Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri has only held the job for about a year, but he had effectively been running the office for longer than that as the former sheriff's chief deputy. He has demonstrated strong leadership in steering a large department in a challenging era of declining tax revenues and competing crime-fighting priorities. There is no compelling reason to replace him with someone less experienced, and Gualtieri deserves a full term to build on his efforts.
Gualtieri, 51, won the Republican primary in August against his most formidable challenger, former Sheriff Everett Rice, by showing he is prepared to lead in difficult times when money is scarce and cooperation with others is important. He helped lead the effort to open Pinellas Safe Harbor, which provides shelter and services for the homeless who might otherwise end up in a more expensive jail cell. The Sheriff's Office's relationship with St. Petersburg police has markedly improved from more confrontational eras, and St. Pete Beach's interest in having the sheriff take over policing duties there is another sign of public confidence in Gualtieri's leadership.
After spending about 15 years as a sheriff's deputy, Gualtieri left to attend Stetson College of Law and then entered private practice for about four years. He became general counsel to the Sheriff's Office in 2006, and two years later Sheriff Jim Coats named him chief deputy and general counsel to oversee the daily operation of the office. When Coats retired last year, Gov. Rick Scott appointed Gualtieri as sheriff.
With tax revenues declining, Gualtieri has helped cut more than $100 million in spending and more than 600 positions to balance the budget. Even with that belt-tightening, arrests are up and the county's crime rate is down. But some of those budget cuts, such as eliminating the units charged with serving arrest warrants and catching motorists driving under the influence of alcohol, have not been without consequences. The Pinellas Sheriff's Office is the only one in Tampa Bay and among Florida's seven most-populated counties without a unit dedicated to serving arrest warrants. It also has the highest per capita rate of outstanding felony warrants of any of those jurisdictions except Broward County, which is essentially tied.
Democrat Scott Swope, 43, is a Clearwater civil lawyer who served as a Pinellas deputy from 1988 to 1994 and is making his first run for public office. He contends the Sheriff's Office is mismanaged and pledges to give raises and restore some of the cuts such as the DUI and arrest warrant units. Swope has offered some constructive suggestions for reducing the number of outstanding arrest warrants, but he is unclear about where he would find the money to make all of the changes he suggests. His positions on some key issues also have evolved during the campaign. For example, Swope said in June he would close the Safe Harbor homeless shelter but told the Times' editorial board in September he would keep it open.
Gualtieri says the number of outstanding felony arrest warrants has dropped since 2010 and that he would not restore the unit even if he found the $1.6 million he saved by cutting it. Still, the system should be reviewed after the election, and Gualtieri has demonstrated a willingness to make changes when presented with new information. Just this month he pushed other county law enforcement officials to recraft how the state's gang prevention law is enforced after realizing it was unfairly targeting some individuals. He plans to continue to focus on efforts such as fighting prescription drug abuse, human trafficking and other crimes against children. He also will continue to look for ways to reduce costs by better using technology, emphasizing jail diversion programs and promoting the merger of the sheriff's emergency communications with the county's 911 call center.
For Pinellas County sheriff, the Tampa Bay Times recommends Bob Gualtieri.