Community town hall meeting is a success

OKEECHOBEE — Sheriff Noel E. Stephen, Police Chief Bob Peterson, Okeechobee County Commission Chairman Terry Burroughs and Mayor Dowling Watford hosted a town hall meeting in Douglas Brown Park at the community center Wednesday night. Their goal was to “foster a welcoming atmosphere for anyone to come and speak about their concerns, experiences, and even compliments with the sheriff’s office and the other entities,” according to the invitation posted on the sheriff’s Facebook page. Sheriff Stephen said the plan is to hold the town hall meetings regularly so they can have more transparency and accountability, because they all take that very seriously.

There were several constitutional officers in attendance at the meeting, including all of the county commissioners, property appraiser Micki Bandi and school board member Joe Arnold. There were several pastors from the community at the meeting as well.
Mayor Watford got the first laugh of the night when he said,”Let me just tell you that government is not perfect.” He went on to add, “But neither are we. I don’t think anybody in this room would stand up and say, ‘Hey. I’m perfect.’ So, we do the best we can, and we make the best decisions we can based on the information we are given. Government cannot solve every single problem.”

The meeting began at 6 p.m. and was attended by about 50 people. Questions and comments were emailed in in advance or asked live. At first, the attendees seemed hesitant to begin, so to loosen them up, Sheriff Stephen read a question he had received over the internet. Soon people in the audience were comfortable enough to begin asking questions of their own. The questions ranged from the cost of sidewalks to when a new high school might be built. They discussed issues with water drainage, sidewalks, upgrades to the recreation center in Douglas Park, widening highways and traffic signals.

Mayor Watford said one of the questions he gets a lot is about the WaWa. Everyone wants to know what the legal issues are with WaWa. WaWa is planning to go behind Walgreens in the center of town, he explained. They cleared the land and then it seemed to stop.”There are no issues as far as the city is concerned, no issues with permits, no issues as far as the city is concerned.” He went on to say the issue is a corporate issue with WaWa. He does not know what it is. It is a business decision involving several rural communities and all have been delayed. “They are still coming. They assure us they are still coming.”

A question was asked about free testing for COVID-19. Tony Delagall said, “Some people went down to Walmart and the sticker price did not reflect Walmart’s normal prices!” He wanted to know why communities around the lake had more access to free testing than Okeechobee does. Commissioner Terry Burroughs said he has been working on getting free testing here. “We’ve had some sporadic testing here,”he said, “a couple hours last Saturday at the health department. We brought in a mobile lab from the state, and they tested about 509 people on one day a couple Fridays ago.” He went on to say they are trying to get more testing to come in. He believes they are getting more testing around the lake because they are Palm Beach County and he feels urban counties are getting more attention in general. They are putting pressure on emergency management and Governor Ron Desantis to get more testing to rural areas. There will be free testing on June 27 at the New St. Stephens A.M.E. Church from 10 a.m. until noon. The address is 1050 N.E. 16th Avenue. This testing will be done whether or not you have symptoms. The testing is partially funded by the Delagall Foundation.

Chief Peterson said he was asked by two different people about vagrants within the city limits, particularly in the main parks. The questions were about a specific individual who has been in town for a month or so. “The problem,” he said, “is that they can’t just go tell him to leave, because he has as much right as anyone else to be there sitting in a public place. What he does not have the right to do is to be vulgar, beg for money, those sorts of things.” His officers are aware of the situation and are keeping an eye on it.

The sheriff and police chief were asked if their officers have undergone any additional training in the wake of incidents in Minnesota and Atlanta.
Sheriff Stephen said, “As we learn from the incidents that occur, we modify our training to accompany and deal with those kinds of things. The choke hold is not in our policy as a primary go to in regular subduing. What we saw in that video was grossly illegal, murder, and it was dealt with. It was definitely nothing that happens here.” He went on to say that he felt the peaceful protest held here afterward drawing attention to the fact that change needs to happen was absolutely phenomenal and necessary. “I just feel we need to stay together united and work together.” He believes the young people who are protesting need to be taught how to implement the change by getting into local, county, state and federal government “so they can change the people who have been up there for 40 years.”

Chief Peterson said the city’s policy does not allow choke holds and hasn’t for about 10 years. They also do not do “no-knock” warrants. That policy went into place long before any of this happened, he said. “As far as training, the approach we take, we just had a meeting the other day. We can call all the officers in and do a two or three or four hour training block, and hope that works, but a better approach is to rely on your supervisors to make sure they are having meetings with the officers, because they can do that every single day and make sure they understand what they are supposed to be doing, how they are supposed to be treating people, how they are supposed to act. That is something you can actually do every day, in our case for 12 hours a day.”

The sheriff was asked about using body cams and said he did not use them at this time. His concern is retention, he said. “How am I going to give the information out?” He said there is legislation in Tallahassee right now, and he is waiting for that to be finalized. There is a cost associated with all of it. The cameras themselves are not too expensive, but it’s the other end of it that concerns him. He has three people now to do records. He believes it almost needs to be an IT person to take the video footage, fuzz out the people who shouldn’t be on there, cut it out and give the people what they need, he said.

Another town hall meeting is scheduled for Friday night at the Civic Center. 1701 U.S. 98 North at 6:30 p.m. If you have any questions, you can ask them there. The meeting will also be broadcast live on the sheriff’s Facebook page.

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