The Sheriff Issue: Council's Albatross


Though not known for its contributions to cultural literacy, the Harford County Council adopted the role of the Ancient Mariner last Tuesday: It stoppeth one in three.

That was cowardly evasion. If the council members don't get it right the next time, they could end up with an albatross around their collective necks, like the demented wanderer of Coleridge's classic poem.

The Magnificent Seven did, after squabbling about whose name should be listed on bills, authorize a public referendum next year on whether to create a county police department under county )) government or to leave law enforcement responsibility with the elected sheriff.

They also approved the merger of the sheriff's communications system with the county emergency operations (911) center, a non-controversial measure that should improve response time and coordination of efforts for emergency calls in Harford.

But they ducked the question of letting voters decide who should have responsibility for the detention center, which has been the focus of the controversies and misconduct that raised the issue in the first place.

The performance of sheriff's deputies in their police activities was not a real problem. The deputies needed civil service protection, but that didn't require a full-blown referendum.

The main issue has been conduct at the jail, and on the sheriff's attitude toward those actions. The mysterious death of an pTC inmate there last year raised serious questions about the integrity of the jail administration and its willingness to investigate wrongdoing by staff.

The county's decision to head off a potential lawsuit in the inmate's death for $400,000 also raised eyebrows. The abrupt transfer of John O'Neil from the county executive's office to acting jail warden emphasized the need for constructive but expeditious change.

The council, however, denied voters a chance to decide that question. The bills are now dead, having passed the 60-day deadline for council action.

So voters will be asked to decide in November 1994 only whether to create a police force under a chief appointed by the county executive or to let the sheriff, who will still be elected under state law, continue with those powers.

County Executive Eileen Rehrmann argues that there are savings and efficiencies to be gained from a county police department. Sheriff Robert Comes says it will cost taxpayers a lot of money to separate his duties and to run them separately.

Operationally, there doesn't seem to be a lot of difference in the way the agency would provide law enforcement in Harford. The main difference is who would be in charge and how they administer the office.

A lot has been made of the voters' right to directly elect the head of law enforcement in Harford. Curiously, you don't hear any cries for that same right in Annapolis or in Washington, where top law enforcement officials are always appointed.

Nonetheless, the issue of direct election and the issue of whether too much power would rest with the county executive will be at the forefront of debate over the next year.

Candidates for county office and for sheriff (a state job) will most certainly be pressed to take a stand on the referendum question. They should make their positions public and clear.

(Sheriff Comes doesn't deny that he told deputies during the 1990 campaign that he favored a county police department. He didn't publicize that position, however.)

So why did the council duck the issue of responsibility for the jail?

Some of the members oppose the accretion of power by the Rehrmann administration, which has not been the most diplomatic in its relations with the council. Some don't see any urgent need for the change.

There's also a resentment that the executive has not shared full details of the information that led to the $400,000 payout of county money to settle a lawsuit that had not even been filed. The council hasn't gotten the full story, even though voluminous details of the suit and its repercussions in the sheriff's office have been widely reported in the press.

Underlying this resentment is the somewhat contradictory belief that no one passionately cares about transfer of the jail from the sheriff to the executive's office. Only the people who work or are incarcerated there have a real interest in that issue. A professional warden position is already budgeted, so it's only a matter of who is the warden's supervisor.

That pragmatic cynicism was demonstrated by the County Council in its approval of the police department referendum question. Voters will put it on the ballot by petition anyway, so I guess we should do it for them, was the expressed sentiment.

Conversely, no one is collecting signatures to petition for transfer of the jail, so the council felt it wasn't forced to act.

That's not public representation or leadership. Mrs. Rehrmann at least put the issues for transfer directly to the council; when they showed no support, she withdrew the bill and opted for the referendum on police and jail.

The Ancient Mariner became unemployed as a result of his blunder with the bird, you may recall from high school English lit class.

There's a lesson there for the local solons.

Mike Burns is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Harford County.

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