What is the most serious problem facing the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office?
Interim Sheriff Bob Gualtieri told about 200 voters at a candidate forum in Dunedin late Wednesday that budget cuts continue to be the biggest challenge facing county law enforcement.
But the other five candidates put Gualtieri on the defense early, using their two-minute answer period to tell voters that integrity is the most serious matter in the race after recent media reports of a “scandal” in the narcotics division.
With former Sheriff Jim Coats watching from the audience, Everett Rice, Scott Swope and Tim Ingold called Gualtieri’s leadership into question in light of recent Tampa Bay Times stories revealing questionable investigation techniques used by narcotics deputies under Gualtieri’s leadership. They also used voters’ questions to criticize Gualtieri’s appointment to the office, calling his incumbency an unfair advantage, and his handling of a tightened budget, saying departmental cuts should have been made elsewhere.
By the end of the first Sheriff’s Candidate Forum, only five of the six candidates remained in the race. Ingold used his closing statement in the nonpartisan forum to announce his decision to leave the race and support Rice.
Interim Sheriff's Appointment Scrutinized
Prompted by a voter question on term limits, Rice blasted Gov. Rick Scott and Coats for Gualtieri’s appointment to the office, accusing Coats of stepping down in November with the intent of handing over "the advantage of the incumbency.”
Gualtieri defended the governor’s appointment after listening to the other candidates' criticism.
“There are some who would say it’s not an unfair advantage,” he said.
The appointment was “succession planning," said Gualtieri, who was one of several candidates to apply for the job when Coats retired. "The governor had a choice. You don’t appoint a caretaker for a $200 million organization. Everett applied, several other people applied. He selected me because he felt I was the right person to run the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office.”
Differing Opinions on Department Budget Cuts
All the candidates acknowledged the sheriff's department has been working under a trimmed-down budget, but they disagreed on how it's being operated.
"Bob has cut a lot of things, and he’s had to," Swope said of Gualtieri. "But I think some of the cuts were made in the wrong places."
Despite criticism from Rice (who acknowledged, “I never had to cut the budget as bad as they did, but I wouldn’t whine and complain about it”), Gualtieri consistently justified the adaptions he has made to an ever-tightening budget.
“You have to know where to draw the line and where not to take them below the water line,” Gualtieri said.
Gualtieri shared the recent success story of Pinellas Safe Harbor, which shelters homeless people at a daily operational cost of about $13 per head instead of the $1,400 a day it took to otherwise house them in jail. He also expressed his desire for more cost-saving moves like increasing citizen task forces and contracting services when and where it’s appropriate.
When asked if the sheriff’s office should bring back DUI and traffic patrols, Rice, who served as sheriff from 1988 to 2004, told the audience that he would bring back those patrols if elected. He did not elaborate on how they would be funded.
Gualtieri disagreed. He said the DUI checkpoints and wolfpacks are working.
“Traffic fatalities due to DUIs are not up. Traffic crashes due to DUIs are not up," he said. "If we saw a significant spike, then we would have reacted different than the way we were reacting.”
Integrity of Sheriff's Office Leadership Questioned
Many of the candidates questioned how the sheriff's office leadership could have allowed for the questionable investigation techniques recently reported in the Tampa Bay Times.
Some Pinellas County sheriff's detectives formerly in the narcotics division are accused of illegally trespassing private property to gain access to suspected marijuana grow houses, using utility history information provided by a Progress Energy informant who circumvented the company’s subpoena requirement, using surveillence cameras to track customers at a grow supply store, and misleading the State Attorney's office, according to the Tampa Bay Times.
Swope called the investigations into marijuana grow houses a case of misplaced resources. He said the focus should have been placed on the Pinellas County’s prescription pain pill epidemic.
During his turn to speak, Gualtieri told the audience that not all the facts of that case are out and that he has taken swift action to thoroughly investigate all four of the deputies’ actions.
He pointed out that the surveillance cameras outside the grow supply store were court-ordered and that the investigation resulted in the arrest of a man with 70 plants — not the average weekend user — and 13 firearms placed sporadically around his home in a residential neighborhood.
“We don’t need that,” he said.