Forum chat

Sheriff’s candidate Todd Fleenor speaks and gestures during a candidates’ forum on Thursday, June 9, at USMSM in California. Also pictured, from left, are candidates Steve Hall and John O’Connor and moderator Tom Dennison, right, of SMECO.

Three Republican candidates for St. Mary’s County sheriff squared off during the first candidates’ forum of the primary season on June 8 at the University System of Maryland at Southern Maryland in California.

Recently-retired sheriff’s office Sgt. Todd Fleenor went after Commissioner John O’Connor (R) several times during the forum, ostensibly because both are targeting the current sheriff’s office administration. Outgoing Sheriff Tim Cameron (R) has endorsed Hall, who is a sheriff’s office captain.

“I believe in change,” O’Connor said, adding that staffing levels at the sheriff’s office “are critically low” and turnover is a problem.

“I’m running because the citizens are tired of hearing the gunshots and the shootings in the southern end of the county,” Fleenor said.

Hall said he has the experience to be sheriff, noting that he’s been a supervisor for 22 years, a commander for 12 and has been in charge of the emergency services team for 23 years at the St. Mary’s sheriff’s office.

O’Connor, who served in the U.S. Army, said he’s led troops in combat and stateside. “Leaders have way more responsibility than managers and supervisors,” he said. “For the last eight years” he’s made decisions “very publicly” as a county commissioner, he said.

Fleenor said he was a supervisor at the sheriff’s office for six years, running the K9 unit, and was a supervisor in the U.S. Marine Corps.

O’Connor said he would like to give $25,000 sign-on bonuses to attract new deputies and “look at” down payments on homes. “Changing the climate is the biggest thing,” he said.

“You promised me a bonus last time you were elected, and I never got it,” Fleenor said to O’Connor.

“I’m in Calvert County at the circuit court now,” Fleenor said, adding that “many say they would come here [to St. Mary’s] if not for the internal investigations and the leadership.”

“I think we have the best sheriff’s office in the state. There’s no other place like St. Mary’s County,” Hall said, adding that the department has the best equipment along with competitive pay and benefits.

Hall said he’d be willing to try sign-on bonuses and offer childcare help and housing assistance as “a la carte programs.”

“The only people leaving are people who have to leave or are retiring,” he said.

When asked if they support a new headquarters for the sheriff’s office, Hall said, “Absolutely.”

He noted that almost $1 million was spent on a plan for such, which called for a 30,000-square-foot building. “We’re working with about 10,000” now, he said, noting that recruitment and retention would be better “when people don’t have to work in closets.”

O’Connor said the sheriff’s office should fully utilize the District 4 station before building another sheriff’s office headquarters. He noted that the districts 1, 3 and 4 stations weren’t built when the study was done. “I support [building] evidence bays, but not the whole thing,” he said.

Fleenor said he supports a new headquarters, “but not right now. It’s hard to sell a multimillion-dollar headquarters when district 1 and district 4” stations are not fully staffed.

The candidates were asked what they would do to stem violent crime.

O’Connor said having the right amount of people was No. 1. Once numbers are up, he wants to institute an “anti-crime unit” and a traffic unit.

“The criminals know they’re tied up” for up to 2 hours to respond to calls, he said.

“I would create a task force with other agencies” in the first 30 days, Fleenor said.

Hall said having deputies “seen and out there” has a little effect, but not much. Having very-highly-skilled detectives would help some, he said, but the most important thing is working with the community. “They have to call when they see something” and cooperate with law enforcement, he said.

In regard to drug overdoses and fentanyl, Fleenor said he would add to the K9 unit, which he said has been declining, supposedly because the dogs are “too mean.”

“That’s my bread and butter,” he said.

Hall said he would have patrols do more interdiction on the highways and put more manpower in vice and narcotics units.

“You can’t do it until you have more people,” O’Connor said.

In closing, Hall touted his experience and O’Connor said he’s been a leader, noting he’s worked with budgets while on the board of county commissioners.

“I speak from my heart,” Fleenor said. “I wear my emotions on my sleeve. I want the criminals to know I don’t like them. I want to reverse the stigma that criminals are victims and the police are criminals.”

The forum was hosted by the St. Mary’s County Chamber of Commerce.

Twitter: @CalebSoMdNews

Twitter: @CalebSoMdNews