The Republican primary for Pinellas County sheriff is a choice between the future and the past. Sheriff Bob Gualtieri has expertly cut spending and reduced staff to reflect declining property tax revenues, and he has enlightened views on dealing with the homeless, managing the jail and fighting prescription drug abuse. Former Sheriff Everett Rice served the county well for 16 years, but he is not as well prepared to deal with today's economic realities and law enforcement challenges. Rice has the more familiar name, but Gualtieri is better suited to lead the Sheriff's Office now.
Gualtieri, 50, spent about 15 years as a sheriff's deputy before leaving to attend Stetson College of Law and then entering private practice for about four years. He returned to the Sheriff's Office in 2006 as general counsel, then two years later became Sheriff Jim Coats' chief deputy and general counsel responsible for the daily operation of the department. Gov. Rick Scott appointed Gualtieri as sheriff in November when Coats retired.
As chief deputy and as sheriff, Gualtieri has helped cut more than $100 million in spending and more than 600 positions in recent years as tax revenues declined because of the economic recession. Even with those deep cuts, arrests are up and the crime rate is down. It takes considerable management skill to downsize that much and keep performance at a high level.
Gualtieri has been an effective leader in other ways as well. He helped oversee the effort to open Pinellas Safe Harbor, which provides shelter and services for the homeless. It is both humane and cost-saving, because many of those homeless would be on the streets or wind up in the more expensive county jail. The sheriff also has led a coordinated effort to shut down pill mills, and the agency's relationship with St. Petersburg police — often acrimonious and lacking coordination in some eras — has markedly improved. All of this reflects Gualtieri's ability to build relationships and consensus in a county that needs those talents.
There is one serious blemish. It took a group of defense lawyers and reporting by the Tampa Bay Times to alert Gualtieri to serious issues in the narcotics unit related to investigations of suspected marijuana growers. The revelations of allegations of trespassing by deputies, the improper use of a surveillance camera and other overly aggressive tactics suggest a lack of oversight. To his credit, Gualtieri responded quickly and decisively by ordering the camera to be removed and a thorough internal affairs investigation that resulted in the resignations of three detectives and the firing of another. Those four are now under a criminal investigation, but there is no indication that such abuses are widespread within the department.
Rice, 67, is a lawyer who spent 18 years in the Sheriff's Office before defeating an incumbent sheriff in 1988. He was a reformer who inherited a department tarnished by an overtime scandal, political interference and an FBI investigation into cases of officer brutality. Rice led the department well for 16 years, restoring professionalism, expanding programs and taking over policing duties in several small communities in a period of growing tax revenues and healthy budgets. He did not seek re-election in 2004, served one unsatisfying term in the Legislature and worked for a Tampa law firm.
Now Rice wants his old job back, but times have changed and so has his rhetoric. His support for Safe Harbor is tepid, and his ideas for cutting the budget are vague. Rice also has strayed from his record as a moderate Republican consensus-builder, courting the tea party crowd by refusing to acknowledge President Barack Obama is a U.S. citizen and vowing to get tough on immigration. He says he will refuse to enforce laws he considers unconstitutional, and he signed a pledge from an antigovernment group to refuse to help the federal government blockade cities. Either Rice has changed, or he has made a cynical political calculation that the right wing will decide the Republican primary and he will say whatever it takes to get that support.
In the Republican primary for Pinellas County sheriff, the Tampa Bay Times recommends Bob Gualtieri.