If you thought the Pinellas County Commission election campaigns, which are occurring in the turbulent wake of the Jim Smith land scandal, would be the local races to watch this election season, you might have been wrong. At this stage, 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 banquet hall to hear the candidates for sheriff answer questions.
Incumbent Sheriff Jim Coats is being challenged by two people from within his own ranks. 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 and was its first community policing officer.
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, who reports no law enforcement experience, 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 how Pikramenos got disciplined in 2004 after an investigation of his relationship with a female co-worker. Jones is upset that Coats' secretary and her husband have filed complaints against Jones with the Florida Elections Commission. Pikramenos and Jones say Coats isn't a leader and has spent too much money on nonessentials. Coats, though not on the Aug. 26 ballot, has already been forced into defensive mode.
Because the Council of North County Neighborhoods was the sponsor of Monday's forum, most of the questions asked had a north county angle. But several concerned recent budget cuts in the Sheriff's Office and how those cuts would affect the safety of Pinellas residents.
Pikramenos wants less money spent on programs he considers unnecessary and says the Sheriff's Office needs to refocus on making sure that deputies have a close relationship with the communities they patrol. Jones said budget cuts are not synonymous with less safety, but the real problem is that 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 that since he battled county commissioners over threatened budget cuts, the crisis has eased and the department will not face an immediate new round of layoffs. He also argued 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 money could be saved by having jail inmates prepare 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 to a private company saved the county thousands of dollars and that jail inmates already work in the community.
Final comments by the candidates turned into a duel over union endorsements. Pikramenos said he has received the endorsement of local and district lodges 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, presented 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 is editor of editorials for the North Pinellas editions of the Times.