Fitzgerald, Cave differ on what role should be

Cave, Fitzgerald offer voters a choice

Sheriff

August 30, 2006|By Melissa Harris | Melissa Harris,sun reporter

After speaking with voters in his effort to unseat incumbent Howard County Sheriff Chuck Cave, county police union President Jim Fitzgerald is convinced that about the only people who know what sheriff's deputies do in this county are the prisoners whom deputies ferry to court from the county jail.

Fitzgerald's message is that residents need a more aggressive sheriff, one who will secure more personnel, resources and media attention for the 69-person agency and "get red in face" if there's resistance.

Cave, who faces tough competition from his more bellicose opponent in the Sept. 12 Democratic primary, is convinced that anger will not win anyone favors in budget negotiations. No matter who's in charge, Cave said, the sheriff's office is and always will be secondary to schools, police and parks.

"When [County Executive James N. Robey] said the money is not there, you can sit up there and talk until you're blue in the face, and the money is not there. At least for us," said Cave during a candidates forum sponsored by the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 121, the sheriff's deputies union, last month.

The sheriff's primary role is service to the county's Circuit Court. Deputies transport prisoners to and from the Ellicott City facility, provide building security, retrieve wanted suspects arrested in other counties and states, and serve eviction notices, warrants and domestic violence orders in Howard County.

The role is a narrow one, but one that can be dangerous. Errors can be costly.

This week, several sheriff's deputies had to forcibly evict a distraught Columbia man from his residence. And in 1999, a data entry error by a sheriff's employee enabled a Laurel man to buy a gun from a pawnshop despite being the subject of a domestic violence restraining order. He fatally shot his two young children a few days later.

After that, Cave created a domestic violence unit within the sheriff's office, and, at the request of county police, its role has expanded.

The department also has reduced the number of outstanding warrants from more than 1,000 to about 250. Cave said that most of the remaining suspects are either already in prison or unable to be extradited from other states. Cave, a retired Maryland State Police sergeant, credited his six-member warrant unit for the progress.

Cave has added 18 positions in eight years. His budget has increased 49 percent since fiscal year 2002 from $3.6 million to $5.4 million, and the 41 sworn officers have all been assigned take-home cars, said Herman Charity, Robey's special assistant and a former police officer. Deputies used to drive hand-me-downs from the Police Department.

"We do believe we've been fair to them," Charity said.

But the problem, according to sheriff's deputies union President Andrew S. Mackert, is that Cave didn't get all that he needed. In an interview, Cave highlighted staffing increases - three this year and three the year before that - but then said that he needed more.

He listed improvements in technology, vehicles, safety and courthouse security, but acknowledged that computers in several deputies' cars still do not work six months after being installed.

At one point, staffing became so short that only one deputy was traveling to pick up prisoners in other Maryland counties, except for those on the Eastern Shore, posing a safety risk that Cave also acknowledged.

"We've done it, but I don't like to do it," Cave said. "We've been very fortunate we've had no incidents."

When asked about staffing during the union's candidates forum, Cave said, "Ideally, ideally I need 16 [more] people. That is pie-in-the-sky. I will settle for 10."

"Settling," Fitzgerald said, is unacceptable.

"I've never seen Cave advocate for sheriff's deputies," he said. "He's low-profile. He's thankful for what they give him and then lets it go."

The sheriff's deputies union endorsed Fitzgerald, 16 to 6, with 12 deputies abstaining. The union listed grievances, which included that Cave works out of an office in Columbia while most of his staff is at the Circuit Court in Ellicott City. Construction in the courthouse forced the move, but Cave said that he's willing to find a way back into the building.

Unlike the 69-year old Cave, Fitzgerald, 59, has little management experience. Most of his promotions during his 34 years with the Police Department came during the nine years that he was union president.

He also has made promises that would require the support of the next county executive and additional money, both of which are uncertain.

"I would hire a part-time public information officer to visibly sell ourselves to the government and the citizens," said Fitzgerald, who has lent $9,000 of his own money to his campaign, according to campaign finance records.

"I find it embarrassing when I approach citizens and say, `I'm running for sheriff." And they respond, `What do you mean? Sheriff?'"

Fitzgerald said that his union experience gives him the political know-how to get things done, having negotiated labor contracts and used his contacts within county government to attain them.

"You've got to do your homework," said Fitzgerald, a detective corporal assigned to the warrants unit. "When you come in to make a request, you have to come in with pages upon pages of justification. You're not going to get everything, but the things he needs aren't `pie-in-the-sky.' They're realistic things."

melissa.harris@baltsun.com

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