Sheriff Al Nienhuis is still fairly new to Hernando, but he's facing a political opponent familiar to the rest of the county in the Nov. 6 election. Nienhuis, 48, a Republican, spent a decade as the second in command at the Pasco Sheriff's Office before his appointment less than two years ago as Hernando sheriff. Then-Gov. Charlie Crist tapped Nienhuis to the vacancy left by Rich Nugent's election to Congress in November 2010.
Nienhuis brought to Hernando some of the successes of Pasco — a focus on community volunteers and relying on inmate labor to reduce government overhead — and avoided some of the pitfalls that diminished the effectiveness of his former boss such as the arrogant budget battles with commissioners. His immediate appointment of highly regarded Mike Maurer as his under-sheriff assured operational continuity at the agency and helped appease those within the community pulling for Maurer to succeed Nugent.
The department correctly put an emphasis on prescription drug abuse in both enforcement and in seeking assistance from the County Commission via a moratorium on new pain clinics. Meanwhile, despite criticism earlier this campaign season about mounting crime, Hernando's crime rate ranks nearly one-third lower than the Florida average and the agency solves cases at a rate 50-percent higher than the statewide average.
Nienhuis is opposed by James E. "Eddie'' McConnell, 59, a Democrat, making his third run for Hernando sheriff after losing twice to Nugent.
McConnell spent 22 years with the department working in patrol, vice, school resources, crime prevention, training, community law enforcement and purchasing. He worked at the Groveland Police Department for the past six years before resigning to run for sheriff.
He is an experienced instructor/trainer and certainly has a ground-floor view of many of the Sheriff's Office internal functions, but he doesn't offer a big picture vision for an agency facing growing demands. He thinks there needs to be more fiscal accountability and says, as a cost-saver, he would order patrol deputies to drive 5 mph under the posted speed limit to economize on fuel and to promote road safety by curbing speeding by other motorists.
Unfortunately, the financial realities facing Hernando County — falling property values and some commissioners reticent to even seek status quo resources from taxpayers — will demand a more sophisticated response. Nienhuis already has shown he is a team player by assuming some animal control functions that are projected to save the county $300,000 annually.
As has been the case in his prior two attempts to become Hernando sheriff, McConnell simply cannot match the strong management experience of his opponent. Nienhuis is better suited to oversee a department that accounts for 60 percent of the county's $67 million general fund budget
For Hernando County sheriff, the Tampa Bay Times recommends Al Nienhuis.
Opportunity to reply
The Times offers candidates not recommend by its editorial board an opportunity to respond. Replies should be sent by 5 p.m. Monday to C.T. Bowen, Pasco/Hernando editor of editorials, Tampa Bay Times, 11321 U.S. 19, Port Richey, FL 34668. By fax to 727-869-6233 or by e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Replies are limited to 150 words.