3 vie for county’s top law enforcement rank

Subhead

Osceola County Sheriff

  • Russ Gibson
    Russ Gibson
  • Mike Fisher
    Mike Fisher
  • Marcos Lopez
    Marcos Lopez
Body

Election 2020

Three Democrat candidates are eyeing the role of Osceola County Sheriff this year as incumbent Russell Gibson seeks re-election against two opponents, Mike Fisher and Marcos Lopez.

The race is already proving competitive and expensive, with Fisher reporting $86,371 in campaign donations as of Jan. 10. Gibson ran close behind at $75,765 and Lopez closed third with $14,632, according to the Osceola County Supervisor of Elections Office.

All three candidates come from law enforcement backgrounds. Fisher and Gibson both boast lengthy and decorated careers in criminal justice, with roughly 30 years of service each.

Lopez worked for about 16 years at the Osceola County Sheriff’s Office, along with more than two decades of military service.

If the candidate pool stays the same, the race would be decided in the August primary, because all three are Democrats.

Here are the candidates:

Four years ago, the current sheriff beat out a packed pool of seven other candidates during the primaries. Gibson later went on to win the General Election against his Republican opponent, Dave Sklarek.

During his term, Gibson voiced staunch opposition against arming teachers in schools following the Feb. 14, 2018 mass shooting in Parkland, Florida.

“I’m dead set against it,” Gibson said at a March 5, 2018 County Commission meeting. “Arming teachers is the wrong thing to do.”

Instead, he favored School Resource Officers, or SROs, armed Osceola County sheriff’s deputies assigned to protect students and faculty.

But adding personnel in order to comply with a state mandate - called the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Safety Act - proved costly for the agency and school district. The estimated cost to hire 35 new SROs totaled more than $1.5 million for the 2018-19 school year.

During his first term, Gibson pushed to create a new command center along the West U.S. Highway 192 corridor. He also worked to improve community outreach efforts.

Recently, the Osceola County Sheriff’s Office Internet Crimes Against Children Unit conducted Operation Hindsight 2020.

The sting was conducted in order to target online offenders who utilize Internet and technology in order to participate in sexual activity with individuals whom they believe to be minors.

In all, 15 suspects were arrested during the operation, 7 from Osceola County.

But the sheriff’s leadership has come under fire from his critics.

On Jan. 17, Orange-Osceola State Attorney Aramis Ayala accused Gibson and his office of mishandling the murder investigation of St. Cloud mother Nicole Montalvo.

Ayala, who isn’t seeking re-election this year as the highest prosecutor in the Ninth Court, claims Gibson made “conclusions that are in direct conflict with the evidence” and “offered facts that simply aren’t true” while overseeing the Montalvo case.

But Gibson countered, and sought help from Attorney General Ashley Moody, saying, “From the beginning, our goal is to bring justice to Nicole Montalvo, her family and the citizens of Osceola County. After it became apparent that the State Attorney’s Office was not interested in pursuing homicide charges, my office began exploring ways to get a second opinion. I would like to personally thank Attorney General Moody and her staff for showing commitment to the pursuit of justice by taking the time to review this case. After watching the press conference by State Attorney Ayala this morning, I believe that justice can only be achieved in this case if it is given to the Office of Statewide Prosecution.”

Also, major internal agency issues were revealed last year in a University of Central Florida study commissioned by the Sheriff’s Office. Low employee morale, chronic personnel shortages, trouble with retention and high turn-over rates were cited by researchers as areas in need of improvement.

Gibson was unavailable for comment before deadline Friday.

Mike Fisher

Experience is the bedrock of Mike Fisher’s platform. He said nearly 30 years with the same agency gives him an edge over his opponents.

“This department has been my life,” he said. “I know it inside and out.”

Fisher also thinks Gibson lacks the management experience and professional leadership needed to improve operations.

That’s why Fisher said his first priority if elected is creating a strategic longterm plan, or roadmap, for the agency’s future.

“We need to know how we’re going to grow internally and where we’re going to spend money,” Fisher said. “Right now, there is no strategic plan in place.”

Fisher retired from the Sheriff’s Office as a captain in 2016 – the same year Gibson was elected. He now manages the security investigations department at Universal Studios.

Fisher launched his campaign early last year and came out with a strong online presence.

He raised over half of his total donations within two months of filing, seeded by a $25,000 contribution Fisher made to himself.

Fisher said the duty to serve is a family affair. At least 10 of his relatives work in the criminal justice system, including his two sons who are both employed by the Osceola County Sheriff’s Office.

According to Florida statute 112.3135, a public official with supervisory responsibility “may not appoint, employ, promote, advance, or advocate for appointment, employment, promotion, or advancement” of a relative who reports to them.

The Florida Sheriff’s Association also complies with this nepotism standard.

But because Fisher’s sons were employed at the Sheriff’s Office prior to the 2020 election, he said they would not be forced to quit if their father wins.

However, Fisher’s sons cannot be promoted through the ranks or given any raises not granted to other employees.

“They are willing to put their own careers on hold for me if I win,” Fisher said.

Marcos Lopez

This isn’t Marcos Lopez’s first time vying for Osceola County sheriff – he ran unsuccessfully against Gibson in 2016, following the retirement of three-term Sheriff Bob Hansel. Lopez ran under no party affiliation in 2016, but switched to the Democrat ticket for 2020.

Lopez went on to sue Gibson in 2017 after he was demoted.

But the suit was ultimately dismissed after a judge determined Gibson did not make the final decision regarding Lopez’s demotion.

Controversy heated up again last year after Lopez was fired a day after filing to run against his boss, Gibson.

Florida law states that a law enforcement officer who runs against an incumbent must resign effective upon qualifying for the ballot.

Before he was fired, Lopez served about 16 years with the Sheriff ’s Office.

Lopez has less experience in law enforcement than his two opponents, but said he sees his shorter career as a strength, not a weakness.

“This isn’t the only thing I’ve ever done in my life,” says Lopez, who served 22 years in the U.S. Navy. “Russ and Mike started their careers back in the 80s. Times have changed.”

Lopez said he wants to strengthen cyber security and policing technology at the Sheriff ’s Office.

While the former deputy admits that utilizing devices such as drones and intelligence units to monitor and police citizens can sound like an invasion of privacy, he insists it will help curb crime in Osceola.

“It’s really going to help us apprehend sexual predators, criminal behavior, and things like credit card fraud,” Lopez said.

All the candidates have said they want to increase the number of bilingual deputies at the agency and improve outreach and services in Osceola’s growing Hispanic communities.

Lopez has raised significantly less money than Fisher and Gibson, but said he thinks grassroots campaigning will help him cinch the election.

“I don’t worry about money,” Lopez says. “I want to go out and talk to people face to face.”