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Unknown ready to step in as Pasco sheriff

Chris Nocco takes the long way to work, escaping the morning traffic on State Road 54 to meander along tree-lined Starkey Boulevard for a few minutes of tranquility.

The opportunities for bliss become significantly fewer today. Nocco is scheduled to be sworn in as Pasco County sheriff this morning and his professional life goes from cop/bureaucrat to cop/leader/politician commanding 1,125 employees and being chief law enforcement officer for 440,000 people.

Nocco is the sheriff nobody voted for, the first person to have that distinction in Pasco County since 1984 when Gov. Bob Graham named J.M. "Buddy'' Phillips to a three-month tenure to succeed the disgraced John Short. At 35, Nocco also is the youngest sheriff since Short was elected in 1976 at the age of 31.

So Nocco is doing what unknowns do. He is meeting and greeting. Press conferences on consecutive days, an appearance at the New Port Richey Rotary, a chat with Commission Chairwoman Ann Hildebrand, talking to well-schooled pols like state Rep. Will Weatherford and state Sen. Mike Fasano, and coffee with a commentary writer are just a sample of his rapidly filling appointment calendar.

He is the new dean of Pasco law enforcement who must complete his command staff, meet with his troops and devise more efficiencies over the next four weeks in anticipation of submitting a proposed budget to the County Commission by June 1. That is just the short term.

He also would be wise to do a better job of long-range planning to match projected capital and personnel needs to available resources. And outside of the meetings, the pencil pushing and the politics, the sheriff must strive to ensure that the public at large and his own deputies are safe.

Nocco, for instance, frets about the logistics of hurricane evacuations if a major storm targets the Tampa Bay region. And, he hopes to educate the public about the value of being attentive and reporting suspicious activity.

Already, there are distinctions from his old boss. Nocco drives one of the fleet: a white unmarked Impala, not a no-bid SUV from a local businessman/campaign contributor. He says he will re-evaluate the special deputy program that put authentic-looking badges into the hands of campaign contributors, prominent business owners and other chums of former Sheriff Bob White.

Most importantly, Nocco proclaims an unwillingness to fight with Pasco commissioners over the size of his budget. White's final year brawl to try to boost his $85 million budget is one of the lasting images that stain his legacy. Nocco does not have the political luxury of attempting to bully his way to more resources. Nocco, whether he likes it or not, is an unannounced candidate for Pasco sheriff until he publicly states otherwise. Appearing to be uncooperative with cash-strapped county commissioners wouldn't be a smart way to start a run for office.

Like White, Nocco becomes sheriff largely as an unknown to his Pasco constituency. But, White defeated a two-term incumbent. Nocco takes the job courtesy of White's early retirement and an appointment from Gov. Rick Scott that is colored by Nocco's wife, Bridget. She is the well-compensated Tallahassee lobbyist and Republican Party consultant who raised cash for Scott's 2010 campaign. Nocco and his wife just moved to Pasco County in 2009 after White offered him the job as captain in charge of administrative services.

It came with a pay cut from Nocco's job as chief of staff at the Florida Highway Patrol and forced the couple to sell their Tallahassee house at a loss, but it also brought a chance to return to police work. White promoted Nocco to major in March, then paved the way for his successor by announcing his retirement eight days later. We should all have such rapid career trajectories.

So Nocco, a former patrol officer, political aide and state agency bureaucrat, is the new sheriff who must persuade skeptics he is a capable leader, not simply a politically connected, one-time aide to Marco Rubio who rode his wife's fundraising coattails to this job.

"If I'm doing a bad job, in August 2012, you can decide,'' he says.

That would be Aug. 28, 2012, the date of the primary election. It is just 17 months away. Already, three candidates, two Republicans and a Democrat, have filed candidacy papers.

No wonder the new sheriff grabs those moments of serenity while he can.

Unknown ready to step in as Pasco sheriff 04/30/11 [Last modified: Saturday, April 30, 2011 5:31am]

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