Budget barbs launched

Published 1:02 am Sunday, June 19, 2011

The Washington Daily News asked Harry Meredith whether it’s his contention the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office is being targeted through a political campaign by county Commissioner Hood Richardson.

Meredith is Beaufort County Sheriff Alan Jordan’s chief deputy.

Harry Meredith, Beaufort County’s chief deputy, watches the proceedings during a recent county commissioners meeting in Washington. (WDN Photo/Betty Mitchell Gray)

Jordan is a Democrat.

Richardson is a Republican.

In response to the question, Meredith answered, “Sure. Hood Richardson always does. He’ll do anything he can – he’ll say anything, whether its true or not – to discredit the sheriff or hurt this office just for political gain.”

He added, “I think even though the sheriff is of a different party, he is part of county government.”

For his part, Richardson doesn’t deny there could be political gain in scrutinizing spending by the sheriff’s office.

“I’m a public official, I can do that. I can criticize,” he said, adding it’s part of his job to find savings in the county budget.

“This is one of the problems that they have: they feel like they can’t be criticized at all,” he said of the sheriff’s office.
These comments follow a series of budget “workshops” held by the Beaufort County commissioners this month.

In one of those workshops – actually special or reconvened meetings to ponder the spending plan for fiscal year 2011-2012 – Meredith and Richardson engaged in debate about the sheriff’s budget, which is built largely on county funding approved by the commissioners.

In a Friday interview, Richardson said his primary point now – a point he may broach during Monday’s commissioners meeting – is to explore whether more sheriff’s cars should be marked, as opposed to unmarked.

The marked-versus-unmarked discussion relates to Richardson’s view that the sheriff’s office shouldn’t be doing so many traffic stops.

Richardson also asserts he’s pushing the sheriff and his personnel to go after more “big-fish” drug dealers.

“Yeah, there’s a political benefit,” he said. “There’s a political benefit to anybody who stands up against drug dealing and thievery.”

To Meredith, the problem with Richardson’s queries isn’t a political one, it’s a struggle over who’s going to manage the sheriff’s office – Jordan, who was elected to do the job, or Richardson, who wasn’t.

Meredith mentioned the limited voting method, under which a county voter can mark a ballot for one commissioner candidate, though several may be on the ballot.

The use of limited voting in Beaufort County has been credited with resulting in the election of black Democratic candidates and white Republican candidates.

“Again, he’s not the sheriff,” Meredith said of Richardson. “If he wants to be the sheriff he needs to run, come out from behind that shield that he hides behind in limited voting and run if he wants to run something. He wants to run everything, and he is not going to run the sheriff’s office.”

These broadsides could have implications beyond the commissioners’ budget talks, which will end soon.

Richardson acknowledged that in referencing two former deputies who were feeding the commissioner information, Meredith likely was talking about Donald Dixon and Tony Keech.

Dixon is a Republican and former sheriff candidate who lost to Jordan in last year’s general election. Keech is a Republican and former sheriff’s deputy who enjoyed a favorable outcome in a legal dispute with the sheriff’s office.

In an interview on Saturday, Dixon said he has talked with Richardson about the sheriff’s office budget.

And he wouldn’t rule out running again.

“I’m keeping that option open, of course,” he said.

Keech was also interviewed and, like Dixon, he voiced the belief there is room for cuts in the county’s law enforcement budget.

“The sheriff’s office has fat in it that needs to be cut,” said Keech, who didn’t elaborate.

Asked whether the funding reductions proposed by some commissioners would harm public safety in the county, Meredith said, “No. It’s not going to affect the way we do the job day to day. We try to make them aware of the items that we need so we can do a good job for people here. We understand there’s a big picture outside of our office.”

Meredith said he has tried to develop or maintain a working relationship with Richardson for 12 years and that he thought that endeavor had succeeded.

“I don’t think that he should actively try to hurt anybody or say anything that’s not true,” he said. “It’s disappointing.”

Both parties acknowledge these disputes could one day play out at the ballot box, but that showdown would happen in the next sheriff election several years out, if it came at al