Race for Balto. County sheriff turns heated

5 candidates for office say it is understaffed, poorly run by incumbent

September 03, 2002|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,SUN STAFF

The race for sheriff of Baltimore County, a contest that normally does not attract much attention in political circles, has turned into a heated contest with five candidates charging that the office lacks effective leadership and is seriously understaffed.

Two Democrats, R. Jay Fisher and Charles D. Cuddy, are trying to unseat Sheriff Anne K. Strasdauskas. Three Republicans, former sheriff Norman M. Pepersack Jr., Russell D. Badolato and Joseph P. Callendar, are also seeking the office. The primaries are Sept. 10.

Challengers from both political parties agree on one point - they are ready to step in and resolve severe shortages in the deputy ranks and change the style and tone of leadership.

Strasdauskas, running for a second four-year term as a Democrat, defends her stewardship of the office. She said that she has implemented numerous improvements.

"My office is doing fine," she said. "And I am a good sheriff."

She blames the department's understaffing - there are 14 vacancies among the authorized deputy ranks - on the fact that deputies are paid less annually than rookie police officers in the metropolitan area.

Strasdauskas is under investigation by the Maryland Ethics Commission for an alleged conflict of interest. The probe started after The Sun reported that Strasdauskas testified, in uniform, at a county liquor board hearing in favor of a license for a restaurant group without informing the board that her brother owns one of the group's restaurants in Bel Air.

The county auditor has criticized Strasdauskas' expenditure of public funds for newspaper advertising that appeared to be campaign ads and for projects routinely undertaken by other state and county agencies, such as fingerprinting of children.

Strasdauskas, 48, boasts of improving technology and communications in the office and of tending to programs for children and seniors. The most recent state records show that Strasdauskas had $5,450 in contributions on hand as of Aug. 25.

The sheriff's office has a $3.5 million annual budget. The department has more than 100 employees - 62 sworn deputies and about 40 security personnel and administrative staff. The sheriff earns $70,000 annually. The department's major responsibilities are courthouse security, serving legal papers and transporting prisoners.

Fisher, 54, of Cockeysville, a Democrat, is a Baltimore City police lieutenant who served as a police bodyguard during William Donald Schaefer's terms as Baltimore mayor. He has a campaign treasury of $16,000.

"I want to restore professionalism to the office of sheriff and fill the serious existing vacancies in the ranks of the deputies," Fisher said.

Strasdauskas of Essex said she has trouble retaining deputies because the starting pay is about $10,000 below that of area police departments - even though like police, county deputies are required to pass the police academy.

Deputies do not engage in regular law enforcement action such as criminal investigations, arrests, traffic stops and other duties assigned to county police and the state police.

Cuddy, 46, of Glen Arm, a Democrat, is an employee of the county's emergency center. He ran unsuccessfully for sheriff in 1998.

"The office of sheriff is in shambles," said Cuddy. "The current sheriff does everything for herself, to promote herself in the public. The first thing I would do is address the severe shortage of deputies."

Badolato, 41, of Dundalk, and a Republican, is a police officer with the state Department of General Services. He said that he has no campaign treasury because he does not accept donations.

"New leadership in the sheriff's office is crucial because of the shortage of deputies and the money the current sheriff is spending can go to other, more important things," he said.

Another Republican, Callendar, 56, of Baltimore is a retired sergeant for Baltimore school police and a Vietnam War veteran. He said he has never run for public office and has a treasury of about $100. He works for a private company that transports prisoners.

"I decided to run because while working in the Towson area, I interact with a lot of deputies and they can't wait to leave that department because of bad leadership," Callender said. "That's where I'd start, providing positive and effective leadership. The new sheriff has to refocus on the primary mission of security, transporting prisoners and warrant service."

Badolato and Callender said they are serious candidates despite meager campaign funds. "I am not a professional politician and I think the voters will view that as a plus," said Callender.

Pepersack, 68, is seeking to return to the office he held from 1990 to 1998. Pepersack of Perry Hall has about $12,000 in campaign funds. He was a trooper in the state police for more than two decades.

"The office obviously lacks leadership," said Pepersack. "I want to restore integrity to the department and give the deputies and security personnel a reason to be proud again. Money has been spent wildly these last four years and that spending needs to be scrutinized."

Pepersack was defeated by Strasdauskas in 1998 after he fired her for insubordination after a trial board hearing. She was reinstated through a court challenge, then resigned and won the election by 4,000 votes.

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