Tuesday, May 22, 2018
Opinion

What some called an advantage put Pinellas Sheriff Gualtieri right in the hot seat

Foul! they shouted. Unfair! they claimed.

Appoint Bob Gual­tieri as Pinellas sheriff after his boss resigns, and he'll have a built-in advantage when the position is up for election later this year.

So how is that unfair advantage working out for you, sheriff?

"There are days,'' Gualtieri said, "when it's a challenge.''

Lawyers are bad-mouthing his department. Reporters are questioning the investigative tactics of detectives. The State Attorney's Office is dismissing charges in disputed marijuana cases.

Gualtieri's visibility may have skyrocketed, but the headlines are rarely kind.

Never mind that all of the apparent mischief created by the narcotics department occurred before Gualtieri replaced Jim Coats as Pinellas County Sheriff last November.

And never mind that Gual­tieri had already revamped the hierarchy in that department before these allegations began surfacing in the past month or two.

Nuance is lost in politics, and perspective is a moving target.

So no matter what the timeline looks like in retrospect, the only thing that matters is what happens now that the curtain has been pulled back and the dirty secrets have tumbled out.

"It's all about trust. Absolutely. You have to make sure people have that confidence in you,'' Gualtieri said. "Because once you've lost it, you've lost it. I wouldn't say you couldn't win it back, but it's pretty darn hard.

"So it's not a question of whether an organization like this has problems from time to time, but what's important is how we handle it. How I handle it.''

In the end, his opponents were probably right. Gual­tieri should still be thankful Gov. Rick Scott appointed him Coats' successor.

He may have spent the previous four years as the sheriff's top deputy, but Gual­tieri's name recognition was never going to approach the level of former Sheriff Everett Rice, who is running to regain office eight years after stepping down.

The trick is making the notoriety work for him. Gualtieri has to go from being the guy in charge when bad news arrived to being the guy who cleaned up the mess.

It won't be easy. There's a chance the stories could get worse before they get better. And Rice and other opponents will undoubtedly suggest Gualtieri still bears responsibility because he was second-in-command when shortcuts were taken.

Is it fair to toss some of that blame in Gualtieri's direction? Sure. He may have recognized that leadership in narcotics had gotten wobbly, but he said he wasn't aware of how deep the problems actually ran.

Even now he says he is frustrated that personnel within the Sheriff's Office and lawyers outside of his office waited so long before raising their voices.

He talks of his four months in the job as a relentless journey into a strong headwind, but says he is still better off having the chance to step out in front.

"There are pros and cons to both sides … but I'd give the advantage to being in this spot,'' Gualtieri said. "Because however this shakes out, it will give the citizens a chance to see me and get to know me for who I am and how I'm going to do this job.''

John Romano can be reached at [email protected]

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