Q & A with the candidates

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Posted July 7, 2022 |

Editor’s Note: Leading up to the 2022 primary and general elections, we’ll be asking candidates to weigh in regularly on a question related to the office they seek. The candidates are given almost a week to respond to the questions in writing.  We ask that the candidates keep their answers under 250 words, and we do not edit them at all.

 

County court judicial candidates

How can a judge manage their dockets in such a way that it allows for efficiency yet accommodates justice when one rule doesn’t fit all?

Seat 1

LeAnn Barnes

A judge has to first make sure they know and understand how a county court docket runs. They should be familiar with the statutory rules and judicial administrative orders in place at the time to ensure that each party’s statutory and constitutional rights are protected. Above all a judge should follow the law.

A judge should have a case management order in place so that all are aware of their expectations but also be amendable to change when necessary and be mindful when granting a continuance, as this can this can slow dockets down, while considering the individual circumstances of each party.

A judge should be familiar with and use available resources including our alternative court services (Veteran’s Treatment Court, Mental Health Court, Dui Court and Drug Court) and the newly installed technology for hearings where appropriate and also have a working relationship with the clerk of courts and bailiffs and not be afraid to ask questions of their mentor judge and other judges, as it takes a lot of working parts to manage a docket.

I currently manage the second largest law firm in our county. I have handled multiple large criminal dockets and I have jury trial experience in county court and over the last 18 years, as a county court supervisor I’ve worked with 8 different county court judges. I have seen what is efficient, effective and just and can synthesize the best of all of these into one plan to efficiently manage a docket.

Danielle Ruse

Judges can manage their dockets in a way to ensure efficiency as well as fairness by making sure they come in to the courtroom prepared with a knowledge of the applicable law, rules of evidence, as well as a knowledge of the case in front of them.  By doing so, they can focus on the evidence and testimony in the hearing.  Also, they can manage the pace of the courtroom by respectfully, but firmly keeping all parties focused on the case at hand. 

Having a prepared, knowledgeable, and organized Judge will ensure that the Court will be ready to hear the facts of the case and not get redirected into any inadmissible facts, arguments, or evidence.  This paired with a Judge that is mindful of the time spent in the hearing would ensure a fair and efficient Court. 

 

 

 

Renee Thompson

Marion County citizens depend on their local judiciary to fairly and efficiently resolve cases, giving every case the proper attention. An effective case management system is the best tool available to judges for the quick and just resolution of their cases. Proper case management is especially important for civil cases, which can become extremely expensive and time consuming if the parties are not kept to a schedule. By contrast, criminal cases are kept moving by application of the speedy trial rule and the pressure to keep cases moving given the constant influx of new cases. Being a civil attorney for over twenty years in Marion County, I understand the complexities involved, and the need for effective case management. However, I also appreciate that every case is different, and every party should have a fair opportunity to be heard by the court and the merits of their claim given due consideration.  

For years, judges employed case management systems on an individual basis, issuing orders based upon personal preferences. However, the Florida Supreme Court recently promulgated strict civil case management orders statewide, requiring all judges take an active role in orchestrating the legal process, and the new system will hopefully improve judicial efficiency. Recent advances in technology have also improved access to the court for litigants and counsel. Remote proceedings, for example, on platforms like Zoom are now widespread and save on time and expense to the parties, who no longer travel to the courthouse to seek justice before a judge.

Seat 2

Lori Cotton

To ensure justice, a judge must be both efficient and responsive to the rights and needs of individuals. As your judge, it is my responsibility to make sure you have access to the courts. 

Here is what I do to balance efficiency and justice:

1. I take an active role in case management, and I set clear expectations for the parties. 

2. I hold attorneys and litigants to a reasonable timeline. 

3. I listen to attorneys and litigants when they ask for more time, and I grant those motions when the request is appropriate. 

4. I lay eyes on every case every month – I file orders that need to be filed and I set hearings that need to be set. 

5. Every case gets a next hearing date. 

6. Nothing sits on my desk for more than 24 hours. 

7. There is no “backlog” of cases on my docket. 

8. I leave 8-9 a.m. open on most days so I can hear certain cases: unlawful detainers, garnishments, or animal fitness hearings – things that need a hearing quickly. I will take this same approach with the evictions cases assigned to me starting this month – setting aside time to hear those cases expeditiously. 

The proof of my effective case management and hard work is in the numbers. On June 10, 2021, I had 1670 cases. As of June 10, 2022, that number was 1009 cases. I promise you no one will work harder for you than I do.

William Harris

I believe my experiences working in private practice and in the public sector give me a unique perspective to answer this question.  I have litigated thousands of cases in courts throughout Central Florida and every case deserves individual consideration.  Simply stated, no case is exactly the same.  

In my nearly twenty (20) years of representing clients in federal and state courts, in civil and criminal matters, I would ALWAYS listen to what someone had to say about their specific case or situation.  An unlikely or improbable scenario does not mean it is not true. Everyone has a constitutional right to be heard which I will not tread upon.  As a prosecuting attorney, I carefully weighed evidence of guilt and innocence and sought to make fair decisions that ensured that justice ultimately prevailed and victims received restitution for any losses sustained.  

Courtroom efficiency must not outweigh justice.  While laudable, resolving cases for that sake alone cannot be done at the expense of our Constitution which only lead to unnecessary and costly appeals.  I believe setting firm but realistic expectations for attorneys to prepare for court, communicate with their clients, and stipulate with opposing counsel on matters, when possible, significantly reduces wasted court time. Unresolved matters can then be set for hearing or trial and a fair balance of efficiency and justice can be achieved.

This approach has served me well and, as County Court Judge, I trust positive outcomes for the citizens of Marion County that find themselves in court and the taxpayers that are responsible for funding its operation will be obtained.

 

School board candidates

What are some of the largest challenges facing Marion County schools and how do you plan to initially contribute to solutions?

District 2

Lori Conrad

As we continue to recover from the learning gap that has been intensified by Covid, a key point we need to focus on to improve our student learning gains is in the area of student attendance. Students must be present to learn and master the Florida State 

Standards that are being taught each and every school day. These standards and skills are being taught in every grade level in a rigorous cycle that builds throughout a student’s academic career. Students that miss 25, 35, and 45+ days of school each year will continue to lose ground in their educational journey. This holds true for student tardiness too.  Children that arrive late each school day and continue to miss core subject matter, such as reading, writing and math will also continue to struggle in their academics. The 2021-2022 student code of conduct states that each student enrolled in

Marion County Public Schools is expected to attend school every day and be punctual. Florida law states that each parent is responsible for their child’s regular school attendance, 1003. 24.

Looking ahead to the 2022-2023 school year it is imperative that we explicitly communicate these requirements with students and their families. As a county, we must take a no-nonsense approach, being steadfast in following through with appropriate consequences that help students take an active role in the learning process.

Joseph Suranni

Some of the challenges facing our schools are:

1. A shortage of qualified teachers in classrooms

2. A shortage of bus drivers to get children to school

3. Parent involvement-especially at the elementary level

In order to solve the labor shortage, we need to attract teachers to the profession. This is not always done with financial compensation (although this would entice more to stay in the field). 

When I entered teaching, it was a position of prestige, and we were thought of a pillars of the community. Now, with a decline in performance, teachers do not receive the accolades and honors they once enjoyed. Teachers need to feel valued.

 Not only do we need to attract teachers, but we also need to retain them. To solve the retention issue, I would research what other neighboring counties are doing successfully to retain highly qualified teachers and, with the help of fellow board members, and the superintendent’s staff, attempt to implement something similar to what they are already doing well.

A bus driver shortage is problem that is not unique to Marion County. Neighboring counties are also experiencing labor shortages in this area. Make no mistake, driving a bus is a hard job, and we must continue to search for individuals who have been called to this occupation. We must also support bus drivers with quality discipline and positive reinforcements through our District-Wide Positive Behavior Support programs. 

In addition to the necessity of filling vacancies, we must fill the vacancy of parent involvement. Parents are our biggest asset, and we must invite them to be part of their child’s educational career.  We must provide parents resources to not only be their child’s first teacher, but to help them be their lifelong teacher. Students have to see that there is a partnership between parents, teachers and school staff in order to take their stake in the outcome. 

If we use these three items as a starting point, we will get on track to higher achievement and rising ranking among school districts in our state. We need to get students transported to school where they can have a highly qualified teacher everyday. We need to revitalize the teaching profession in Marion County. We must continue to provide teachers with tools, resources, professional development, growth opportunities and support for future success to be realized.

District 3

Steven Swett

The lack of effective, proactive, visionary leadership coupled with inefficient oversight and poor stewardship has exacerbated many of the problems the district has. My goal is to be a member of a school board that acts as a problem-solving team.  A school board that addresses the issues and does not kick the can down the road. Accountability and results are mandatory.

Measured academic improvement must be achieved and good governance can support our education staff in this vital task. The hiring and retention of all employees needs to be addressed.  All school employees need to be valued, respected and empowered to do their respective jobs. We must recruit and retain educators. Academic improvement will not be achieved without a foundation of professional, experienced and competent teachers. Teachers are the engine that drive success.  This problem must be addressed immediately.

The lack of planning and lack of preparation for growth the county is experiencing is unacceptable. The historic lack of meetings, communication and cooperation between the school board and the other county agencies is inexcusable. This issue requires immediate attention.

Parents must trust the school district that the schools are safe and parental rights are respected.  Parents need to be confident that the school district is there to educate not indoctrinate Earning trust and honest communication to the community is vital.

Challenges are also opportunities.  Leadership, effective oversight, accountability and transparency will guide the district to needed improvement. It will take teamwork, good governance, commitment and hard work by the entire school district to improve our schools. The present performance is unacceptable.  I have faith that Marion County School District can rise and meet the challenge with the proper leadership…  

Eric Cummings who is also running for District 3 did not respond to Ocala Gazette’s invitation to answer candidate questions.

District 5

Dr. Sarah James

We have several challenges facing our School Board.  First, recruiting and retaining quality personnel is paramount.  We have lost about 25% of our staff in last few years and due to retirement could lose another 25% soon.  We have vacancies throughout the district which impacts every student. We must competitively recruit great staff and build a culture that ensures we retain our staff, not just for today, but as we continue to grow as well.  

Our second biggest challenge is preparing for growth.  We have been hesitant on handling our growth pains, but the time is now.  We have four streams of revenue to use to tackle these growth pains, but without a proper plan, the money is wasted.  We can prepare to not only relieve some short-term pains, plan for the mid-term future, and look forward to future growth.  We can add portables to campuses to address concerns for this August, prepare to build singular buildings, aka “wings”, on some currently at capacity campuses, and budget to build a new school site if needed.  I believe in finding solutions that not only address the concerns for today but those of the next twenty to thirty years of growth. 

Finally, we have over thirty percent of our graduates each year that go straight into the workforce.  I plan to expand our vocational opportunities and better prepare out students for our workforce right here in Marion County.  I plan to create a system that allows students to go into the job fields of our community right now that have a desperate need for hiring and not only learn their technical skills but also those that are needed to be an effective employee. These fields can include hospitality, construction, and other trades.

As your Educated, Experienced, and Engaged candidate, I have solutions to address the problems we are facing. 

Taylor Smith

I believe one of the first challenges will be in addressing the tremendous growth that is occurring especially in the South West area of Marion County.  With growth, also comes the issue of unfilled vacancies within all levels of school staffing, to include teachers, bus drivers, para-professions etc., which is also a top priority.  

School board in the past has neglected to plan properly for the growth that is here.  Portables can be added, but that is not a long term solution.  Re-districting is a short term solution, but parent’s don’t want their children spending hours on the bus.  If elected, I would like to see more collaborative efforts with local government to find long term solutions.  I advocate for long term solutions, not reactive band-aides.  I believe that communication and cooperation with parents, citizens, businesses, community  and MCPS have the tools necessary to move this project forward for long term solutions.  Not every school will require the same solutions.  It will take an individualized action plan for each school based on it’s needs.  In a collaborative effort, with all parties involved, we will look at things like infrastructure, demographics, location, classroom enrollment, staggered scheduling and seek solutions so that each student will receive a quality education.

As a graduate of MCPS, I believe I can offer a fresh perspective with positive change.  I am pragmatic and results oriented, and will apply these principles to this root cause analysis.  I will represent the students, parents and community where I was raised to ensure these issues are addressed.