If you thought the Pinellas County Commission races, which are occurring in the turbulent wake of the Jim Smith land scandal, would be the races to watch this election season, you might have been wrong. So far, the local race with the most potential for nastiness is the one for sheriff.
Hints at that hostility surfaced Monday night at a candidate forum in East Lake sponsored by the Council of North County Neighborhoods. A standing-room-only crowd of about 150 people packed a stuffy room to hear the candidates for sheriff answer questions.
Incumbent Sheriff Jim Coats is being challenged by two people from within his own department. John Pikramenos is a Sheriff's Office veteran of 30 years and has, as he put it Monday night, handled everything from "dog complaints to homicides." Randall Jones is an 18-year veteran of the department. Pikramenos and Jones are Democrats, so voters in the Aug. 26 Democratic primary will choose one of them to go up against Coats in the Nov. 4 general election. Independent candidate Greg Pound also will be on the Nov. 4 ballot.
Accusations are flying among the candidates and their supporters, fueled by Internet traffic and union involvement. Pound keeps talking about Pikramenos getting disciplined following a relationship with another Sheriff's Office employee. Jones is upset that Coats' secretary and her husband have filed complaints against him with the Florida Elections Commission. Pikramenos and Jones have accused Coats of lacking leadership and spending too much money on nonessentials. Coats, though not on the Aug. 26 ballot, has already been forced into defensive mode.
The members of the Council of North County Neighborhoods who prepared the questions for Monday's forum seemed most concerned that budget cutbacks in the Sheriff's Office might impact the number of deputies available to patrol North Pinellas.
Pikramenos mentioned that he lives in the north county and said he felt the area would be just fine. Jones used the question as an opportunity to expound on his belief that under Coats, the Sheriff's Office has too many chiefs and not enough Indians. "You can't support a brick on a toothpick," he said. Coats responded with two major points: that since he battled county commissioners over their threatened budget cuts, they have eased off and he will not have to make significant staff cuts, and that any comparison of his department with comparable ones would show his is not top-heavy.
But if more cuts had to be made, the forum moderator asked, where would you start?
Jones said he'd start by cutting his own salary, then consider cuts in the department's flight section. He'd also study the take-home car program and whether it would save money for jail inmates to prepare the jail meals.
Pikramenos said jail inmates should be used to produce revenue for the county, that the department probably doesn't need so many public information officers, and that consolidation of services is the best way to save money. Coats noted that outsourcing food preparation at the jail saved the county thousands of dollars and that jail inmates already work out in the community.
After the questions were done, final comments turned into a duel over union endorsements. Pikramenos said he has received the endorsement of local and district chapters of the Fraternal Order of Police. Jones charged that Pikramenos has close ties to the FOP board, which didn't interview other candidates before making the endorsement. He also said he has won the endorsement of other unions and some Democratic Party groups.
Coats, not knowing which of the two Democrats he'll face, simply painted himself as the most experienced law enforcement officer of the bunch, the best educated and the one trusted to serve on the executive boards of numerous nonprofit groups and agencies.
With the primary still more than a month away, it looks like the sheriff's race will be contributing to the August heat.
Diane Steinle's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.