Community-Centered Leadership: Building Trust and Engagement in Local Government

Sheriff Rick Staly

When you’re a government official, all eyes are on you.

That’s why Sheriff Rick Staly keeps the badge and photo of late Orange County Sheriff Mel Colman on his desk. Those eyes looking out at him from the photograph remind him of a great leader whom he admires and aspires to be.

“I was fortunate to have sheriffs who mentored me,” he says, noting Colman hired Staly as the youngest officer in Florida’s history.

While Staly admits his mentors set a solid example for him, he also knew that, as a 19-year-old starting in law enforcement, he had a lot to prove. 

“You can have mentors to help you, but you also have to have your plan and do the hard work,” he says.

As a mentor for a 400-plus workforce, Staly walks the walk of a true leader. He’s not afraid of getting in the trenches with his officers, who put their lives on the line daily.

“Just because you have the rank — in my case, the title of sheriff — it doesn’t automatically give you credibility,” he says. “I still go out on Friday night patrols. I still write my own tickets and do my own arrests. I think that helps my team because I’m willing to do the work they’re doing. I make my entire staff do this as well. I don’t want them to make decisions in a vacuum. I want them to remember their roots.” 

As Flagler County’s 18th sheriff, Staly says he came into a disastrous agency. Since 2017, he’s cleaned it up and now has employees winning national and international awards. While Staly and his team have a long list of achievements, he’s particularly proud of upgrading specialty equipment vehicles and the real-time crime center (RTCC). The RTCC has real-time access to all public schools to assist in investigations of criminal activities, along with other crime surveillance as needed, and is staffed by three full-time crime analysts.

“You’re going to have bumps in the road,” says Staly. “Here’s what I tell my employees, ‘When the bump occurs, it’s all about how you react. Are you going to take that bump in the road and make lemonade or lemon juice?’ It’s two completely different tastes.”

Suzanne Johnston

As of April 2024, Suzanne Johnston, Flagler’s tax collector, will have 54 years under her belt as a Flagler County government employee. While many often view the tax collector as the “bad guy,” Johnston strives to tackle the job with humor, gusto and integrity.

“She’s dedicated to the taxpayers,” says Rae Nescio, the assistant tax collector who has worked alongside Johnston for 20 years. “She looks out for her people. It’s kind of like a happy wife, a happy life. That’s how our office is. People are shown they’re appreciated.”

Johnston’s particular ways also ensure she’s doing right by the taxpayers.

“She can tell you down to the second how long it takes for an employee to do a transaction,” Nescio says. “She knows where every dollar goes and how every dollar is spent. She’s very conservative — if she can save a dollar, she’s going to save a dollar.”

That kind of leadership attitude is why her office staff often receives cakes, cookies, flowers and pizza from the public. 

“It’s amazing someone would thank the tax collector,” Johnston jokes. “To me, customer service begins with accuracy, and any mistakes made by my employees are my fault; I didn’t have them trained well enough or given them the right tools to succeed. I want them all to be the best they can be, have confidence in their work and be eager to take on new challenges. It is a big responsibility.”

It’s why she’s hard on herself and insists all staff cross-trains. In doing so, it keeps the office flow going if someone is sick or on vacation.

Or, in the case of the COVID pandemic, efficiently closing all branch offices and relocating all workers to the Bunnell main office with a walk-up window.

“Transactions were handled over the phone, through the mail and at the walk-up window – people drove from all over Florida because of the walk-up window,” she says. “The governor had asked us to cater to CDL drivers to keep the goods moving, and once a month, we would open the Flagler Beach branch office for CDL testing and licenses.”

With lines wrapped around the building, the office staff were swamped but worked together diligently and even worked extended hours to help residents.

She adds, “Government can sometimes be thought of as lacking in innovation, but with the right leadership, culture and team, the government can be a leader in innovation.”

At the end of the day, leaving the ego at the door is what these leaders do.

Staly’s last piece of wisdom for leaders? “Don’t be the leader you hate to work for,” he says. “Keep your ego in check. [Bad leaders] lead with ego because their title or position takes over. No one wants to work with that kind of leader.”

Building Tomorrow’s Leaders


Thompson Hinman wouldn’t be who he is today if it weren’t for the St. Johns County PAL program.

Hinman credits his exposure to PAL at age 10 as the reason he earned a master’s degree and became a U.S. Army officer and an overall productive community member.

PAL — which stands for Police Athletic League — is one of the nation’s oldest citizen-building youth programs. The goal of the organization is to build deep friendships between law enforcement officers and children within the community.

“I would not be who I am today without PAL,” says Hinman, who has served as PAL’s executive director since 2023. “I have seen PAL transform young individuals into our local law enforcement, teachers and military members. The program has many success stories and shows what the power of being in a fun, safe mentorship program can do for someone.”

Two stories he thinks of include one of a shy St. Augustine High School student named Kaleb Stehr.

“He is typically quiet, but having been in our programs for a few years now, we see him growing and transforming into an excellent young man,” says Hinman. “He is always respectful to coaches and asks PAL staff members if he can help with anything like picking up trash, cleaning equipment —  anything we need. It is stories like his where we get to see the goal of our program being met right away.”

Another one is of a local teacher named Autumn Beaver —  daughter of SJSO Patrol Division Director Scott Beaver — who went through PAL years ago. Beaver was a PAL cheerleader for many years and credits PAL with where she is today.

“She is now an elementary school teacher here in St. Johns County,” says Hinman. “She credits PAL and says that it gave her the desire to teach and to make a difference in kids’ lives and to help shape the next generation of leaders just like when she was a PAL kid.”

While PAL may have started in St. Johns with just a few kids on a baseball field in 1991, it’s a program that continues to grow. In fact, by 2025, a new 40-acre state-of-the-art sports complex will open for PAL participants. The new facility will include turf fields and a track and is currently in the design review process before construction starts.

“We have grown into the premier mentorship and sports program in St. Johns County and annually serve 2,000 kids,” says Hinman. “We are only continuing to grow as people see what the program’s capabilities are and the benefits a child can receive.”