered to hear from Strickland and St. Augustine Beach Police Chief Rob Hardwick.
Tensions between Shoar, who will retire after serving St. Johns County for the past 16 years, and Strickland supporters were already being tested before the encounter. According to Strickland volunteer and WFOY 102.1 radio host Tom Verri, Shoar used an expletive to refer to him.
After the brief dispute near the restroom, Strickland asked everyone to calm down and then put an end to the debate.
“Team Strickland, wrap it up and let’s go,” he said. “Team Strickland, y’all hear me? Wrap it up and let’s go. We’re not going to be part of this. Let’s go.”
Strickland said he approached Shoar in the parking lot and told him he needed to get help.
According to Strickland, Shoar responded with profanity.
Before Shoar was driven away, several online videos showed him rolling down his window and saying, “Put this on Facebook” as he extended his middle finger.
Hardwick remained at the Shrine Club and answered questions.
“If you don’t mind, since we’re going to go to the team thing here, Team Hardwick, please stay here so we can answer the questions that were brought forward by you,” he said.
Prior to the dispute that ended the debate, the candidates had a chance to address attendees.
Hardwick laid out his qualifications, including his extensive military service and the fact that the St. Augustine Beach Police Department attained accreditation under his watch, talked of his no-nonsense approach to law enforcement, his adamant stance in support of the Second Amendment, the need for transparency throughout the department, fiscal responsibility and improving the culture within the department.
“We’ll do a climate survey on Day 1 when I get there,” he said. “After six months we’ll do another climate survey. The morale will get better and better as we serve together and grow together.”
Hardwick said since revenue streams have been affected by COVID-19, he may have to reallocate funding within the department to stay under budget.
Strickland spoke of his credentials, which included roles as a sergeant, lieutenant and commander of the road and investigations with the St. Johns Sheriff’s Office. He also served as director of the Office of Sheriff before resigning from the agency after 27 years in 2016. There had been a contentious exchange of emails between Shoar and Strickland leading up to and following Strickland’s departure. Copies of the emails have been made public.
“We had some issues in the past, but I moved on,” Strickland said. “Evidentially, he did not.”
The continued animosity was evident at the debate.
“It was the most-bizarre behavior I’ve ever seen,” Strickland said. “I don’t know what’s going on in his life, but I wish him the best.”
Shoar called the incident “just politics.”
Nobody reported being assaulted or injured during the fracas and no charges were filed, according to the St. Augustine Police Department.
The St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office said it wasn’t officially involved in the debate. A spokesman also said there was no physical altercation.
Strickland said he will no longer debate Hardwick. The next round was scheduled for Thursday, July 23, at the Ponte Vedra Concert Hall.
“I’m not doing any more of these,” he said. “I’m not going to waste anybody’s time with that kind of foolishness. There’s not enough time for that. We’ll stick with meet-and-greets.”
Strickland and Hardwick, both Republicans, will meet in the Aug. 18 primary. The winner will face a write-in candidate in the general election on Nov. 3.