County Executive Robert R. Neall began interviewing top police administrators this morning as the first step in choosing a successor to retiring Chief George W. Wellham III.
Wellham, who started as a patrolman with the department 43 years ago, will retire this week, leaving Neall to choose at least an acting chief by Friday, said Tim Murnane, head of Neall's public safety committee for Neall's transition team.
"They will be meeting with (Neall) individually starting at 8 a.m.," Murnane said.
Wellham's command staff consists of Deputy Chief Edgar Koch, head of the Field Operations Bureau; Maj. Robert Beck, commander of the Patrol Division; Maj. William Donoho, commander of the Criminal Investigation Division; and Deputy Chief Robert Russell, who heads the Technical Services Bureau.
Many officers favor Russell to succeed Wellham.
Murnane said he did not know if the search for Wellham's replacement will expand beyond the state line.
"A formal search takes about six months and is very expensive," he said. "Bob Neall wants to put together the best people in every department. If home-grown talent is the best, so be it."
Wellham said he met with Neall on Friday afternoon and told him he was retiring. He said herecommended to Neall that someone from within his command staff replace him.
"They are all good, in fact, they are excellent," he said.
Wellham said the meeting, scheduled to discuss issues in the department, was congenial.
"Forty-three years is a long time, and I've enjoyed trying to make the department better," he said.
Wellham joined the department when it had about two dozen officers working out of two stations. After rising through the ranks to command the Criminal Investigation Division and Patrol Division, Wellham was appointed by former County Executive O. James Lighthizer to the top job in 1986.
The department employs 550 officers who work out of seven buildings throughout the county.
Wellham was often criticized by his officers, who said he was a poor manager and operated an understaffed department.
Last year police union members said they felt "betrayed and used" by Wellham after a series of transfers and officer shortages. In an open letter to Wellham in January 1990, union members accused him of putting his political agenda before officer safety.
Despite those charges, Wellham implemented drug education in the schoolsand foot patrols in some neighborhoods, provided officers with up-to-date weapons, such as 9mm semiautomatic handguns, and increased the number of narcotic detectives to help fight the war on drugs.
During his tenure as chief, 127 officers have been added to the department, he said.
"Four years ago, I said we were going to have a greater effort on drugs and community involvement, and those two things have been accomplished," he said.
Wellham was the second county official to retire this week. Fire Administrator Joseph M. "Mac" McConnell also announced his retirement.