Council to mull public safety bills Transfer of sheriff's power is key issue

August 15, 1993|By Phyllis Brill | Phyllis Brill,Staff Writer

Some 10 pieces of legislation on reorganizing the county's public safety authority have been introduced before the Harford County Council.

The grab bag of bills introduced Tuesday night -- four by the county executive and six by council members -- indicates the extent of change in the works in county government and the conflict over how to accomplish it.

Few, if any, of the bills are likely to pass without amendments,council members say.

"The idea was to throw it all out on the table now, to get everything out there for the public to consider," says Robert S. Wagner, R-District E, who introduced four of the bills, including one that asks for the voters to decide in the next general election whether they want a county police department.

A public hearing on all 10 bills will be held at 6 p.m. Sept. 8 at C. Milton Wright High School near Bel Air. The council must vote on thelegislation by Oct. 12.

The major piece of legislation proposed by County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann would transfer control of law enforcement and Detention Center activities from the independent Harford County sheriff's office to the county.

Specifically, it would create a new police department with a chief of police, accountable to the county executive, and a corrections department, with a warden as head.

In addition, the bill would transfer communications operations from the sheriff's office to the county's planned Emergency Operations Center. The sheriff would be relegated to providing courthouse security and serving court papers.

The legislation, which has been through innumerable drafts over the last few weeks, grew out of concern over mismanagement and a lack of accountability in the sheriff's office, the county executive has said.

Mrs. Rehrmann's other bills include proposed revisions in thecounty's job classification plan to accommodate employees who would be transferred from the sheriff's office to the county rolls and a bill to transfer authority over unclaimed property to the police chief.

'Just cause'

She also proposed an amendment to the Harford County Charter that would prevent the executive from firing the police chief without "just cause," such as insubordination, misconduct or failure to carry out the duties of the office. Any proposed change in the charter must be brought to a referendum in the next general election.

The charter amendment, which would make the chief the only county department head who couldn't be dismissed at the discretion of the executive, was proposed in response to public concern that the new head of law enforcement would be a political appointee.

But Barry Glassman, R-District D, said Mrs. Rehrmann's bill doesn't go far enough. "Her referendum doesn't get down to the question of 'Do you want an elected sheriff or an appointed chief?' " he said of the issue that is critical to many constituents.

Consequently, he joined Mr. Wagner in proposing a charter amendment to create a new police department. The charter change would have to be decided by voters in a referendum in November 1994.

"I just don't think the county executive and four council members [the number required to pass legislation] should decide the fate of law enforcement for the entire county," said Mr. Glassman.

The two councilmen also proposed a bill transferring the sheriff's communications operation to the Emergency Operations Center. It isolates in a single bill what is probably the only uncontested issue in the executive's proposed reorganization.

Mr. Wagner, who is openly opposed to stripping the sheriff's office of law-enforcement powers, introduced two additional bills, sponsored by County Council President Jeffrey D. Wilson. One would petition the state to pass a law to prevent sheriff's deputies from being dismissed without due cause.

"This bill tries to take the politics out of the sheriff's office," said Mr. Wagner, noting that employees have repeatedly complained being under political pressure to support candidates for election to sheriff.

The 99-member deputies union last month endorsed the proposed shift to a county police force.

Mr. Wagner's fourth bill, also co-sponsored by Mr. Wilson, would create a commission to study public safety issues and make recommendations on the transfer of authority.

Adoption of this bill would obviously delay the reorganization; but the panel's findings would be completed by spring, said Mr. Wagner, in time to put a proposal on the ballot next November.

The final two bills, introduced by Philip J. Barker, D-District F, would provide for voting separately on the creation of a police department and a department of corrections.

Along with Mr. Wagner's and Mr. Glassman's bill on emergency operations, Mr. Barker's bills provide the council a method for voting on the reorganization in piecemeal fashion and delaying indefinitely, if council members choose, a decision on the police department.

Amendments brewing

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