Pinellas County Sheriff race still heating up

06/21/12 Janelle Irwin
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The heated debate continued in the race for Pinellas County Sheriff continued this afternoon as the four candidates answered questions at an event in the Carillon area. Most of the focus was on the two front-runners, current Sheriff Bob Gualtieri and former Sheriff Everett Rice.

Under Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, several detectives with the agency were put on leave after being accused of lying to judges and illegally gathering evidence when looking for marijuana growers. And Democratic Sheriff candidate Scott Swope thinks the amount of time the agency has spent investigating a store that sells hydroponic equipment was a misuse of time and resources.

"Simply Hydroponics is a company that sells legal equipment. Some people use it to grow marijuana, but other people don't. So, at the same time that they're cutting public safety-related positions and at the same time that they are, that we are leading the state in oxycodone related deaths, the Sheriff's office is spending two years writing down tag numbers of people who go in to buy hydroponic equipment."

And some people are worried about Everett Rice’s position in immigrants. Rice, who is Gualtieri’s opponent in the Republican primary, said he would consider implementing an Arizona law that is being challenged for constitutionality if it is upheld. The law allows police and deputies to investigate a person’s immigration status if they suspect the person is in the country illegally.

“Because I think that we ought to be doing everything that we can to deport illegal aliens, particularly those that are committing crimes.”

Most of the focus at the Suncoast Tiger Bay luncheon was on Rice and Gualtieri. The two candidates barely shared a glance as each took stabs at the other’s job performance. Gualtieri accused Rice of overspending and said he had to shave more than $100 million dollars from the budget to fix what Rice had broken. Rice defended himself, saying that the increases were all warranted.

“Bob talked about the Sheriff’s budget. The last year I was Sheriff was 2004. The Sheriff’s budget was $204 million. Today the budget is $213 million. So, if he cut $108 million, all he was doing was cutting the increases that he and Coats had gotten. And I’ll accept the fact that we raised the Sheriff’s budget $80 million, but that’s over 16 years and that’s when we merged those police departments into the Sheriff’s office. None of my budgets ever caused a tax increase.”

Rice was Pinellas County’s Sheriff for 16-years. He’s been out of the game for eight years, but wants to jump back in the fire. Rice is collecting a pension and if he’s elected, will still get it. He’s been slammed in the media for double-dipping. But Rice promises voters that he will donate his entire pension to the Sheriff’s Youth Ranch if he wins his seat back.

“When I campaigned from one end of this county to the other beginning last June, I learned that people get really upset when they think that there’s going to be a public servant earning a pension and getting paid a salary particularly when they’re back in the same job that they left. But my pension was earned and invested in my name in the year 2000, but because I hear all these complaints and I know people are upset about it, I made that pledge.”

One Tiger Bay member questioned the candidates about their plans to hire more minorities. Swope’s response prompted someone in the back of the hotel conference room to snicker that his plan sounded more like reverse racism.

“Those people who are employees of the Sheriff’s office ought to approximate what it is in the general population and I can tell you that there would not be a requirement by the NAACP to come to me to encourage me to do that. I would do that automatically. And there ought to be some preference given when there are not enough folks of a particular race.”

Rice claimed that when he was Sheriff, diversity was always a priority citing a time when he promoted an African-American. Gualtieri questioned whether or not that employee deserved the promotion.

“Well, the man that Everett Rice promoted to captain, the African-American, what he doesn’t tell you, the man never supervised one person – no command, no supervision, nothing. I won’t do fake promotions.”

Some of the budgetary cutbacks implemented under Gualtieri and retired Sheriff Jim Coats’ watch leave a bad taste in opponent Scott Swope’s mouth. Swope is the only Democrat in the race and, as such, is also the only one guaranteed on the ballot in November. He said he would reinstate things like the cold case homicide department and focus more on human trafficking. But,

“First thing I would do is change the arrest policy of the Sheriff’s office and stop arresting people for non-violent misdemeanors instead give them a notice to appear – put them in the justice system that way without using up the deputy’s time taking them to jail and without having to use those resources at the jail.”

The back and forth between Rice and Gualtieri continued through much of the one hour question and answer session. Tiger Bay member Dave Zachen fueled the animosity when he accused Gualtieri of taking credit for successes that weren’t his to claim.

“You’ve been Sheriff for a year, less than a year, I don’t know what and you’ve talked about how great the Sheriff’s office is doing. Wouldn’t a reasonable person believe that that’s a little disingenuous of you to take credit for where the Sheriff’s office is when we have to realize that most of the product of the Sheriff’s office was actually done by the previous Sheriff, Mr. Rice.”

“Well, Everett Rice hasn’t been the Sheriff since 2004, so eight years ago. That’s a long time and the world has greatly changed. Technology has changed, policing has changed and it’s not about what you used to do, it’s about are you going to do today and what are you going to do for the future.”

The fourth candidate, Greg Pound, is a write-in. He doesn’t have a website or yard signs but his rants about the Constitution and Thomas Jefferson draw attention. He’s staking his bid for Sheriff on the fact that he’s not a lawyer. Pound said attorneys shouldn’t be allowed to hold an elected office.

“We’re in a situation now where our country is in big, big trouble because of this tyranny of a one hand group controlling our government. We put in our government a separation of power so there’d be accountability to those we elect into office and we’re losing it. And you’re going to elect three attorneys? You’re going to…put them in the executive branch of our government? This is the major problem that we are having in our country.”

Republicans will cast their votes for Rice or Gualtieri on August 14th.. The winner will face Scott Swope and write-in Greg Pound in the November general election.

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