Showdown over the sheriff's office

August 14, 1992

"High Noon" it's not, but the saga of Sheriff Robert Pepersack, Anne Arundel's feisty, hot-headed lawman, has provided some of the best entertainment the county has seen in years.

He's overspent his budget, stalked out of county council hearings, found himself on the wrong end of a subpoena and been accused publicly by the council chairman of "not being man enough" to face him. He's blasted county government in voluminous letters to local newspapers, making County Executive Robert R. Neall so mad that he sent the sheriff a note saying he was on the executive's "egg-sucking list."

Now the action continues as Sheriff Pepersack sues Mr. Neall and the council, saying they "interfered unlawfully with the sheriff's authority" when they eliminated his $47,740 undersheriff during last spring's budget process. The suit contends Mr. Neall made "unilateral" decisions about the sheriff's budget, never consulting him about where cuts might be made.

The story is still entertaining, but for city and county governments throughout the state the lawsuit is no laughing matter. The case has statewide ramifications because it raises the question of who controls state offices funded by local jurisdictions.

The sheriff, state's attorney, circuit court and boards of election exist in perpetual contradiction. They are established under the state constitution, but they get their money from the city and the counties. So which has ultimate authority, the county or the state? There has never been a clear answer, and that fact alone has given the counties some leverage.

But if Sheriff Pepersack wins, there will be no more uncertainty. These state offices will be free agents, answerable to no one.

That is absurd. If the counties must pay for an agency, they

ought to have control over how it is run and how much money it gets. If, constitutionally, the counties cannot have authority over state offices, then the state ought to assume fiscal responsibility for them. This is unlikely to occur any time soon, considering the state's financial condition, but it would be more sensible than the current arrangement.

As it is, Sheriff Pepersack feels, with some justification, that as an elected state official he has a right to run his office as he sees fit once the county sets his budget. And Mr. Neall feels, with even more justification, that he is ultimately accountable for all county spending, including agencies that technically belong to state government.

After all, if the county is to control the purse strings, it ought to have a say over how the purse is worn.

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