2 line up to oppose sheriff

Challengers for '08 say they would be more in touch. Coats says they lack experience.

By JONATHAN ABEL, Times Staff Writer
Published September 30, 2007

The election for Pinellas County sheriff is more than a year away, but two challengers already have declared themselves candidates, and both have an inside knowledge of the Sheriff's Office.

One is a current deputy; the other retired. One is a Democrat, the other a Republican. Both, however, stress that as sheriff they would be more hands-on and accessible than Sheriff Jim Coats, who will seek his second elected term next year.

Republican Michael Peasley Sr., 53, retired from the Sheriff's Office in 2006. He is currently a private investigator. In nearly 25 years as part of the department he worked in everything from corrections to narcotics, rising as high as corporal.

"I'm not a politician," he tells people. "I'm a cop's cop." He thinks that gives him an advantage over Coats, who he says is out of touch.

In particular, Peasley faults Coats for not accommodating the deputies' union in its current contract negotiations. He doesn't like that Coats employs a labor negotiator to deal with the union.

"I think it's the responsibility of the sheriff to be directly involved with that" negotiation, Peasley said. "He should have an open-door policy. He should be involved with it personally."

Coats responded that Peasley's criticism just proves that Peasley doesn't know what he's talking about.

Peasley said his other big issue is the way the jail has been run.

"I want to review the current policy regarding ROR" - when inmates are released on their own recognizance - "early release and overcrowding issues at the jail," Peasley said. "I'd like to find out why we've got early release on so many things and what the issues are."

Peasley is divorced and has three sons, one of whom works for the Sheriff's Office.

The other challenger, so far, is Deputy Randall Jones, a 16-year veteran of the office.

The 38-year-old is assigned to the domestic violence unit. Before that he worked as a detective in the crimes against children unit and in the burglary unit, among other assignments. He also spent about a decade as a patrol deputy, including a proud stint as what he says was the first "community policing" deputy in the Sheriff's Office. Community policing deputies are able to spend more time getting to know the residents on their beat, organizing community partnerships to fight crime. His highest rank was corporal.

When Jones officially qualifies as a candidate he will have to resign his position in the Sheriff's Office. He said he's putting his career on the line for this election, which should be an indication of how serious he is about changing the office.

"I feel that our sheriff has lost sight that we work for the people," Jones said.

He called the Sheriff's Office structure "top heavy" and said he'd like to reduce the number of majors and captains as well as to consolidate some investigative units to cut out redundancies.

Jones plans to cut wasteful spending, he said. At the same time, he pledges to increase the pay of the deputies. He says Coats is "dragging his feet" in the current contract negotiation. He'd do it differently if he were sheriff, he said. But he doesn't want to unveil many of the specifics of his plans until closer to the election.

Jones is married to Lisa Jones, a recording clerk at the courthouse. He has a 15-year-old son from a previous relationship. He and his wife have adopted two daughters, ages 5 and 8. Their house is a certified foster home and they frequently take in children.

Jones also says he is the first African-American to run for sheriff. Under his leadership, he says, the department would be more diverse.

"We need to have a department that better reflects the community that we serve," Jones said. "We need to go back and start paying for the (police) academy."

Coats countered that his department had made large gains in minority recruitment and he was proud of his record.

As for claims that he's not plugged in, he disagrees there, too. "I don't think I'm out of touch with the rank and file," Coats said. "I go to read-offs and lots of ceremonies."

He attends every promotion event, for example, something his predecessors did not.

Not to be overlooked, he said that crime statistics show the effectiveness of the department under his leadership. The Sheriff's Office provides law enforcement to Pinellas County's unincorporated areas as well as 10 of its 24 municipalities.

In addition to his experience as Pinellas County Sheriff, Coats has twice been appointed by the governor to lead Sheriff's Offices where the sheriffs have been charged with crimes.

Coats said that neither of his challengers has the administrative or leadership experience necessary to head an agency of roughly 3,000 employees.

"Without leadership experience - supervisory experience - it's very difficult for someone to step into the position," he said, and it would be a "severe handicap to the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office."

The primary is set for Aug. 28, 2008, and the general election will take place on Nov. 4, 2008.

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Jonathan Abel can be reached at jabel@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4157.

Republican, age 53

Retired from the Sheriff's Office in 2006. Now is a private investigator. In nearly 25 years with the agency, he achieved the rank of corporal and worked in assignments ranging from corrections to narcotics. "I'm a cop's cop." Randall Jones

Democrat, age 38

A 16-year veteran of the Sheriff's Office, Jones has worked as a detective in the crimes against children and burglary units and spent about a decade as a patrol deputy, rising to corporal. He is currently assigned to the domestic violence unit. "I feel that our sheriff has lost sight that we work for the people." Incumbent Jim Coats

Republican, age 63

Has worked with the Pinellas Sheriff's Office since 1971, working his way up the ranks to become the handpicked successor of former Sheriff Everett Rice. He was first elected in 2004. Former Gov. Lawton Chiles also appointed him interim sheriff of Gulf County 1993-94 and Santa Rosa County (1992). "Without leadership experience - supervisory experience - it's very difficult for someone to step into the position."