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A Times Editorial

Though not flawless, Cannon is top choice

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 29, 2000

The race for Pasco sheriff can be summed up easily: Who is best qualified to lead the county's top law enforcement agency, oversee its $53-million budget and supervise its nearly 900 employees?

In that regard, two-term Democratic incumbent Lee Cannon is a natural choice over Republican challenger Bob White. Cannon's credentials and accomplishments are impressive compared with his opponent.

Over the past eight years, Cannon has worked proactively to try to trim juvenile crime and domestic violence; expanded the school resource officer program; improved efficiency by installing portable computers in some patrol cars; helped coordinate an effort to clean up Pine Hill, the west Pasco neighborhood known for street-level drug trade; completed and opened Safety Town; and kept the Sheriff's Office free from the personal scandals that embarrassed the agency under his two immediate predecessors.

Prior to his election in 1992, he was a Tampa police officer, detective, prosecutor and Sheriff's Office attorney. White, by contrast, is a sergeant with the Florida Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco, but has limited administrative experience in his 22-year law enforcement career.

Why then don't we have a higher comfort level with Cannon heading the Sheriff's Office, which protects all of unincorporated Pasco County and nearly 90 percent of the county's 334,000 residents?

It would be too simplistic to cite his prickly personality as an exclusive reason, though his bullying tirades are tiresome. Cannon says he just makes strong arguments for causes in which he believes. To the rest of us, it appears anger and arrogance quickly supplant advocacy when things don't go his way. It is unfortunate because the frequent confrontations diminish the bully pulpit capabilities afforded the county's top law officer.

More disconcerting is his historical preponderance to overstate his department's personnel needs without adequate documentation. In January, the Times exposed the flaws of his failed campaign for a new property tax, showing how the department's own data did not substantiate the overblown claims of mounting calls for service; that help in an emergency was nearly 16 minutes away or that deputies spent nearly four-fifths of their time running from call to call.

Absent the municipal service tax fiasco, there is still reason to cast doubt on Cannon's stated needs. In spring 1997, the year before he asked voters for the new tax, Cannon presented a plan to commissioners to hire 88 deputies over four years. The commission balked that year, but agreed the following two years to finance 45 new deputy positions.

After receiving just over half his original request, Cannon's election-year stand is that his department's highly publicized personnel crisis is over. Likewise, the Sheriff's Office now reports it is at full staff and has a waiting list of applicants, even though a month ago Cannon painted such a bleak hiring picture. He obtained millions of dollars worth of raises for his employees with no dissent and little questioning by commissioners.

A stronger Republican challenger may have been able to exploit Cannon's credibility problems, but White has been slow to do so. He offers slogans and sound bites instead of substantive proposals.

The upbeat campaign and White's apple-polished, nice-guy image may appeal to incumbent-weary voters, but it does little to convince us he can handle the immense managerial responsibilities of the Sheriff's Office.

He declines to talk specifically about how he will put additional deputies on patrol. We find part of his vision for school safety -- that deputies will be so proactive they will monitor activity at neighborhood bus stops -- unrealistic.

He currently supervises seven people, and answers questions about his limited management experience by saying, as sheriff, he would only supervise one employee, a chief deputy. White shouldn't be so eager to delegate to a subordinate. More accurately, if elected, he would need to assemble a management team to oversee the jail, patrol, criminal investigations, legal, budgetary and other matters.

Future management of the Sheriff's Office will be determined not only by voters, but by a substantial consultant's study of the sheriff's personnel and operations that is expected sometime after the Nov. 7 election. Though Cannon's uneven performance is cause for concern, we believe he is best suited to lead the Sheriff's Office for the next four years as the county attempts to improve current efficiency and to plan for future law enforcement needs.

The Times recommends voters re-elect Lee Cannon as Pasco sheriff.

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