Sheriff hopefuls target patronage, deaths at jail CAMPAIGN 1994

September 04, 1994|By Bruce Reid | Bruce Reid,Sun Staff Writer

Voters trying to pick the next Harford County sheriff don't have it easy.

The administration of incumbent Democrat Robert E. Comes has been clouded for more than two years by the death of inmate William Ford and allegations that jail guards were responsible -- and resulting charges of management ineffectiveness.

Another inmate's death in July and a promised $10 million civil lawsuit have only thickened the cloud. But Mr. Comes says voters have no reason to question his management of the jail or the agency.

Democrat E. Dale Zepp, who supervised the Harford County Detention Center when Mr. Ford was found with a pillowcase around his neck in March 1992, wants to come out of retirement. He says he was wrongly forced to leave after Mr. Ford's death, which a grand jury eventually ruled was a suicide, and he has filed suit against the county.

Dominick J. Mele, a Democrat who lost the sheriff's job to Mr. Comes four years ago, says voters should recognize that they made a mistake in 1990 and return him to office. With little fanfare and almost no campaign spending, he says he wants to "heal" the broken agency.

The fourth Democratic candidate, George W. Cunningham, a sergeant in the Baltimore sheriff's office, wants voters to forget about those "good old boys" and put a younger, more vigorous person in charge of law enforcement in the county.

Mr. Cunningham contends that there is no way to mend the agency without stripping it of political patronage. "You need to move some of the dinosaurs out," he says.

Likewise, Joseph P. Meadows, the lone Republican challenger, says it is time to stop "recycling" sheriff's office veterans and elect someone who can restore credibility to the agency. The young assistant state's attorney has raised more money than any of the Democrats.

To top it all, voters will have no idea what the sheriff's job will be until after the general election.

A ballot question will ask them to decide whether they want to keep law enforcement duties in the sheriff's office or create a county police department headed by an appointed chief of police. That would leave the sheriff to run the jail and handle such administrative duties as serving legal papers.

Old-timers consider an elected sheriff with full police powers important to the integrity of local politics. The Harford post is the last of its kind in the Baltimore region.

Critics say that respect for the office has been lost in the divisive internal politics that have come to a boil in recent years over such issues as the awarding of key jobs by patronage.

Three of the Democrats -- Mr. Comes, Mr. Zepp and Mr. Cunningham -- have begun advertising campaigns in recent days, airing their messages over local cable television systems, radio stations and in newspapers.

The three candidates each had spent between $12,000 and $18,000 as of Aug. 16, when the last campaign finance reports were filed.

Mr. Mele, who had spent less than $50 by Aug. 16, is shunning most media advertising so far. He is banking on voters remembering his name and the record of his administration.

"It's my prayer that people will recognize that there was a mistake made," Mr. Mele said last week. "I haven't asked for money from anybody. I haven't done any fund-raisers."

Mr. Meadows, who says he will crank up his campaign after the Sept. 13 primary election, had raised nearly $30,000 by mid-August and spent almost $16,000.

"For the first time, I think voters have a chance to really change the direction" of the sheriff's office, says Mr. Meadows, a former member of the County Council's budget advisory board and a part-time business law instructor at Harford Community College.

Despite the focus on politics, all of the candidates say the sheriff must put more officers on the streets -- in the busy U.S. 40 corridor and the rural northern section -- to keep pace with the county's steady growth.

And, none of the five wants to see the sheriff's office stripped of its law enforcement duties. Most say that creation of a county police force would be too expensive and that it would be no less political than the current structure.

"Most of the folks I've talked to generally want to keep the office the way it is," says Mr. Zepp, 57.

Although he is fighting his own forced retirement in court, he says a police chief appointed by the county executive would be undesirable because voters couldn't fire the chief, as they can remove a sheriff.

Mr. Comes, 62, seems to be running more of a campaign to maintain the sheriff's authority than to keep the post. Not recognized for his public speaking or presence, he recently said he was shunning street-corner waving and neighborhood canvassing.

That has prompted challengers to claim that Mr. Comes is running an arms-length campaign, concluding that there will be fewer questions to answer if he doesn't face the voters directly.

With the latest inmate death -- Niecey D. Aldridge, a 24-year-old pregnant woman from Aberdeen who died after an asthma attack -- Mr. Comes is finding it hard to escape questions about his management of the jail. But he dismisses them.

"As far as I'm concerned, it's a top-notch detention center," he said.

Mr. Mele, 60, says he is growing increasingly angry that Mr. Comes is claiming credit for his accomplishments, such as the creation of neighborhood watch programs in the early 1980s.

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