Referendum foreseen in sheriff move Rehrmann wants county police force

September 12, 1993|By Phyllis Brill | Phyllis Brill,Staff Writer

The overwhelming majority of Harford Countians who spoke out at a public hearing Wednesday on the future of public safety said they want taxpayers, not elected officials, to decide who's in charge of law enforcement in their county.

"We live in a democracy," said Stanley Kozenewski of Churchville. "We elected a sheriff for four years, whether someone wants him out or not. I'm here to support the process we have. I think the issue can wait until the next election."

He was not alone in his assessment.

"There's no doubt this is going to referendum," said Councilwoman Teresa Pierno, D-District C, after the meeting.

At issue was County Executive's Eileen M. Rehrmann's proposal to strip the Sheriff's Office of law enforcement and corrections authority, leaving the elected sheriff to serve court papers and oversee courthouse security.

She would create a countywide police force headed by a police chief, who would be appointed by the county executive and approved by the council. A warden would be appointed in similar fashion to run a separate Department of Corrections.

The bill would also consolidate all county emergency communications in the expanded Emergency Operations Center in Hickory.

Even if the County Council were to approve the changes, Mrs. Pierno said, Wednesday's hearing suggested that opponents would have no trouble collecting the 4,820 signatures needed to petition that decision to referendum, putting it on the ballot in November 1994.

"We might as well do it for them," she said, referring to Councilman Robert S. Wagner's bill, one of 10 being weighed by the council. It proposes putting the decision of whether to create a police department in voters' hands at the next general election.

The hearing at C. Milton Wright High School in Bel Air drew about 175 people. They heard representatives of the administration, the council and the Sheriff's Office before voicing their reactions to the stack of 10 bills before the County Council offering a half-dozen scenarios for overhauling the Sheriff's Office.

The proposed legislation, which must be voted on by the council by Oct. 12, includes options ranging from immediately stripping the Sheriff's Office of police authority to tabling any legislation on public safety until next spring, after a commission has studied the issues.

Several council members have introduced alternatives to the county executive's all-in-one proposal in an effort to legislate changes in law enforcement, corrections, classification of sheriff's employees and emergency communications individually.

While less than 15 percent of those attending the public hearing spoke up, the audience reaction to what was said suggested there was strong support for both sides of the issue.

Paul Gilbert of the Fountain Glen Homeowners Association in Bel Air said he spoke for 400 households in voicing "overwhelming support for the three departments as proposed by the administration."

He said his neighbors hoped the bill would create a "larger, more talented pool" of deputies and would remove the officers from "the pre- and post-election chaos," a reference to the usual shakeout in the office following the election of a new sheriff.

'Politics is inherent'

Michael Marshall, who said he represented the sheriff's deputies, concurred, noting that "politics is inherent in the current sheriff's system."

He said politicking distracts deputies from law enforcement and makes them "at-will employees who can be fired at any time."

The local deputy sheriffs union voted unanimously last summer in favor of Mrs. Rehrmann's proposal.

Among the bills before the council is one introduced by Council President Jeffrey D. Wilson and Mr. Wagner, R-District E, that would petition the General Assembly to make sheriff's deputies classified employees of the county no longer serving at the pleasure of the sheriff. That change could be made, the council members say, without disarming the Sheriff's Office of all authority.

"My neighbors simply want assurance that when they dial 911 they will get help," Mr. Gilbert said. "They want to know there are more than four patrol units on duty at a time."

But Mrs. Rehrmann's proposal is not grounded in a need for more deputies, Councilman Barry Glassman, R-District D, said after the meeting.

"We're not talking about a service problem here," he said. "We're talking about a political issue of who's going to be in control of that service."

Detention Center inquiry

He said he felt uncomfortable voting on issues that are surrounded by uncertainty, referring to the incomplete investigation of the Detention Center that was instigated after the death of inmate William M. Ford, a 28-year-old Delaware laborer.

It was shortly after the county paid the Ford family $400,000 in an out-of-court settlement last spring that the administration began preparing legislation to wrest control of corrections as well as policing activities from the Sheriff's Office.

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