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TWO INSIDERS LINE UP TO OPPOSE SHERIFF COATS IN '08

A Republican and a Democrat say they would be more in touch. Coats says they lack experience.

The election for Pinellas County sheriff is more than a year away, but two challengers already have declared themselves candidates, and both have an inside knowledge of the Sheriff's Office.

One is a current deputy; the other retired. One is a Democrat, the other a Republican. Both, however, stress that as sheriff they would be more hands-on and accessible than Sheriff Jim Coats, who will seek his second elected term next year.

Republican Michael Peasley Sr., 53, retired from the Sheriff's Office in 2006 after nearly 25 years working in everything from corrections to narcotics, rising as high as corporal. He is now a private investigator.

"I'm not a politician," he tells people. "I'm a cop's cop." He thinks that gives him an advantage over Coats, who he says is out of touch.

Peasley faults Coats for not accommodating the deputies union in its current contract negotiations. He doesn't like that Coats employs a negotiator to deal with the union. "I think it's the responsibility of the sheriff to be directly involved with that" negotiation, Peasley said.

Coats responded that Peasley's criticism proves that Peasley doesn't know what he's talking about.

Peasley said his other big issue is the way the jail has been handled.

"I want to review the current policy regarding ROR" - when inmates are released on their own recognizance - "early release and overcrowding issues at the jail," Peasley said.

Peasley is divorced and has three sons, one of whom works for the Sheriff's Office.

The other challenger is Deputy Randall Jones, a 16-year veteran.

Jones, 38, is assigned to the domestic violence unit. Before that he was a detective in the crimes against children unit and in the burglary unit. He spent a decade as a patrol deputy, including a stint as what he says was the agency's first "community policing" deputy.

When Jones officially qualifies as a candidate he will have to resign his position in the Sheriff's Office. He said he's putting his career on the line for this election.

"I feel that our sheriff has lost sight that we work for the people," Jones said.

He called the Sheriff's Office structure "top heavy" and said he would like to reduce the number of majors and captains as well as to consolidate some investigative units.

Jones plans to cut wasteful spending, he said. At the same time, he pledges to increase the pay of the deputies. He says Coats is "dragging his feet" in the current contract negotiation. He would do it differently if he were sheriff, he said. But he doesn't want to unveil specifics of his plans until closer to the election.

Jones is married to Lisa Jones, a recording clerk at the courthouse. He has a 15-year-old son from a previous relationship. He and his wife have adopted two daughters, ages 5 and 8. Their house is a certified foster home and they frequently take in children.

Jones also says he is the first African-American to run for sheriff. Under his leadership, he says, the department would be more diverse.

Coats countered that his department had made large gains in minority recruitment and he was proud of his record.

As for claims that he's not plugged in, he disagrees there, too.

"I don't think I'm out of touch with the rank and file," he said. "I go to readoffs and lots of ceremonies." He attends every promotion event, for example, something his predecessors did not.

Not to be overlooked, he said that crime statistics show the effectiveness of the department under his leadership. The Sheriff's Office provides law enforcement to Pinellas County's unincorporated areas as well as 10 of its 24 municipalities.

Coats said that neither challenger has the necessary administrative or leadership experience. "Without leadership experience - supervisory experience - it's very difficult for someone to step into the position," he said.

The primary will be Aug. 28, 2008, and the general election will take place Nov. 4, 2008.

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Jonathan Abel can be reached at jabel@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4157.

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