Harford County Sheriff Robert E. Comes charged yesterday that the county may have spent $400,000 to create the illusion of a scandal in a bid to get public support for establishing a countywide police force.
The charge is the latest in a series of skirmishes between the sheriff, who is fighting to keep his office's law enforcement powers, and County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann, who is trying to limit the sheriff's authority to courthouse security and process-serving.
Sheriff Comes also said that Mrs. Rehrmann's $279,000 figure to implement a countywide force is at least $700,000 too low, noting that the cost of relocating the police communications system from the sheriff's office in Bel Air to the emergency operations center in Hickory would be at least $500,000.
Speaking at a morning news conference yesterday, Sheriff Comes rhetorically asked the county executive to explain why she authorized paying $400,000 to settle a claim with the family of a Delaware man who was found dead in his cell at the county Detention Center last year "before any investigation was completed or any suit filed."
The sheriff added that Mrs. Rehrmann has failed to make public how she arrived at the $279,000 figure, her projected cost of implementing the countywide police force legislation she is to present to the County Council Aug. 10.
In response to the accusations later yesterday, the county executive's office issued a public statement that detailed Mrs. Rehrmann's spending projections. It contained the cost for additional salaries, benefits and office equipment and one-time expenses for uniform and decal changes.
That estimated total was $279,791 but did not include items related to the transfer already budgeted for 1994.
The sheriff's comments came on the heels of a Monday night public hearing held by the county executive in which people were invited to offer their views on pending legislation that would sharply cut the powers of the sheriff's office. About 250 people attended the hearing at C. Milton Wright High School near Bel Air.
Of 21 speakers, 12 supported Mrs. Rehrmann's proposed legislation.
Most cited the accountability of an appointed police chief as preferable to that of an elected sheriff. Several said that the growth in population demanded an increase in public safety; that deputies not be subjected to internal political pressure every four years at election time; and that the best qualified individual -- not the most popular -- should run the police force.
Currently the county sheriff is responsible for law enforcement, courthouse security, process serving, police communications and the jail. By law, the county is liable for any claims brought against the sheriff's office.
A police chief, appointed by the county executive and subject to County Council approval, would oversee operation of the police force. A warden, similarly appointed, would run the detention center.
Mrs. Rehrmann said after Monday night's meeting that it was a coincidence that her countywide police proposal came after the death of William M. Ford, 28, who was found in an isolation cell at the jail March 1, 1992.
"This plan is something we've been studying since I took office," she said. "It wasn't our top priority because we were attempting to trim the budget without loss of jobs. Once we finished with the budget we turned our attention to other matters including this plan."
Mrs. Rehrmann previously had called the case of Mr. Ford the "catalyst" for her actions. Mr. Ford's death still is under investigation.
It was initially ruled a suicide. His family has maintained that the laborer from Wilmington was raped and slain while serving a 30-day sentence for drunken driving.