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Election 2004

Opponents take aim at sheriff's record

Two candidates hoping to replace Sheriff Jeff Dawsy say they're concerned with the office's growing budget.

By ABBIE VANSICKLE
Published October 25, 2004

INVERNESS - The race for Citrus County sheriff pits a two-term incumbent against two opponents who say it's time for a change.

In his eight years as sheriff, Jeff Dawsy says he's helped the county adjust to population growth and development by opening new substations and creating a training program for law enforcement volunteers.

He says he's also encouraged officers to work within communities to solve problems. Now, he's looking to the future.

Opponents Hank Hemrick, a Republican, and "Big" Mike Eyes, who is not affiliated with a political party, say they're concerned with the Sheriff Office's growing budget.

The candidates have tossed accusations back and forth at political forums in recent weeks. Hemrick accuses Dawsy of a variety of inappropriate disciplinary actions within the office as well as failing to control spending. Eyes says deputies have harassed him and his family. Dawsy denies the men's accusations, saying it is Eyes that has bothered deputies.

Dawsy, 48, a Democrat who lives in Beverly Hills, touts his law enforcement experience among his greatest assets.

"I'm tried and true," he said.

Dawsy has worked in law enforcement in Florida his entire adult life. He started as a probation supervisor in Hernando County and spent two years with the Pasco Sheriff's Office before settling in Citrus County. He climbed the ranks of the office, holding a variety of positions. After serving as director of emergency management, he ran for sheriff in 1996, beating several candidates for the position.

Dawsy also has several degrees. After graduating from Crystal River High School, he earned an associate's and a bachelor's degree from Saint Leo University. He earned a master's degree in business administration from Nova Southeastern University. He said his business background helps him to manage the Sheriff's Office as a chief executive would.

He attributes this year's 10 percent budget increase to growth in the county, in addition to rising fuel and health insurance costs.

During his time in office, Dawsy has worked to combat illegal drug sales and residential burglaries. He's also worked to increase traffic enforcement.

Dawsy has played a large role in smoothing the change in law enforcement for Inverness. When the Inverness Police Department dissolved this year, Dawsy folded those officers into the Sheriff's Office and took over the responsibility of law enforcement in the city.

Dawsy denies the other candidates' claims of low morale in the office.

"I think (morale) is great," he said.

He also countered Hemrick, saying the disciplinary process is fair and unbiased.

However, there's always room for improvement, he said. Dawsy bills himself as someone who constantly re-evaluates the department.

"I'm never really satisfied," he said.

His Republican opponent, Hemrick, 59, of Inverness, is critical of Dawsy's performance. Hemrick calls himself a "fiscal conservative," promising an independent financial audit of the office if he is elected.

"The department has a major cloud over it, and it's time for a change of leadership," he wrote in a Times candidate survey. "The department is rife with cronyism, favoritism, abuse of power and an above-the-law perception."

At a political forum, Hemrick criticized Dawsy's spending choices, saying not all of the office's vehicles need to be Ford Crown Victorias. Instead, he suggested some personnel, such as detectives, use smaller, more fuel efficient vehicles. Hemrick also criticized Dawsy for allowing three civilian commanders to take their vehicles home at night.

"I think (Dawsy) spends too freely," he said.

Hemrick has nicknamed Dawsy "the photo-op cop," saying if Hemrick were elected, he would be more reticent to appear on local cable television shows and other forums that have given Dawsy a public profile in the county.

He also questioned whether additional substations are necessary.

Dawsy defended himself, saying it is more cost-effective to have one type of vehicle, both for spare parts and for training of mechanics to work on the cars. He said the civilian commanders need the cars because they must be prepared to respond to calls at all hours.

The substations allow the Sheriff's Office to maintain a presence in communities and to have deputies who have intimate knowledge of areas and are nearby in case of emergency, he said.

If elected, Hemrick will change the internal disciplinary process, he said.

"Everyone will be treated fairly and equally, regardless of who they are," he said. "No one will be above the law."

Hemrick also supports term limits on the office of sheriff. If elected, he will serve no more than two terms, he said.

"I think it's definitely time for a change around here," he said.

The Brooklyn-born Hemrick, 59, is retired from the New York Department of Corrections, where he was assistant deputy warden. He was second-in-command in an adolescent detention center. He says his experiences in New York, coupled with two degrees in administration from John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, give him the law enforcement background and leadership skills needed to be sheriff. Hemrick's experience managing prison employees and inmates give him the management skills a sheriff must have, he said. He also has the "street smarts" needed, he's said on several occasions.

"I'm completely qualified to do this," he said.

When he retired to Florida six years ago, Hemrick decided he wanted to become active in local politics. In 2002, he ran unsuccessfully for the Mosquito Control Board.

"Big" Mike Eyes, 62, who lives in Hernando and is running for sheriff with no party affiliation, is the third candidate. Eyes has 30 years of law enforcement experience in a variety of agencies, including the Connecticut state troopers, the Sumter County Sheriff's Office and the Wildwood Police Department.

His varied law enforcement experience as well as his military service gives him the knowledge necessary to do the job, he said.

If elected sheriff, Eyes has promised to bring a YMCA to Citrus County. He said he will donate $50,000 of his first year's salary to help build the YMCA.

Eyes thinks the Sheriff's Office could do a better job of ensuring access for disabled people.

Eyes also promised to reduce the response time for emergency calls. He said he plans to use a military-style grid to reposition deputies throughout the county.

He also said he wants to cut spending by the Sheriff's Office.

"I will reduce the budget $1.5-million the first year" by limiting the number of deputies who respond to traffic calls and reorganizing top leadership, he said.

"Why should you need two other patrol cars behind a deputy making a traffic stop?" he said. "Don't waste our taxpayer dollars with automobiles."

At a political forum Oct. 14, Eyes accused Dawsy of buying unneeded helicopters for the Sheriff's Office and said they were a waste of taxpayer money. Dawsy defended the choice to replace one of the helicopters. Both of the Vietnam War-era aircrafts the agency owns have a lot of miles on them, Dawsy said.

Eyes also wants to reorganize deputies' assignments to areas where they live.

If elected, he plans to cut the two commander positions. Currently, each commander oversees half of the county, one for the east and one for the west.

"You don't need two or three commanders over this," Eyes said. "That is wasted money. That money can be put somewhere else."

-- Abbie VanSickle can be reached at 860-7312 or vansickle@sptimes.com

[Last modified October 25, 2004, 02:35:37]

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