It was a simple question that County Commissioner David Langer posed Tuesday to embattled County Judge Gary Graham.
"Have you talked to the sheriff about this?"
The judge's answer was just as simple, but it demonstrated clear as a bell how far the relationship between Graham and the rest of the county's law enforcement establishment has deteriorated in these past months.
"I'm afraid to talk to the sheriff," Graham replied with a laugh. "He might sue me again."
Graham was referring to the now-settled lawsuit over the judge's attempt to start a de facto work release program before the sheriff was ready.
Graham, who is facing numerous counts of judicial misconduct, appeared before the commission Tuesday to ask that limits be placed on Sheriff Charles Dean's new "gain time" program for county jail inmates.
Under the program, inmates can earn time off their sentences by attending classes or working. Graham asked that inmates have no more than 25 percent of their sentence reduced this way.
He placed his request in the wider context of the state's problems with revolving-door justice. He cited several examples of continued criminal behavior by prison inmates released long before the stated length of their sentences.
The result, he said, is that Florida has the highest crime rate of any state in the nation. "There is only one place that we still have real punishment for real crime and that's in the county courts," Graham said.
The judge said he thinks gain time can be useful for keeping order in the jail. "I'm asking you to put a limit on it," he said.
Langer, however, questioned why Graham was asking the commission rather than Dean. He said when he has a problem with another elected official, "I sit down with him face to face." He said Graham and Dean should do likewise, because both are "reasonable, intelligent men."
Graham said he has "bent over backwards trying to get along with the sheriff." For his efforts, he said, "The only thing I've gotten is JQC complaints."
The Judicial Qualifications Commission is the state agency that brought formal charges against Graham. In his official response to those charges, Graham made numerous allegations of improper conduct by Dean.
County Attorney Larry Haag said he did not think it would be legal for the commission to vote limits on Dean's gain-time program.
If that is true, Graham said, then the board should exercise the authority it does have to abolish the program.
County Administrator Tony Shoemaker volunteered to write a letter to Dean expressing Graham's concerns about the program. The commission took no further action.