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Published: Wednesday, 1/7/2004

Full of gripes, former sheriff seeks to oust replacement

BY STEVE MURPHY
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Former Seneca County Sheriff H. Weldin Neff, whose last term was filled with controversy and legal troubles, is running for his old job against the man who replaced him three years ago.

Mr. Neff, 74, said Sheriff Tom Steyer has let the office s detective bureau and other services decline since taking over four years ago.

He argues that his successor, who does not wear a uniform and seldom carries a gun, is only doing part of the job.

“Basically, I d be on the job every day, available weekends and holidays, carry a gun, and wear a uniform,” Mr. Neff said. “Whenever the sheriff is needed, I d be there.”

But Sheriff Steyer, 52, says he has maintained quality services despite a county budget crunch that has led to layoffs.

“Mainly, the biggest thing is [that] I ve been trying to keep people working and keep the jail open,” he said.

The two men will face off in the Republican primary March 2.

No other candidates have filed peritions for the office.

Mr. Neff is seeking what would be his fourth term as the county s top law enforcement official.

He was sheriff from 1979 to 1987 and from 1997 to 2001.

In his four years in office, Mr. Neff faced a string of legal battles.

In 1999, he was tried and acquitted of theft in office and intimidation of a witness.

Mr. Neff was acquitted in 2001 - after he left office - of a charge of menacing by stalking that involved former dispatcher Alice Dohner.

In March, 2003, a federal judge dismissed a civil suit that Ms. Dohner filed against Mr. Neff.

The former sheriff said those problems are behind him.

“During those kind of situations, you re almost working under a handicap because of the cloud of suspicion, and now that s been eliminated,” he said.

Since leaving office, Mr. Neff said he has worked as a process server for local lawyers.

He ran unsuccessfully in the Republican primary election for county commissioner in 2002.

Sheriff Steyer said he has helped the office heal from the tumult of his predecessor s term.

“I think it s a more relaxed atmosphere working here, because people aren t worried about investigations involving them or against the sheriff,” he said.

But Mr. Neff said the office was run more efficiently when he was in charge.

“Last spring, they bought four new cruisers, and then within a short period of time they laid off some people and basically decimated the detective bureau,” Mr. Neff said.

Since the former sheriff left office in January, 2001, the number of detectives has dropped from four to one.

Sheriff Steyer said he cut those positions and others in the office because the county couldn t fund them.

He rejected Mr. Neff s criticism of the cruiser purchase, saying the new cars were needed to replace vehicles with up to 200,000 miles on them.

“He had two vehicles for himself while people were driving around in junk,” Sheriff Steyer said. “They were breaking down and everything.”

As for his work attire, he said he simply prefers a shirt and tie.

“I can perform all of the functions of the sheriff without wearing a uniform,” Sheriff Steyer said. “Sometimes I carry a gun, but I don t need a gun around the office.”

The sheriff said he handles the duties once held by the chief deputy, a job that s been eliminated, and helps in the jail and with transporting prisoners as needed.

“I do all sorts of things,” Sheriff Steyer said.

Besides the sheriff s race, the Seneca County ballot includes a contested Republican primary for prosecutor - incumbent Ken Egbert, Jr., is being challenged by Derek DeVine of Tiffin - and a crowded field for two county commission seats.

In one commissioner s race, Republican incumbent Jimmie Young of Sycamore is opposed in the GOP primary by Herbert Faber and David Sauber, Sr., both of Tiffin.

Three Democrats - Ralph Monaco, Leticia Patino, and David Gross, former director of the county s Emergency Management Agency - also are on the ballot. All are from Tiffin.

In the race for the other seat, incumbent Democrat Tom Distel is opposed in that party s primary by Ben Nutter, both of Tiffin.

Three Republicans will face off in the primary - Lawrence Dutt and Charles Ardner, both of Tiffin, and Charles Knight of Fostoria, who is chairman of the county GOP.



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