This election will be a referendum on the sheriff

August 19, 2014

Among those working the crowd at last week’s picnic for U.S. Sen. Chris Coons was Ronald “Beau” Gooch, the Cape Henlopen High School graduate and former Lewes police chief who is now running for sheriff of Sussex County.

A debate, sponsored by the 9-12 Delaware Patriots, was scheduled the following evening among the three candidates, incumbent Jeffrey Christopher of Greenwood and Robert T. Lee of Seaford, both Republicans, and Gooch, a Democrat.

There had been some chatter online that Lee and Gooch had declined the invitation, so I asked Gooch if he planned to attend. He confirmed that he did not.

“I’ll debate the winner of the primary,” said Gooch, who lives in Milton.

Those unfamiliar with the recent history of the current sheriff and the office might find it odd that a candidate would duck a debate, but I understood.

Thursday’s event wasn’t so much of a debate as a campaign rally for Christopher, with Lee and Gooch to serve as props. The 9-12 Delaware Patriots even invited out-of-state speakers who supported Christopher’s views on the role of sheriff.

I don’t recall non-candidates being invited to speak at debates sponsored by disinterested groups, such as the League of Women Voters or the chambers of commerce.

Frank Knotts, a blogger for Delaware Right, has called this election the “sheriff referendum.”

That’s a good description.

In Sussex, as in Kent and New Castle, the sheriff has been an officer of the court, handling the important but mundane task of serving court papers and documents.

For years, Christopher has contended that the office of sheriff is the chief law enforcement officer of the county, with full arrest powers. He bases this belief on a phrase in the Delaware Constitution that describes the sheriff as a “conservator of the peace.”

Other officials who do not have arrest powers, however, have also been described with the same phrase.

Christopher has taken the county to court and forcefully pressed his case in other arenas, to no avail. No state governmental body, not the county, the state Attorney General’s Office, the General Assembly or the Delaware Supreme Court, has agreed with his interpretation. He has cost the county time and money.

His last hope, in my view, is with the voters of Sussex County, first in the primary, and if he were to win that, in the general election. If the self-styled “sheriff of the people” doesn’t win the vote of the people, it would seem even Christopher would have a hard time continuing the fight.

But I can understand his appeal to some voters.

If you believe the Sussex County sheriff is the only thing standing between you and the tyranny of the federal government, you should vote for Christopher.

If you believe that we need another law enforcement agency in Sussex County, Christopher is your man.

But while public safety has strong appeal, there are things to consider.

Professional law enforcement does not come cheap. If the sheriff’s office were to become, in effect, a county police force, it would require a huge investment:

• Building an expensive headquarters

• Paying for a communications system

• Paying for administration and support staff

• Hiring, training and equipping officers.

This could all be accomplished, of course, if that’s what the public wants, but not without a hefty tax increase.

Delaware has a highly trained state police force, aided in Sussex County by a large number of professional municipal police forces. In a small state like Delaware, it would be more efficient to add to the state police force rather than create another bureaucracy.

Perhaps the day will come when Sussex decides it needs its own force, but judging by the disdain residents have for higher taxes, I think it’s well into the future.

There is one more thing voters should consider before entering the polling booth. Voting for the current sheriff requires not only a belief in a greatly expanded role for the office of sheriff. It also requires a disbelief in modern technology, specifically GPS devices.

Let me explain. Two years ago, a public hearing was held concerning the overtime pay received by one of the deputies in the sheriff’s office. He had, according to his daily logs, qualified for more than $6,000 in overtime pay. The second- highest amount on the staff was $1,400.

Because the discrepancy was so large, the county checked the daily log against the GPS records of the deputy’s car. The deputy’s daily log noted times and locations where he said papers had been served. The GPS showed that in many of these cases - at the hearing, the county attorney spelled this out in numbing detail - the car had yet to leave the deputy’s driveway.

The county’s deputy administrator, with the deputy in the car, checked to make sure the car’s GPS was working properly. It was.

Not surprisingly, the county decided to terminate this employee. Surprisingly, the employee, with the full support of the sheriff, decided to fight his termination in a public hearing, which was not required. The employee lost his case.

The issue, for the sheriff, was whether the county had a right to fire a deputy in his office. He said he wasn’t properly consulted.

To which I say - without going into the particulars of his argument - so what?

Overwhelming evidence indicated that the employee had falsified daily logs to receive unearned overtime pay. The evidence against the GPS records was virtually nonexistent. This put Christopher in the position of appearing so jealous of his prerogatives that he would condone the theft of public funds.

If this is how he acts with the limited powers of his office, why would you want to give him more? That’s a question for the voters to decide.

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