Survival of department embroils sheriff's race

August 14, 1994|By Phyllis Brill | Phyllis Brill,Sun Staff Writer

As the future of the Harford Sheriff's Office emerges as one of the hottest issues in the 1994 election, former Sheriff Dominick J. Mele -- who lost his job in the 1990 election and wants it back -- tried to put a philosophical spin on the controversy.

"Don't continue to accept the perception," he told a crowd of Democrats Wednesday night. "Pay attention to what is said and what is written. Search for the truth."

Mr. Mele's audience was the Greater Fallston Democratic Club at a meeting attended by as many candidates as noncandidates. His truth-vs.-perception talk was an oblique reference to the flurry of varied statements that have surfaced in the campaign over what the sheriff's office should be and who should run it.

In November, voters will decide whether the county should create a police department headed by an appointed police chief or continue to let the elected sheriff and his office handle law enforcement in the county. In the same election, voters will elect a sheriff not knowing what his job ultimately will be.

Mr. Mele left no doubt where he stands on the police issue: He wants the sheriff's office to remain intact. But he wants it under his control.

"I'm not here to bash the current administration," he said. "However, anyone desiring to be sheriff of Harford County today should be able to defend the system as it exists against anything else. It's not cost-effective to change the system."

He said that if there is a problem with management, that's where the changes should be made.

"Has anything been demonstrated, has there been overwhelming evidence or powerful conclusions that would require a change in the system?" he asked rhetorically after the meeting. "Is there documentation for a change or is this just a political whim?"

Mr. Mele faces three other Democrats in the primary Sept. 13: Sheriff Robert E. Comes, former deputy E. Dale Zepp and George W. Cunningham, a deputy sheriff in Baltimore. The winner will face Republican Joseph P. Meadows in November.

Mr. Zepp, who resigned in 1993 as head of the Detention Center during a controversy over inmate William Ford's death the previous year, opposes any changes in the structure of the sheriff's office.

"You all know my position," he told the Fallston Democrats.

He said he would not make changes among rank-and-file deputies, who "are doing a good job," and suggested that he would not hire and fire based on political support. Proponents of a county police department have charged that deputies are compelled to take sides in the political races for sheriff.

Mr. Cunningham, who is running on his 20 years of experience in law enforcement, left the door open to voters who could decide to turn the sheriff into a process server stripped of law enforcement duties.

"I've probably been asked five times tonight about the police issue," he told the Fallston Democrats. "But regardless of how this question is answered by the citizens, whether it's a large or small department, I want to be the sheriff."

His campaign manager, John W. Yeager, said after the meeting: "It's not a black-and-white issue. Yes, we'd like to see the sheriff's office remain as it is and use the money that would be allocated to a new police department to make improvements in the current sheriff's office. But we have to respect the rights of people who may want to change it."

Mr. Comes, who did not attend the Fallston club's meeting, has supported keeping the sheriff's office in control of law enforcement, at least in recent months. Earlier this month, he told another group of local Democrats that "a county police force is not necessary in Harford County. The sheriff's office has done the job for 200 years."

But Mr. Mele, who may prove the sheriff's toughest opposition in the primary, wonders if his opponent's commitment is that strong.

When the issue of a countywide police force was raised before the 1990 Democratic primary, in which Mr. Comes defeated Mr. Mele by 4,000 votes, Mr. Comes wasn't so adamant, his opponent says.

In a Baltimore Sun survey of candidates published before that election, Mr. Comes said, "I could support transforming the Sheriff's Department into a police department directed by an appointed chief because it would create a check-and-balance system. . . . Currently, the Sheriff's Department, without a check-and balance system, lacks accountability."

Mr. Comes said last week that his statement in 1990 was not an endorsement of a police department.

"If it had come about, I would have supported it," he said. "But I was not in favor of changing the sheriff's office. Since I've been sheriff the last 3 1/2 years, I see things should stay as they are."

He said he wants to be sheriff even if voters choose to remove law enforcement control from the office. He noted that authority over the county detention center would remain in the sheriff's domain.

"I don't want to give up any of my duties," said Mr. Comes.

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