BROOKSVILLE — Five weeks on the job, Hernando Sheriff Al Nienhuis is still in the thick of his get-to-know-you meetings with local community groups.
On Monday evening, the Hernando County NAACP got its turn.
During a cordial 90-minute meeting in the posh environs of the clubhouse of Southern Hills Plantation, a gated golf community on U.S. 41 south of downtown, Nienhuis fielded questions on subjects ranging from racial diversity at the Sheriff's Office to the quality of meals at the county jail.
With Nienhuis' wife, Rhonda, taking notes and the couple's 11-year-old daughter, Alyssa, looking on, NAACP branch president Paul Douglas and member Richard Howell took turns asking questions submitted by members and the public. Douglas had given Nienhuis the questions earlier in the day.
That came in handy when Nienhuis was asked about the number of African-Americans at the agency.
The Sheriff's Office falls a little short of mirroring the demographics of the county, where blacks account for about 5.6 percent of the population, Nienhuis said. The agency's African-American ranks include eight sworn officers, one of whom is a lieutenant; three sworn detention deputies; and eight civilian staffers.
The agency will work to increase those numbers, he said.
"I know diversity helps us enforce the law better," said Nienhuis, dressed in a suit, his badge hanging from a front jacket pocket. "I'm going to hire the very best deputies I can, and I'm going to recruit as wide of a variety as I can."
The agency probably won't be hiring deputies soon, he said. Turnover is low, and the budget is tight.
Asked whether he is prepared to "stand up and fight for your budget" if county commissioners seek a level of cuts he's not comfortable with, Nienhuis didn't hesitate.
"Absolutely," he said. "My first and foremost job is keeping you safe. I'm going to need the resources."
But, he added, "I'm definitely not in favor of raising taxes."
Nienhuis was asked whether he has a sense of the volume and nature of citizen complaints lodged against deputies, and whether he would consider a citizen review committee.
He said he is pleased to see a relatively low number of complaints and that the bulk of them tend to be minor. He praised the work of the agency's internal affairs investigator, Sgt. Kathleen Reid, but did not answer the question about a citizen board to formally review the results of internal affairs investigations and any discipline meted out.
When asked by the Times on Tuesday about that issue, Nienhuis said he doesn't see the need for a citizen board. State statute outlines the process for internal investigations, and the results are public record, he said.
"The whole county can be a review board and see that investigation once it's closed," he said.
Nienhuis called the role of school resource officers "critically important," but he said it will be up to the School Board to continue to do its part to cover the cost.
"If they cut funding, I can't go to the County Commission and ask for more," he said.
Nienhuis said he hopes to have more low-risk inmates on work details to clean up the community. Asked about complaints from county jail inmates who say they aren't being fed enough, Nienhuis said he is confident that the fare is healthy and provides plenty of calories.
"If someone comes in and is used to eating four or five Big Macs a day, they're probably going to lose weight," he said. "If they're underweight because they're using drugs and not taking care of themselves, they're probably going to gain weight."
Howell told Nienhuis that he had suggestions for the substation-turned-community center recently constructed on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in South Brooksville. The high-crime area straddles the city-county line, and Nienhuis' predecessor, Sheriff Rich Nugent, opted not to staff the substation, citing budget constraints. Nienhuis said he had yet to visit the center and said he is open to ideas.
A Republican who served for a decade as second-in-command for the Pasco County Sheriff's Office before being appointed to the Hernando post by then-Gov. Charlie Crist, Nienhuis got a question he is by now used to hearing, though this time with a twist: Are you planning to run in 2012, and if so, will you actively campaign for the support of the African-American community?
He gave the same answer he has given in the past. He hasn't decided about running and will run only if he thinks the public is pleased with his performance. As for soliciting the backing of minorities, "I absolutely would seek your support," he said. "You're just as much my boss as anyone else."
The meeting was open to the public and advertised on fliers and in local media outlets, but only 14 people showed up. Douglas blamed the rainy and dreary weather.
After the meeting, NAACP members offered words of cautious optimism.
"He answered the questions very directly, and he made no promises he couldn't keep," said longtime branch member Arthur Gittens, a Spring Hill resident who serves as the branch's redress committee.
"It sounds like he's conscientious and on the right track," said Evelyn Hackney, a retired school administrator who lives in Spring Hill. "His talk is positive. I just hope we're going to see the action he's proposing."
Hackney said effort has to come from both sides, though.
"I know we as citizens have to do some work, too," she said.
Recently elected without opposition, Douglas has vowed to reinvigorate the branch as a defender of civil rights. That will probably mean bringing weightier issues before Nienhuis in tenser meetings than Monday's gathering.
But the meeting helped set a civil tone, Douglas said.
"He seems like he can take tough issues and deal with them professionally," he said. "It seems to me that Mr. Nienhuis is somebody we can talk to."
Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or [email protected]