A key issue that Harford County voters will be deciding this fall is being readied for an election campaign.
People for a County Police Department, an organization anchored by members of the Harford County Deputy Sheriffs Union, announced plans to open its campaign headquarters in Bel Air next Sunday.
The question of whether Harford County government should create a police department, separate from the Sheriff's Office, to handle law enforcement responsibilities will be on the November ballot as a proposed charter amendment.
Teresa G. Walter, chairwoman of People for a County Police Department, says its members plan to blanket Harford with pro-police department literature in coming months to promote its side of the issue.
More than a dozen of the group's members attended a Harford County Council meeting Thursday when the ballot language was decided.
Creation of a police department was first discussed in the county six years ago, then dropped.
Last summer, County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann revived the idea when she proposed legislation that would have transferred responsibility for law enforcement, corrections and emergency communications from the Harford County Sheriff's Office to a new county police department.
Mrs. Rehrmann had been critical of the sheriff, particularly after the suspicious death of a detention center inmate in 1992. A grand jury report this year concluded that the inmate died at his own hands either intentionally or accidentally.
Sheriff Robert E. Comes, who is running for re-election, opposes the creation of a county police force.
Under Mrs. Rehrmann's plan, the police chief would be appointed by the county executive. The Sheriff's Office would remain an independent state commission, with an elected sheriff who would be responsible for courthouse security and serving court papers.
The Harford County Council approved transferring communications to the county's Emergency Operations Center, but the law enforcement and jail issues failed to win its support.
As a compromise, the council decided to send Mrs. Rehrmann's proposal to county voters in a referendum in November.
Thursday night, after hearing comments from some deputies, the council slightly revised the ballot question: Voters will be asked to vote for or against transferring law enforcement authority to a new county police department.
The phrasing of proposed charter amendments is by law decided by the County Council.
"The only thing we ask is that the ballot language be fair," said John Miner, president of the deputies union and a member of People for a County Police Department.
Ms. Walter, a 14-year veteran deputy sheriff, said the majority of People for a County Police Department are unionized deputies. The union, which covers only law enforcement jobs, includes about 110 of the 290 deputies in the Sheriff's Office. It is an affiliate of the International Union of Police Associations.
The committee, she said, supports the ballot question for a number of reasons, most of which were put forth by the Rehrmann administration last year.
Chief among them, Ms. Walter said, is accountability.
"The county now incurs liability for the deputies, but it doesn't have authority over them" or authority to review the sheriff's policies and procedures "for legal sufficiency," she said.