BROOKSVILLE — Meeting with his staff of supervisors for the first time Monday morning, Hernando County Sheriff Al Nienhuis offered a quote from retired Army Gen. Colin Powell.
"When we are debating an issue, loyalty means giving me your honest opinion, whether you think I'll like it or not," Nienhuis said, reading Powell's words on a large screen in the training room of the county's Emergency Operations Center, next door to the Sheriff's Office.
"Disagreement, at this stage, stimulates me. But once a decision has been made, the debate ends. From that point on, loyalty means executing the decision as if it were your own."
Nienhuis told the roomful of 50 or so corporals, lieutenants, sergeants and civilian supervisors that he offered the quote to give a sense of his leadership philosophy.
But the sentiment about debate, decisions and loyalty rings significant in another way as Nienhuis takes the reins and works to move forward from the controversy that surrounded his appointment.
Gov. Charlie Crist last week tapped the 47-year-old to serve the last two years in the term of former Sheriff Richard Nugent, who will be sworn in Wednesday to the 5th Congressional District seat formerly held by Ginny Brown-Waite of Brooksville.
Nienhuis served for nearly a decade as undersheriff in Pasco County, but he was not Nugent's recommended pick or the applicant favored by many in the agency and the Hernando County community at large. That was operations chief Mike Maurer, who worked his way through the ranks after joining the department in 1988.
Nienhuis appointed Maurer as chief deputy last week. During Monday's meeting, Nienhuis that he already felt like he was home. Then he invited Maurer up to the lectern and, as the two men shook hands, the room burst into applause.
"The chief has been one of the most professional people I've met in my career," said Nienhuis, who wore a suit because his uniform is still in the works. "He and I, I assure you, are going to make great team. He has my 100 percent confidence and faith. What he says, goes."
Nienhuis described himself as a technology-oriented leader who would have an open-door policy. Then the supervisors picked up pens and scribbled on notepads as Nienhuis gave them assignments: Be ready to report on the strengths and weaknesses of their staffers. Bring ideas for how the Sheriff's Office can save money and increase efficiency. Bring suggestions on how to make the department better.
"I know that you have a difficult job, and I know that sometimes the sheriff gets in the way of that," he said. "If I do that, I want you to hold me accountable and let me know."
During a press conference later, Nienhuis once again fielded questions about his appointment.
"I slept this morning until my alarm clock went off, and that's not very usual for me," he said. "I think that's a great omen that the level of comfort is there and it's because of the people here.
"Hopefully my credentials bear out the fact that (Crist) thought I was the best person for the job," he said. "The only thing that is going to really matter is what happens from today forward."
Sgt. Jeff Kraft, who joined the Sheriff's Office two decades ago, supported Maurer for sheriff. But Kraft said he was impressed by Nienhuis and his talk of improving technology, which Kraft said would help him do his job as head of the fraud unit.
Kraft also is encouraged by reports from counterparts in Pasco.
"They speak well of him," Kraft said. "He's definitely got a reputation of taking care of the rank and file, and if you do that, then everything else falls in line."
Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or firstname.lastname@example.org.