Voters to decide in 1994 between sheriff and chief Council decision is unanimous


The Harford County Council voted unanimously Tuesday to let voters decide in November 1994 whether a new county police department or the existing sheriff's office should have control over local law enforcement.

At the same time, the council rejected legislation, by not taking any action, that would have put the creation of a county department of corrections before voters as well. Both measures grew out of County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann's sweeping proposal last summer to wrest control of law enforcement and the Detention Center from the independent sheriff's office and give it to the county.

In her bill, which would have taken effect within 60 days of passage, Mrs. Rehrmann proposed creating a county police department with a police chief as head and a department of corrections run by a warden.

Both the chief and warden would be appointed by the county executive.

The sheriff, elected every four years by the voters, would be relegated to providing courthouse security and serving papers.

But Mrs. Rehrmann's omnibus proposal was not widely accepted by council members and many citizens, whose chief objections centered on the notion of replacing an elected official with a political appointee serving at the pleasure of the county executive.

Last month, amid mounting evidence that the tide was turning away from a complete takeover of the sheriff's duties, the executive withdrew her bill and threw her support toward a referendum, asking that the council allow voters to decide the fate of both the proposed police and corrections departments.

In other public safety action Tuesday, the council unanimously agreed to transfer communications operations from the sheriff's office to the county's Emergency Operations Center in Hickory.

The legislation consolidates all the communications functions of the county under one management structure.

That change -- probably the only uncontested issue in the array of public safety bills that were up against an Oct. 12 deadline for a council vote -- has been planned for some time. It is being supported by a $1.8 million federal grant for a planned addition to the center.

The issue before voters next year is a proposed amendment to the county charter that would create a police department headed by a police chief. The chief would be appointed by the county executive and approved by the County Council. The amendment also specifies conditions under which the executive may dismiss the chief with council approval.

Despite the unanimous vote for the referendum, some council members expressed reluctance.

"Though I will vote in the affirmative, I am not endorsing a county police force," said Council President Jeffrey D. Wilson. "I am only recognizing that the issue will go to the ballot."

He was referring to the fact that the public could have placed the issue on the ballot anyway by getting 4,800 signatures-- representing 5 percent of the voters in the last election -- on a petition.

"I would have liked to see the police bill defeated," said Sheriff Robert E. Comes after the vote, "but people have a right to make a choice, and I'm confident people will make the right choice. The sheriff's office is already the county police force."

In failing to send the corrections department issue to voters, council members noted that there still are too many unanswered questions surrounding the controversial Detention Center.

Last April, in an out-of-court agreement, the Rehrmann administration paid $400,000 to the family of inmate William M. Ford, who died under suspicious circumstances in the Detention Center a year earlier.

Mr. Ford's death is being investigated by the Maryland attorney general's office, and records in the case have been sealed.

Mrs. Rehrmann has said the developments at the Detention Center and management problems there spurred her attempt to take public safety authority away from the sheriff.

The council's inaction effectively leaves control of the 282-bed facility with the sheriff, who has said he would be selecting a warden to oversee its operations in the next month. John J. O'Neill, the county's procurement officer, was appointed acting warden last spring after Maj. E. Dale Zepp announced his resignation in the wake of revelations in the Ford case.

In the only other action on public safety issues Tuesday, the council voted 7-0 to petition the Maryland General Assembly to pass a law to protect sheriff's office employees from being dismissed or demoted without cause. The political atmosphere of the sheriff's office has been called a threat to deputies' job security.

In voting for the bill, Mr. Wilson, its sponsor, said, "Regardless of what we do in the next year about law enforcement and corrections, there will still be a sheriff's office and . . . there should be a merit system in place for any employees who remain there."

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