The race for sheriff of Pinellas County is shaping up to be a referendum on experience versus change.
Jim Coats, the Republican incumbent, is coming to the end of his first four-year term. In 37 years with the agency, he has served as deputy, sergeant, lieutenant, captain, major and chief deputy. Three times the governor appointed him to interim positions leading troubled agencies.
Randall Jones, his Democratic opponent, has 18 years experience in the agency as a patrol deputy and a corporal. He worked as a community policing officer as well as a detective on cases of crimes against children, domestic violence and property crimes. He resigned in April to run for office.
His supervisory experience is limited, however, to overseeing recruits and patrol deputies as a field training officer. He never made it to the rank of sergeant or higher.
This lack of experience has become a campaign issue as Jones vies to lead an agency with roughly 2,800 employees and a budget of $265-million.
The Jones campaign said there is more to being sheriff than experience. Jones, 39, believes Coats is out of touch, the rank-and-file deputies are demoralized, and the agency is not serving the needs of the community.
"I feel our sheriff has lost sight that we work for the people," Jones said during his campaign.
Coats, 64, said Jones is full of hollow rhetoric and "there's no substitute for experience and training."
Jones tried to move up the ladder at the Sheriff's Office in 1999, when he took the sergeant's examination. He failed the test, according to Sheriff's Office records, and — combined with points for tenure, job experience and scores on performance evaluations — Jones ranked 123 out of 126 candidates for sergeant.
"So what? What does a test of this sort prove, short of being a memory exercise?" Jones wrote in an e-mail. (He insisted on answering questions for this article only in writing.)
Unless a test is hands-on and practical it is "no measure of one's ability to (do) a job — in any profession," Jones wrote.
Coats also has charged that Jones has no experience balancing a budget as large and complicated as that of the Sheriff's Office.
Jones said in an e-mail that he had plenty of experience with budgets because he used to own a restaurant.
"If one (with any intelligence whatsoever) has balanced one budget, he/she has balanced them all," Jones wrote, "and by the way, the amount of a budget is of little significance."
Coats said this just showed how little Jones knows about the agency.
But the allegations about not being able to handle the budgets can cut both ways.
Coats drew much criticism for telling county commissioners in May that the streets of Pinellas would be "littered with human carnage" and innocent people would be stuck in a deadly cross-fire if his budget were cut by 10 percent.
He eventually made do with a 9 percent cut.
Jones railed against Coats for his comments, calling them scare tactics and promising to do better if he is sheriff.
Jones is an affable man who prides himself on his ability to bring people together.
As sheriff, he plans to create task forces with other agencies to take on drugs, gangs and cyber crime. He says he will respond to calls during the day and night in uniform to boost morale among the deputies. He wants to hold town hall meetings, order efficiency audits, and post the audits on the Sheriff's Office Web site to make the agency more accountable to county residents. And he wants to make the Sheriff's Office more diverse.
Among his many ideas for changes are assigning deputies to three, 10-hour shifts in order to use the overlap in their schedules to focus on crime-prone areas. He also wants to create an Inspector General's Office where deputies can take their grievances.
Jones points to statistics that he said show a 9 percent increase in crime in Pinellas during the first six months of the year. He said he would do better as sheriff.
What he doesn't say is that the increase is actually 5 percent in the parts of the county served by the Sheriff's Office and violent crime stayed virtually the same, statistics from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement show.
"Everything he says is misinterpreted either intentionally or he doesn't know it's misleading," Coats said. "I don't have time in my candidates forums to correct all of his misinformation."
As far as his agency, Coats doesn't think there's "anything broken" and hopes to continue along the same course.
He was successful in getting rid of the overcrowding problem at the county jail and he's turned empty beds there into money makers by renting space to the U.S. Marshals Service for a few million a year.
As the master plan for the future of the jail site is formed, Coats has been pushing for cost-saving measures that reduce staff at the jail. He's also a proponent of the life skills programs at the jail that he says cut down on recidivism.
Under Coats, the agency developed a strong reputation for being on the cutting edge of crime-fighting technology from facial recognition software and automated license-plate scanning to data management systems that track criminal information.
Jones thinks people want more.
"It's time to rid the Sheriff's Office of the politicians and instead replace them with true public servants, and that's what I am — a public servant," he wrote early in the campaign.
Coats is aware of the possibility of an Obama Effect: voters who come out to support the Democratic presidential nominee might vote a straight party ticket, lifting Jones and other local Democrats.
"I think it's important that the voters consider the candidates rather than the individual political parties," Coats said.
He was very critical of his opponent.
"If there was a candidate that was as qualified or more qualified than me I wouldn't be as concerned," Coats said. "But it's a scary thought having this guy as sheriff."
Jonathan Abel can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4157.