Sunday, February 15, 2009

Sheriff Leis Needs Some P.R. Help

The war of words between Commissioner David Pepper and Sheriff Simon Leis is escalating. Jessica Brown blogs the exchange here; and here is Leis's most recent missive, with Pepper's responses. As far as I can tell, the Sheriff is losing the battle of public perception. People seem to think that he is being intentionally inflexible, taking a "my way or the highway" approach and engaging in a high-stakes game of chicken that threatens public safety in this county.

That one-dimensional image of Sheriff Leis may make it easier for some to hate the guy who's gotten stuck laying off an unprecedented number of police officers. But I don't think it's accurate. Leis has been in public service for a long, long time. Everyone who knows him (I do not) indicates that he cares deeply about this community, and is passionate about his job. When he's recently made public statements about the difficulty of sitting across from a deputy and terminating his employment, I've felt that he genuinely hates laying people off.

Unfortunately, the Sheriff isn't giving me much evidence with which to back up my give-the-guy-the-benefit-of-the-doubt approach. Leis says he can't give up helicopter operations. Why? What does the helicopter do? How does it improve public safety? Pepper wants Leis to use funds from asset forfeitures to fund deputies' salaries. Why isn't this possible? (I thought there were statutory constraints on the way that money was spent, but Pepper doesn't seem to think so.)

Leis did a good job, in his recent letter, of explaining why he can't just fire people with "desk jobs" instead of those on the streets: the former, as it turns out, perform functions--such as concealed-carry licensing, sex offender registration, and fingerprinting--that the State requires the Sheriff to carry out. But both Pepper and the FOP (the union that represents the sheriff's deputies) have petitioned Leis to cut the salaries of "double dipping" members of his administrative staff (those people who have already "retired," so now both earn a salary and collect a pension). Leis's only response has been to point to County Administrator Pat Thompson and note that he hasn't been asked to take a similar pay cut. Thompson's salary is certainly worthy of scrutiny (one of these days, I like to research whether--as some have suggested--Thompson has financially benefitted from the deep cuts to the County budget). But "you're as bad as I am" doesn't sound like a responsible response. Why can't administrators (who are also collecting pensions) take pay cuts? In a better economy, I might be concerned these folks would leave for greener pastures. But if Leis forces a pay cut on them, where would they go?

I hope some day soon, Leis writes an op-ed for the Enquirer explaining why his budget is as lean as he says it is. Because for the time being, those of us who believe he's a good guy who wants to do the best job possible for the citizens of this county are having a tough time defending him.

(Finally: if you're ever discussing HamCo's budget nightmare and someone mentions the Sheriff's tank, just walk away. That person doesn't know what s/he's talking about. The County acquired the tank for free. And the Sheriff hasn't spent any money training on it since sometime last year, when it became clear we were in serious economic trouble. The tank is a red herring that has nothing to do with the current crisis.)

UPDATE: I had not seen this Enquirer article before I published this post. But my questions about the helicopter and double-dippers remain largely unanswered.

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