Pasco Sheriff Bob White will leave his agency in better shape than when he arrived in 2001, but with a legacy tarnished by fiscal obstinateness and political cronyism.
White, 60, announced his retirement Wednesday morning, saying he wanted to spend more time with his 18-month-old granddaughter. The strong pull of family is understandable, but his timing is suspect. White, who had been part of the transition team for Gov. Rick Scott, did not rule out an eventual job in Tallahassee.
White's announced retirement, effective April 30, also comes just weeks after a bruising political defeat in which he spent 10 months unsuccessfully lobbying for millions of dollars in additional money to run his department. More to the point, by bailing out in the middle of his third term, White will allow his successor to campaign in the 2012 election as an 18-month incumbent.
The sheriff said he wouldn't publicly endorse a favorite to succeed him. Who's he kidding? He already did. White just reorganized his agency to split up the undersheriff's duties after former Col. Al Nienhuis accepted a gubernatorial appointment as sheriff of Hernando County. In doing so, White bypassed the captains and lieutenants who have spent their careers in Pasco law enforcement and named two new bureau commanders — attorney Jeremiah Hawkes, who has strong political connections but limited management experience, and Capt. Christopher Nocco, a former Florida House of Representatives staffer and later chief of staff at the Florida Highway Patrol. The promotions brought handsome raises to two employees who joined the agency after the 2008 election, but antagonized the rank and file working under a three-year wage freeze.
It didn't used to be that way. After his election in 2000, White enjoyed an extended honeymoon in rectifying the image of a department mismanaged under his predecessor. Lee Cannon's personal and political confrontations with commissioners became a distant memory and County Administrator John Gallagher publicly complimented White for his willingness to work with county staffers on his department's budget. Meanwhile, for much of his tenure, the sheriff could point to putting more deputies on the street, a declining crime rate and a case clearance better than the state average.
White's first public debate with commissioners came in his fifth year in office when he successfully pushed for a second consecutive year of above-average raises for his department's employees. Despite the substantial pay boost, deputies later voted to unionize, an indication of a deteriorating relationship between the sheriff and his employees.
After his re-election to a third term in 2008, White reshaped his staff and began filling unadvertised jobs with Tallahassee Republicans — Hawkes, Nocco, and contract lawyer Richard Corcoran, who has since won election to the state House of Representatives and is in line to serve as speaker of the House in 2016.
White wanted different political advisers after the cordial partnership with commissioners ended two years earlier. White had started pushing for a larger share of a shrinking county general fund that was initially capped by the Legislature, then reduced amid the Amendment One property tax exemption — which the sheriff supported — and an extended recession-driven decline of the tax roll values.
By last year, the sheriff was calling for Gallagher's firing, labeling capital spending as wasteful and appealing his budget allocation to the governor and Cabinet. After months of escalating rhetoric, White had to acquiesce to a mostly status quo budget that financed escalating pension and health insurance costs, but allowed for no new employees.
It is the gambit that, fairly or not, will define his career as sheriff — politically colored, unreasonable and unwilling to acknowledge the fiscal constraints under which local government now must operate.