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He wouldn't change a thing

Tony Holt Hernando Today
Published:   |   Updated: May 7, 2013 at 05:08 PM

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At the start of his first day on the job, Sheriff Al Nienhuis stood in a room packed with new employees, many of whom didn't look happy to see him.

Most of them didn't want him there and were nervous about the new boss.

Had they known then in January 2010 what they know now, they would have realized they had a right to be nervous. Nienhuis isn't afraid to take harsh measures whenever trust is broken. He's admitted it and shown it.

As for the men and women who make up the department's administrative and command staff, he won them over — mostly.

Many of them have donated to his campaign, including Mike Maurer, who had applied for his job and was hand-picked by the previous sheriff to take over after he resigned for a career in Congress.

Nienhuis promptly promoted Maurer. His command staff has supported him since he shifted over from Pasco County, where he was the undersheriff. The reviews have been positive — mostly.

Nienhuis steered his department through the July 3, 2011, traffic death of deputy John Mecklenburg, and months later had to take hard questions from the media after the deputy's widow criticized him publicly and accused him of exploiting the death of her husband.

Not everyone sees it that way. Nienhuis said he maintains a good relationship with Mecklenburg's parents.

"It's as strong or stronger as it ever was," he said.

He also said it still hurts him that Penny Mecklenburg didn't agree with his decision to forge ahead with an April bill-signing ceremony that increases penalties against suspects convicted of leading law enforcement on fatal chases. In attendance were the governor, lieutenant governor and other invited guests — including those deputies who served alongside Mecklenburg.

"I still care very deeply for Penny" as well as her children, he said. "She has gone through something no one should have to go through.

"I've thought long and hard about what I did," he continued. "Had I been retiring in January instead of running for election, I would've done the exact same thing. I owed it to John's squad, the agency and the citizens."

Nienhuis had caused ripples in the department just days earlier when he called for an internal affairs investigation into three respected employees at his agency — two of whom retired shortly thereafter.

One of them — Wendy McGinnis — was his media spokeswoman and a member of his command staff. He transferred her to patrol and believed then as he does now that her decision to retire was an overreaction to a minor punishment. She still remained on the sergeant's list and could have continued her law enforcement career for as long as she wanted, Nienhuis said.

She and her husband are now campaigning for Nienhuis' opponent in the primary race, Bobby Sullivan, a retired captain with the Pasco Sheriff's Office.

Nienhuis and Sullivan have history.

When then-Pasco Sheriff Bob White decided to let go some top-level employees in the wake of his 2008 election victory, he delegated that assignment to Nienhuis.

"When your sheriff calls in the second-in-command and says in no uncertain terms, 'These people have to go and you're going to be the one to do it,' you don't have many options," Nienhuis said. "It wasn't my decision to make.

"Typically, you don't see sheriffs criticize other sheriffs. If he lost confidence in some of the members of his command staff, he lost confidence in them."

Sullivan, who in 2008 ran against White in the Republican primary for Pasco sheriff and lost, rejects Nienhuis' explanation.

Nienhuis, during an interview earlier this month with Hernando Today, didn't fire back.

Decades ago, he said, he learned a valuable lesson: most candidates fall into one of two categories — the type who talks about his or her own experiences and accomplishments and the type who slings mud.

"I'd rather remain the former," he said.

Nienhuis does a lot to stay visible. He regularly visits with residents, whether at a Timber Pines community meeting or a dinner at a local Moose Lodge. Whenever the sheriff's office sends a media release about an arrest, it almost always includes a statement from him. His comments are equal parts praise for his deputies and a warning to those contemplating committing the same crime.

Nienhuis and Sullivan look at Hernando's crime statistics differently, but Nienhuis points to the numbers that show his department scoring better than national and state averages. He also said the crime rate in Hernando has been the lowest in 15 years and the clearance rate has been the highest during that same span.

Additionally, the major crimes unit, which worked nearly all of Hernando County's 20 homicides dating back to January 2010, has a 100 percent clearance rate since he has been sheriff.

"I'm involved. … I listen a lot, but I don't micromanage," Nienhuis said of his working relationship with his detectives. "I let them do their jobs."

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