Sheriff's fliers raise propriety questions
By MICHAEL SANDLER, Times Staff Writer
LARGO -- Interested in annexation? Sheriff Everett Rice would be happy to tell you all about it.
The Sheriff's Office printed 5,000 fliers advising residents of unincorporated areas that have been "targeted for municipal annexation" to be aware of possible changes in law enforcement that may come if they join a city.
The fliers also urged residents to be cautious when evaluating promises cities make about lower taxes and better service if they approve annexation.
Rice said he printed the fliers as a public service, a response to questions from his constituents.
"It is our intent to inform the people of the facts," said Rice. "I think it is only appropriate that they be given another version."
But the fliers raise questions about whether it is appropriate for a law enforcement agency to engage in a debate about urban planning.
Critics say Rice is trying to intimidate residents away from annexation in an effort to maintain the sheriff's dominant role over Pinellas County's law enforcement community.
Largo City Manager Steve Stanton called the fliers "confrontational in nature."
"When the Sheriff's Office takes such an aggressive means of saying, 'Make sure they tell you the truth,' it implies the cities are not telling the truth," said Stanton.
Stanton said Rice may have an ulterior motive and may end up instigating a turf war. He noted that many of the fliers were distributed in Ridgecrest and High Point, communities that border Largo and may end up someday joining the city.
"They have a self-preservation interest," said Stanton. "As annexation continues to reduce the unincorporated area, the need for services like the Sheriff's Office increasingly becomes questioned."
Rice said the fliers are not being "distributed," only handed to people who inquire. Each flier has the Sheriff's Office phone number on the back, for more information.
"It's supposed to be available if asked," said Rice, "and citizens in unincorporated areas are constantly asking. They ask my deputies. They ask me."
Rice said the fliers were printed by his public information office through the sheriff's strategic planning unit's budget.
Lt. Carol Rasor of the community services division said the fliers cost $80.36. She said patrol commanders were given stacks to distribute to deputies, but without explicit instructions.
Each flier includes a sheriff's star on the cover and the words "Annexation, Public Safety Issues and Answers." Readers find a short letter from Rice, followed by bolded questions, detailed answers and services the sheriff provides.
"Proannexation groups may employ a variety of tactics to obtain property owner commitments to annexation," the flier warns before advising homeowners to carefully research the policy. At the end, Rice offers his assistance:
"The Sheriff's Office can help you do this important research."
The fliers also list a number for the Pinellas County Planning Council. Executive Director David Healey sent a March 8 letter to Planning Council members stressing that the agency played no role in the flier.
In an interview, Healey said he has no problem with the flier because his agency encourages people to ask questions about annexation. But he did note the context of the flier could roil a few cities, especially ones with police departments.
"It gave the appearance that the sheriff could do it better than they could," he said. "I think that is the issue: Do you want the respective law enforcement agencies competing for the attention of the property owner?"
-- Michael Sandler can be reached at 445-4174 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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