DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Newly-elected Volusia County Sheriff Mike Chitwood has completely trampled on the First Amendment rights of Headline Surfer by excluding the internet news outlet from press conferences, removing it from the VCSO media email distribution list and being unresponsive as to why the online news provider was being singled out without justification.
Reason No. 1. is clear cut: Chitwood is afraid of us -- of our ability to report the hell out of the news, especially now that he's pushing his agenda against the establishment in county government, no matter who he has to step on to get what he wants, even County Manager Jim Dinneen.
We have demonstrated over the past eight years, that when Chitwood was Daytona's chief of police and doing everything he could to hurt us, that our resolve to pursue our brand of award-winning journalism never wavered.
Here are other key reasons behind Chitwood's blatant abuse of his office:
• Chitwood wants to marginalize us from the onset by weakening our coverage and thus hurting our credibility, especially as he wants no adverse coverage in his aggressive political talk, challenging the county administration, which controls his funding to a large extent, thanks to the county charter.
• Chitwood has shown how vindictive and petty he can be as he doesn't handle criticism well, especially if its coming from media.
• Chitwood is intimately aware he can't control our internet-based news outlet. The same can't be said for the mainstream media outlets: print newspapers, TV news and radio.
• Chitwood has held a personal grudge against Headline Surfer dating back five years when he was chief of police in Daytona when our special investigative report showed he promoted a patrol supervisor to captain, despite alleged harassment of lesbian cops under his command going back a decade. Chitwood was livid when our in-depth coverage resulted in not one, but two journalism awards.
The bottom line is Chitwood was elected by the citizens in 2016, to serve and protect. Not engage in an organized scheme to hinder Headline Surfer's news gathering efforts by enlisting his handsomely-paid public information staffers in hindering and obstructing us from reporting news on a level playing field with our competitors.
The bottom line is Volusia County Sheriff Michael J. Chitwood was elected by the citizens in 2016, to serve and protect. Not engage in an organized scheme to hinder Headline Surfer's news gathering efforts by enlisting his handsomely-paid public information staffers (senior PIO Gary Davidson who is paid $101,000, and Assistant PIO Andrew Gant, who earns $49,000) in hindering and obstructing us from reporting news on a level playing field with our competitors.
Within his first four days in office, the following unprecedented steps have been undertaken with the intent to freeze us out:
• Headline Surfer was sent an email alerting us to Chitwood's swearing-in ceremony, which included attending his very first press conference. That was set up days before Chitwood took office. We covered the swearing-in, but when it came to the press conference, we were denied entry; no explanation given.
It was during that press conference that Chitwood provided major news developments in a case involving Ormond Beach parents founded dead on the side of the SUV on Interstate 4 with their three small children inside the running vehicle. By excluding us, Chitwood put us at a distinct disadvantage as he was the sole source.
• We were eliminated from the VCSO's media email alert and press release distribution network, which forces us to have to go the Sheriff's website constantly so as not to miss news developments, an impractical solution, where again we are excluded.
• Our request for annual press cards for myself and our multimedia editor limits our access at crime and accident scenes and even in the VCSO facilities themselves as well as beach and park access where we are going to ave to pay fees in order to cover news.
• Headline Surfer , the lone internet news outlet, was among 17 news sites listed on the Sheriff's public site, which lists two daily newspapers, five weekly newspapers, five television stations and four radio stations, with links to each of the 17 online versions of the respective media outlets. But Headline Surfer was again singled out when it was removed, which clearly shows a VCSO media bias and ill will.
Unless Chitwood rescinds his abusive directives intended to harm us, and should senior county administrators and elected County Council members fall short in applying political pressure, then this could end up in federal court. And that would be very costly for the county in legal fees as well as public embarrassment in having to defend a rogue sheriff.
Ultimately, this is a fight Chitwood cannot win and the longer it goes, he's going to compromise his office and put a stain on the VCSO and county government.
Chitwood, in fact, will not win because what he has done is morally and ethically wrong. It could be criminal, too. He may have control over his operation, but he doesn't have control over the allocation of taxpayer monies to fund his operation. That is under the jurisdiction of the county administration and the elected seven-member council.
The voting public is not going to support him once it learns of his bullying tactics and his clear lack of transparency and exercise of bad judgment.