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'Outsider' Sheriff Nienhuis wins praise

BROOKSVILLE — He's a hard guy not to like.

No question, Sheriff Al Nienhuis — who recently announced that he will run for office next year — has his critics. Some of Hernando County's top political power brokers have yet to offer their support, and he will likely face a crowd of opponents in the primary and general elections.

But nine months into his tenure as Hernando's top law enforcement official, public and private business leaders say the same thing about Nienhuis: It's difficult not to like him.

Former Gov. Charlie Crist appointed Nienhuis, 47, to the position in January after longtime Sheriff Rich Nugent was elected to Ginny Brown-Waite's vacated District 5 seat in Congress. At the time, the governor's selection was surprising, controversial and unpopular with many in Hernando.

The appointment, onlookers charged, was purely political. Sen. Mike Fasano, a staunch Crist supporter at the time, was close friends with Nienhuis. Many believe Fasano used his influence to ensure that the veteran Pasco undersheriff succeeded Nugent.

Nienhuis was given the position over several strong Hernando candidates, including popular Col. Mike Maurer, whom Nugent had recommended to replace him.

So, from the start, Nienhuis had to overcome a perception that, maybe, he didn't belong here. He was, and sometimes still is, called an outsider, a beneficiary of back-room politics and a man who doesn't deserve to be Hernando's sheriff.

To those who know Nienhuis well, though, Crist couldn't have made a better choice.

"I think it's a ridiculous thing to say that he's an outsider," said Gus Guadagnino, president of Joni Industries, at the Airport Industrial Park. "He's from the town next to us. I think he's a breath of fresh air."

Like others, Guadagnino praised Nienhuis for not forcing his own way of doing things on the agency or the community.

In fact, Nienhuis' first move was to contact Maurer.

"I had 22 minutes to pout," the colonel said.

Less than a half-hour after learning in late December that he had not gotten the job, Maurer's phone rang. Nienhuis was on the other line.

The two men met that evening, and the new sheriff asked Maurer to be his chief deputy.

"He reached out, and didn't have to do that," said Maurer, who has been with the agency since 1988. "I thought it certainly exemplified his professionalism."

A few Sheriff's Office employees, the colonel said, still look at Nienhuis as an outsider, but those people are in the minority.

His widespread support among deputies, Maurer said, is at least in part because of how the sheriff handled the death of Deputy John Mecklenburg, who was killed in July after his vehicle struck a tree during a high-speed chase. Nienhuis has been in regular contact with the family, and he personally reached out to deputies who were involved in the chase or who were at the scene after Mecklenburg's crash.

"I think he handled it seamlessly, and that's not an easy thing to do as a CEO, as the sheriff," Maurer said. "In our little micro-society of law enforcement, everybody feeds off of the boss."

• • •

From attending a Hernando Symphony Orchestra concert to participating in a Kiwanis Club golf tournament to serving barbecue at the Greater Hernando County Chamber of Commerce Beach Bash, Nienhuis has been a regular at local events.

"He's a tangible guy," said Pastor Clarence Clark, president and CEO of Shiloh Problem Solvers. "He's not hiding from anybody."

In south Brooksville, especially, Clark said, it's critical for law enforcement personnel to build relationships with the neighborhood's kids, parents and leaders.

Clark believes Nienhuis, like past sheriffs, understands that importance. Nienhuis, for instance, has continued to support the Community Oriented Policing and Problem Solving unit. The program helps deputies better understand and connect with the people they serve.

"He hasn't shut the door on any of the community involvement," Clark said. "I look at him as a positive and proactive type of person."

Since starting the job, Nienhuis has also joined several organizations' boards, including the chamber, the Dawn Center, Youth and Family Alternatives, Hernando County Habitat for Humanity and the Fraternal Order of Police, among others.

For the first time at least in recent history, Hernando's sheriff is a chamber member, and chamber president Pat Crowley said Nienhuis has been much more than just a name on the list.

"He's really been a receptive person and has really gotten to know people," said Crowley, noting that he even stopped by for a recent orientation meeting to welcome new members.

Nienhuis, a Republican, is also a regular at the local party's events.

Blaise Ingoglia, chairman of Hernando County Republican Executive Committee, wouldn't comment in detail about Nienhuis' bid for election because the party still hasn't had its primary election, but said he believes Nienhuis has fit in well here.

"I will say that he, in my opinion, has done a very good job," Ingoglia said. "He's been out in the community. He's been visible."

• • •

Not everyone, though, believes Nienhuis is the ideal choice for Hernando County.

Brooksville native Robert "Bobby" Sullivan, who retired from a long career at the Pasco County Sheriff's Office in 2007, will run in the Republican primary against Nienhuis, his former supervisor.

Though he wouldn't offer details because his campaign has just begun, Sullivan said he and Nienhuis have different crime-fighting strategies and policing philosophies. "I think that the folks will see as the campaign progresses," Sullivan said, "that there's just a stark contrast between the two of us."

Sullivan, a graduate of Hernando High School, said he believes it's important that the sheriff be from the community, but insisted that won't drive his campaign.

"I think being local and knowing the folks here and being born and raised here and spending my entire life here should be weighed heavily," he said, "but I want them to judge us on all of the issues."

Eddie McConnell, who worked in the department for more than two decades, ran unsuccessfully for sheriff in 2000 and 2004 and applied for Nugent's vacated position last year. The local Democrat said he hasn't decided whether he will run for the position in 2012. Like Sullivan, though, he stressed the need for a home-grown sheriff.

He also criticized Nienhuis for one of the first decisions after he took office: to forfeit the agency's state accreditation. Given the heavy costs and staffing necessary to maintain accreditation, the sheriff said it wasn't worth it.

In the long run, McConnell said, the move won't be worth the short-term savings. "I feel that's a mistake," he said. "It doesn't ever hurt to have somebody looking over your shoulder."

Tom Mylander, sheriff when the agency first gained accreditation, also sharply criticized Nienhuis for that move. Giving up the independent review process, Mylander said, may eventually make the agency vulnerable to litigation.

The retired sheriff said he believed Nienhuis succumbed to pressure from the County Commission to cut costs.

"I think that will certainly come back and hurt him," Mylander said. "We're in a lawsuit world, and you need a lot to back up your side of the story."

Despite that criticism, Mylander said he thinks Nienhuis has done a good job thus far. He's also heard positive reviews about the new sheriff from people within the agency.

Mylander hasn't decided yet whether he will support Nienhuis, saying he's still "kicking it around." He said he would also consider backing Sullivan.

The Times attempted to reach Nugent for comment, but the congressman did not respond to messages left with his staff.

• • •

Late last month, Nienhuis and the County Commission completed what many expected to be one of the most difficult budget seasons a Hernando sheriff has ever faced.

The commissioners asked Nienhuis to cut $2.5 million. After months of offers, counteroffers and number crunching, Nienhuis cut about $2 million.

Though the process was at times testy, he seemed to make many more allies than enemies as a result.

Cliff Manuel, president of Coastal Engineering Associates in Brooksville, said he was "very impressed" with how Nienhuis handled the budget cuts and consistently met face to face with county leaders to discuss the issues.

Commissioners agreed.

"We worked well together," said Commissioner Dave Russell. "Obviously, you have that give and take situation. In the end, Al was a consummate professional."

Commissioner Jeff Stabins also commended the sheriff for how he dealt with the financial challenge, though the commissioner said he thinks Nienhuis could have cut even more from his budget.

While Russell said the sheriff has "fit in real well" in his new position, the commissioner will wait until closer to the election to offer his support for any candidate.

Stabins doesn't need to wait. Regardless of where the sheriff worked or lived prior to his job here, he said, he will back Nienhuis in the coming election.

"He never really seemed like an outsider to me. That's never the way I looked at it," Stabins said. "Most of the residents of Hernando County came from other places. Most of us once were outsiders."

John Woodrow Cox can be reached at (352) 848-1432 or jcox@sptimes.com.

'Outsider' Sheriff Nienhuis wins praise 10/29/11 [Last modified: Saturday, October 29, 2011 4:01pm]
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