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Hernando sheriff candidates each cite their experience

Hernando County Sheriff Al Nienhuis weathered the storm that ensued after then-Gov. Charlie Crist appointed him in 2010 over a favored internal candidate.

The former chief deputy at the Pasco Sheriff's Office handily fended off an aggressive Republican primary opponent who tried to cast him as a carpetbagger without the street credibility needed to garner respect from the rank and file.

Now, only a Democrat and a write-in candidate stand in the way of a four-year term as Hernando's elected sheriff.

Democrat James "Eddie" McConnell has been less biting in his criticism than Robert Sullivan, the retired Pasco sheriff's captain who worked under Nienhuis and challenged him in the primary. But McConnell, a retired Groveland Police Department captain, is striking similar notes in his campaign leading up to the Nov. 6 general election.

Like Sullivan, McConnell was born and raised in Brooksville. He touts his lengthy — if not recent — experience in the Hernando Sheriff's Office. He also has two previous bids for sheriff under his belt.

"I have the history here, and I have the abilities to do the job," McConnell said.

Write-in candidate Nicholas Picinnich is owner and president of Bissino Construction in Spring Hill. He was a police officer with the Port St. Lucie Police Department for six months in 1990.

The challengers have an uphill battle against the GOP incumbent in a county that leans Republican.

Initially viewed with skepticism and resentment by residents and some Sheriff's Office employees who wanted Crist to pick then-Col. Mike Mauer, Nienhuis eased some concerns by naming Maurer his chief deputy. He has since garnered widespread support from the community, raising almost $69,000 by the end of September, compared to McConnell's nearly $25,000.

Perhaps most telling: Nienhuis won 61 percent of the vote in the two-man primary.

"It's been very humbling," he said. "I think a lot of it has to do with not just how well I've assimilated into the community but with how well things have gone internally, too."

McConnell started his career in 1977, working as a correctional officer for a year before joining the Sheriff's Office.

Over the next 23 years, he served as a patrol deputy, vice and narcotics detective, school resource officer, crime prevention coordinator and training supervisor, among other roles.

He worked for the police departments in Crystal River and Brooksville, then spent six years at the Groveland Police Department before retiring this year.

That, he says, is the kind of resume a sheriff should have.

"So he can have the respect when he talks to the troops, and the troops can look at him and say, 'You've been there,' " he said.

He said he remains connected to the agency through friends, acquaintances and people he has trained.

The biggest need, he said, is fiscal accountability.

McConnell contends the agency can pare administrative positions and solve crimes sooner by cross-training employees. One example, he said, is to provide patrol deputies with more training in investigative and interrogative techniques.

He asserts that money can be saved simply by requiring deputies to drive 5 mph under the speed limit.

Like Sullivan, McConnell criticizes Nienhuis for forgoing state reaccreditation for the agency. He also said he has heard complaints about slow response times for deputies calling for backup. And he says the Sheriff's Office needs to bolster its support for community crime watch groups.

He accused Nienhuis of using "scare tactics" when he told the County Commission this summer that forcing him to cut his $38.27 million budget by $1.3 million to help fill a general fund shortfall would require layoffs of about two dozen front-line employees. Nienhuis eventually returned about $870,000 in unspent funds.

"How much money was he going to give back before he was called upon to give back $1.3 million? Did that demand call his hand?" McConnell said. "In my administration, the budget's going to be transparent."

Nienhuis dismisses the notion that he can't relate to patrol deputies.

He points to his time floating solo as the only Florida Marine Patrol officer in five counties in the Tampa Bay area. Later, he said, he and fellow agents with the Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco conducted undercover drug operations, investigated economic crimes and made dozens of arrests.

He joined the Pasco Sheriff's Office in 2000 and served as Sheriff Bob White's second-in-command for the next decade. Nienhuis oversaw daily operations of the agency, which toward the end of his tenure had an annual budget of about $85 million.

Nienhuis says he has been a steady hand to guide a Hernando agency that was running well when he arrived. He notes that the crime rate is at a 20-year low and the percentage of crimes resulting in arrest is the highest in the same period.

He stands by his statement to commissioners that a drastic budget cut would have resulted in layoffs. The command staff is already stretched thin, so there is nowhere else to cut, he said. He called the money he returned a necessary cushion to cover unforeseen costs that arise during the year.

Nienhuis said skipping reaccreditation saved enough resources to put a sergeant back on the street.

Average response times for emergency calls are a little more than six minutes, or roughly half what they were nine years ago, Nienhuis said. The average response time for backup to high-priority calls and traffic stops in the fourth quarter of 2011 was three minutes and 38 seconds, slightly less than the same period in the previous year, according to an internal review.

The number of auxiliary deputies, who go through an abbreviated version of the police academy and are partnered with fully certified deputies to provide "built-in backup," is increasing, Nienhuis said.

As for cross-training, he said most crimes are already solved by patrol deputies and many people in administration already fill multiple roles.

Hiring more community policing deputies will be a priority when the budget picture brightens, he said. And he acknowledges the agency can become even more efficient.

"We're always looking for ways to do that," he said.

Reach Tony Marrero at tmarrero@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1431.

ALVIN "AL" NIENHUIS, 48, was born in St. Petersburg and has bachelor's and master's degrees in administration, both from the University of South Florida. He served as a part-time officer for the Florida Marine Patrol, then joined the state Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco in 1989, working as a special agent before a promotion to captain. He joined the Pasco Sheriff's Office in 2000, where he worked as chief deputy until he was appointed to his current post in December 2010. He is married with three daughters.

JAMES E. "EDDIE" McCONNELL, 59, is a Brooksville native who has taken some college coursework. He worked as a state corrections officer for a year before joining the Hernando County Sheriff's Office in 1978, where he served as a patrol deputy, vice and narcotics detective, and school resource officer, among other roles. He ran for sheriff in 2000, losing to Rich Nugent by about 3 percentage points, then left the agency in 2001. He ran again in 2004, losing to Nugent by a wider margin. He worked for the Brooksville and Crystal River police departments, then spent six years at the Groveland Police Department, retiring earlier this year at the rank of captain. He is divorced with four sons.

Hernando sheriff candidates each cite their experience 10/19/12 [Last modified: Friday, October 19, 2012 10:19pm]

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