BROOKSVILLE — Hernando County's sheriff-to-be isn't on the job yet, but he already has some fences to mend and skeptical minds to convince.
Gov. Charlie Crist on Tuesday tapped Pasco County Undersheriff Al Nienhuis to finish the last two years of Hernando Sheriff Richard Nugent's term.
The decision produced a predictable accusation: Politics had trumped prudence.
Why else, skeptics said, would Crist pick someone from a different county over Nugent's recommended applicant, Operations Chief Mike Maurer?
"I was sad to see it was truly all about politics and not about community support or internal support," said Assistant State Attorney Don Barbee, another in a solid field of eight applicants for the position.
There is plenty of ammunition for that argument.
Nienhuis, 47, is friends with Crist and state Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey. When Crist bailed on the GOP to make an ultimately unsuccessful independent bid for U.S. Senate, Fasano remained loyal.
Fasano also has a long history with Nienhuis' boss, Pasco Sheriff Bob White. Fasano used his influence as a state representative to help White get elected in 2000.
And Fasano was among those angered by Nugent's decision to quietly file for the 5th District congressional seat currently held by U.S.Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite, who had asked Nugent to do so because health problems were forcing her to retire. They announced the plan after the filing deadline, keeping other potential candidates like Fasano from entering a race for an open seat.
Nugent handily won in the Republican-dominated district. His resignation as sheriff is effective Friday, and he will head to Washington next week.
"I think it has everything to do with Gov. Crist, his loss and Mike Fasano," Nugent said Wednesday of Nienhuis' appointment. "But I'm not going to dwell on that, nor should anyone at the Sheriff's Office. The governor made the appointment, and we're going to live with it."
Well-known and liked, but didn't get the job
That was the same reaction from many in Hernando in the wake of Tuesday's announcement.
Maurer, who joined the office in 1988, worked his way up through the department and had become the other face of the Sheriff's Office, showing up at community events and earning the respect of Hernando residents.
"This was obviously political," Hernando County Commissioner David Russell said. "I'm not going to armchair quarterback or second-guess the governor, but I'll go on record saying Nienhuis would not have been my choice for the purposes of transitional continuity. Sheriff Nugent's recommendation made much more sense. That said, we have to play the hand that's been dealt politically, and I'll work with Nienhuis to ensure the health, safety and welfare of the citizens of Hernando County."
Fasano on Wednesday once again dismissed the notion that political favors or revenge factored in the process. He called Crist earlier this week and asked him to consider appointing Nienhuis. But that is no different from the lobbying that Hernando officials and residents did on behalf of Maurer and other candidates, Fasano said.
"I recommended a friend, but qualifications come first, then friendship, and Al Nienhuis is qualified and a good friend of mine," he said. "I learned a long time ago it does no good to hold grudges, especially in politics. You achieve very little."
Sterling Ivey, a spokesman for Crist, said Wednesday that it's understandable that not everyone agrees with the selection of Nienhuis, but that the governor looks to appoint people who will serve impartially, without regard to political affiliation.
"The governor received a number of highly qualified candidates to consider for the Hernando sheriff appointment, and the governor chose Nienhuis because of his experience," Ivey said. "Gov. Crist is confident he will serve the citizens of Hernando County well."
Department will work with the decision
Crist's decision goes against the wishes of dozens of Sheriff's Office employees in Hernando.
Last month, the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 164 hosted six of the eight candidates — including Maurer, Nienhuis and Barbee — and conducted a vote to decide whom to recommend to Crist. The results: 57 votes for Maurer, 10 for Barbee, and none for any other candidates. All of those who voted were employees at the Sheriff's Office.
Maurer has worked hard and is well-respected in the department, Stephen W. Klapka, the lodge president, told the Times after the vote. Another factor, Klapka said, was that employees concerned about job security were nervous about the prospect of bringing in someone from the outside.
On Wednesday, Klapka said employees will fall in line.
"I'm sure there was politics and payback, but we're not looking at that," he said. "We're looking at moving forward. We've got a job to do. (Nienhuis) seems like a very stand-up individual and he's open to ideas. We're going to welcome him and work with him."
Barbee, a former police officet and FBI agent who said he had plenty of support within the Sheriff's Office, said Nienhuis will have a steep learning curve.
"He doesn't know any of the people or the problems or the good things or the bad things," Barbee said. "By the time he gets up and running, he's going to find himself in the middle of an election in 2012."
Barbee said he still plans to run for the post in two years. Nienhuis and Maurer have said they will not rule out a bid at this point. If Nienhuis runs, Maurer will have to resign to challenge him because Florida law forbids employees from running against a sitting sheriff.
Political appointments are just that, political, said Hernando Commissioner Jeff Stabins.
"We are creatures of politics," said Stabins, who wrote to Crist supporting Barbee. "We are not working in a scientific lab somewhere studying rats. No one can get his way all the time, and someone who thinks he can ought to suck it up and get over it."
Stabins met with Nienhuis a few weeks ago and came away impressed. He's optimistic that Nienhuis can come in and make tough decisions, and that he and Maurer will make a good team.
"Mike Maurer is an outstanding professional, but I believe the agency needs a new set of eyes to work positively with the Board of County Commissioners to reduce overall spending and make sure we've got the best rank-and-file law enforcement available on the street," Stabins said. "That's not going to be an easy job, running the jail and the department with our $7 million budget shortfall this year."
For his part, Nienhuis said his qualifications should not be in question, even if the politics of the appointment are.
"All I can ask is for people to give me a fair chance to show them what I can do, and judge me on performance," Nienhuis said. "I'm going to strive to do the right thing for citizens and for the members of the Sheriff's Office."
Maurer will remain as chief deputy
Nienhuis met with Nugent and his staff on Wednesday, then sent out a memo to employees announcing that his first action when he takes office will be to appoint Maurer as chief deputy.
Maurer said Wednesday was a "crazy day" as he juggled the duties of preparing the switch-over to the new sheriff and took calls and visits from upset supporters.
"I say, listen, everything is meant for a reason, there are certain things not in our control, and you just have to deal with the cards you're dealt," he said. "You can't sit on your laurels and do much reflection because crime doesn't stop."
Maurer said he was honored that Nienhuis appointed him chief deputy.
"It was a relief, and I think it just had a settling effect for a lot of folks in the organization," he said. "It at least sent a message there's stability there and continuity there. Honestly, people were worried I'd get fired."
Maurer said he's at peace with his new role.
"I didn't get into the job because I wanted to be sheriff; I got into the job because I love what I do, and I still love what I do," he said.
Nugent said he's confident his employees will provide Nienhuis with the same level of respect they would have given Maurer.
"We've always tried to keep politics out of this agency," Nugent said. "Our legacy is, we do the right things for the right reasons. That's what I drilled down into our folks when I was a captain and a major and as sheriff. Everything else takes care of itself."
Tony Marrero can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1431.