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Published May 18, 2011

PINELLAS COUNTY SHERIFF JIM COATS did the right thing Tuesday in announcing his decision not to seek re-election in 2012, providing plenty of time for other qualified candidates to enter the race. He will have served a solid two terms in difficult economic times, but his trial balloon to seek re-election and resign in two years to make way for his anointed successor was untidy and suggested his heart wasn't in it. Better to make an untarnished, clean break and clear the way for an open contest to be his successor.

Whoever follows Coats, who will be 69 when he leaves office, will find a vastly different department than the one Coats inherited seven years ago. From 2008 to 2010, Coats slashed more than $87 million from the sheriff's department budget, eliminating nearly 600 positions. This year's budget includes an additional $14.1 million in cuts. And the next sheriff of Florida's most urban county will likely face additional funding challenges as property tax collections are not expected to rebound quickly.

Yet, under Coats' leadership, the Sheriff's Office has continued to innovate while still maintaining the core functions of running the county jail and patrolling unincorporated Pinellas County, nearly half the county's 24 municipalities and the St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport. In response to the county's growing homeless population, Coats was the driving force behind the creation of Safe Harbor - a midcounty facility that provides an option for those who might otherwise spend a night in jail for infractions stemming from life of the street.

At the moment, the field to replace Coats includes two candidates with long and impressive law enforcement resumes: former Sheriff Everett Rice, who held the job for 16 years and groomed Coats as his successor, and Coats' chief deputy, Robert Gualtieri.

But with 18 months before the election, there's time for other qualified candidates to think about joining the field. Coats has been an unabashed believer in what he terms "succession planning," which explains his full-throated support of Gualtieri. Coats has relied on him heavily for budget issues and the establishment of Safe Harbor. It is understandable that the sheriff would want to see someone he has groomed for the top job follow him, just as Rice cultivated Coats after reforming a department that had been mired in controversy and scandal.

But the role of sheriff is still a position of public trust gained through the ballot box, not through a royal right of succession. This is the sheriff of Pinellas County, not Nottingham. Pinellas residents are better served when they are given the opportunity to choose among as many well qualified candidates as possible.

Rice's experience and name recognition, as well as Coats' hearty endorsement of Gualtieri, establish both men as front-runners. But other well-qualified candidates should not feel shy about challenging the status quo.

Coats, who has discharged his weapon twice in 40 years serving in the line of duty, will leave public service with a reputation for honesty and a thoughtful stewardship of the Sheriff's Office. The public deserves no less from his successor, whoever that will be.