Cole, council members defend their position on sheriff’s duties

The discussion of the Sussex County Sheriff’s Office continued this week, with County Councilman George Cole taking some time at the end of the council meeting to discuss his thoughts.

Cole explained that, in his 26 years on the council and prior to that, the Sheriff in Sussex County has had no “enforcement duties.” He said that, about 10 years ago, the possibility of having a county police force similar to New Castle County’s was brought up, and eventually the county contracted with the Delaware State Police to have 40 more troopers put on the roads of Sussex County, at a cost of $1.8 million.

“What would it cost to have 40 sheriffs, or deputies? I dare to say it wouldn’t cost what it costs us now to subsidize the state police troopers.”

He added that seven people in the office of the sheriff basically work 9-to-5 Monday through Friday, saying that if anybody thinks “there’s a potential in using what we have today,” as opposed to 24-7 coverage with troopers, “obviously they must be dreaming.”

He likened it to the county paramedics, saying the county had to hire 100 paramedics just so 16 can be on call 24-7. He also questioned the fiscal conservativeness of people who argue that they should “take on something new” in adding duties to the sheriff and deputies, saying that “somebody’s going to have to pay for it” and that taxes would probably have to be raised, and “Historically, the county has said no to raising taxes.”

House Bill 290, currently under consideration in the state legislature, would make the law clear that the county sheriffs and their deputies do not have arrest authority. According to state officials, historically, the sheriffs and deputies have not exercised arrest authority, and the Attorney General’s office has given an opinion that the sheriff’s “power to arrest is no greater than that shared by any citizen.”

At a March council meeting, the county council heard from many residents who were displeased with the county council’s support of HB 290.

The bill is sponsored by state Rep. Daniel Short (R-Seaford) and state Sen. F. Gary Simpson (R-Milford) and has 23 co-sponsors, including state Rep. Gerald Hocker (R-38th). The issue of the authority of sheriffs and their deputies has been raised repeatedly in recent years, with Sussex County Sheriff Jeff Christopher only the latest in the office to seek additional law-enforcement training, and possibly authority, for himself and his deputies.

“I can’t understand for the life of me how people get up here and say, ‘I’m a conservative, I’m for smaller government.’ This is expanding government, and I am not for that,” continued Cole. “I’ve been listening, and they have been trying to shut me up. The sheriff wants to do something that historically hasn’t been done.”

He emphasized that he was speaking for himself, and not for the council as a whole. Councilman Vance Phillips chimed in, though, saying, “On this issue, he is speaking for Mr. Phillips, too.”

Later, Councilwoman Joan Deaver also added, “I’m with George.”

Resident Dan Cramer, who often speaks at council meetings, said that if the council did away with “grant-in-aid slush funds,” they could fund expanding the sheriff’s department/duties. He also said to Council President Michael Vincent that he should “look in the mirror before calling someone an [expletive].”

Cramer told the council he would bring a tape of the meeting where the expletive in question was said. Vincent responded, “Please do. Please bring it forward,” before Cramer took his seat.

“That was never said,” countered Vincent.

Eric Bodenweiser, also a frequent citizen speaker in recent weeks, said in response to Cole’s comments, “We have never asked to expand government. The sheriff just wants some training, some certification for his deputies, maybe some better cars.

“You give the state police $1.8 million, and they give you $600,000 back,” Bodenweiser said, adding that the County isn’t getting the amount of security contracted because the state police is “unable to provide the level of security needed.”

“Please, contact Rep. Danny Short,” Bodenweiser pleaded, “and put this baby to rest. Don’t let your pride get in the way.”

“What do you want the sheriff to do?” asked Cole.

“You know – be a sheriff,’ answered Bodewesier, arguing that everyone had watched Westerns.

“What is that?” pressed Cole.

“[We want you to] hold him in high regard, and give him as much respect as I give you and the deputies be treated as they should be,” said Bodenweiser.

“And how is that?” asked Cole again. Bodenweiser said they would have to look at the constitution for that.

Cole maintained his position that the council was being fiscally conservative in its current use of the Sheriff’s Office – and that that fiscal conservatism is something the taxpayers of Sussex County have enjoyed the benefits of, even in a down economy.

“We gave the state police $1.8 million, and then they gave us $600,000 back,” Cole noted of the rebate for work not done, “because we watch our money. If you don’t think that’s good government policy, then you and I live on different planets.”