Public safety controversy may shift onto the ballot Rehrmann move brings criticism HARFORD COUNTY

September 26, 1993|By Phyllis Brill | Phyllis Brill,Staff Writer

If County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann turned down the heat on the sheriff's office last week by withdrawing her bill to usurp his powers, she fanned the flames for the County Council by asking lawmakers to let voters decide the public safety issue.

"The county executive started this fire. Now she wants the council to be her water boy to put it out," said Barry Glassman, who with fellow council member Robert S. Wagner first proposed the idea of a referendum last summer as an alternative to dismantling the sheriff's office in mid-term.

Mrs. Rehrmann announced Tuesday that she would withdraw her bill proposing a three-part overhaul of county public safety authority. The "omnibus bill," as it came to be called, would have stripped the sheriff's office of law enforcement and jail authority by creating a county police department with an appointed police chief and a county department of corrections, headed by an appointed warden.

It also included a transfer of emergency communications now in the sheriff's office to the county's Emergency Operations Center in Hickory.

Instead, Mrs. Rehrmann urged council members to pass legislation putting both police department and corrections department proposals on the ballot in the next general election, in effect delaying major changes in the sheriff's office until after voters go to the polls in November 1994.

The unexpected move came as the County Council faced an Oct. 12 deadline for acting on the reorganization legislation. After being introduced in council in August, the executive's bill had failed to gain strong support from either council members or the public.

At a public hearing at C. Milton Wright High School 2 1/2 weeks ago, many citizens said they were opposed to replacing an elected sheriff with an appointed police chief.

"Mrs. Rehrmann started this whole issue by saying she wanted to appoint a police chief and didn't think the voters were smart enough to elect their own sheriff," said Mr. Glassman. "Now, when things get hot and she doesn't have four votes on the council, she's saying the voters should decide," said the District D Republican.

"I won't say I wouldn't support a referendum, since we brought it up in the first place," said Mr. Wagner, a District E Republican. "But I still think we can go in and fix managerial problems and make the system work under the sheriff's office without a lot of expenditure -- and without handing over control."

The county executive said she is not backing down on her support for a county police department and corrections department.

"These are issues we've been discussing for over 20 years, and substantial public monies have been spent to study them.

"I think it really is time to create a department of corrections and a department of police. But the feedback I got from public input and from council members was that it was such a fundamental change that it was something the voters need to decide."

Several other bills regarding public safety were introduced last month as alternatives to Mrs. Rehrmann's bill, including the Wagner-Glassman police department referendum measure.

One of the council bills could be amended to put the creation of a county corrections department on the ballot, too.

Still another proposal, one that would transfer police dispatch to the Emergency Operations Center, as Mrs. Rehrmann's

three-part bill proposed to do, appears to be the only one with certain support of the council, the county executive and the sheriff's office.

The council must act on all the public safety bills by its Oct. 12 meeting, after which the legislation will expire. But members seem determined not to let the executive's compromise move hurry them.

"The council does not like to be rushed," said President Jeffrey D. Wilson.

He said he believes that it is likely that the referendum on law enforcement will be approved, but that council members are still undecided on whether to send the detention center issue to the voters.

"I think the council has a very open mind on this and most of us have been careful not to paint ourselves into a corner," he said.

"There are just too many concerns here and too many unknowns," including a state attorney general's report on the jail still in the works.

That investigation began last spring after the county paid $400,000 in an out-of-court agreement with the family of inmate William M. Ford, who died under suspicious circumstances in the county Detention Center last year.

In April, Mrs. Rehrmann named John J. O'Neill acting warden at the jail and later announced her intention to take over all sheriff's office authority.

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