For nearly a year, Slidell Police Chief Randy Smith stayed on message in a campaign that he says covered every square mile of St. Tammany Parish, telling voters that new leadership and positive change were needed in the Sheriff’s Office.
Now that he’s won the job, defeating five-term incumbent Jack Strain in Saturday’s runoff, he’ll have to translate the rhetoric that won him 52 percent of the vote into reality.
Smith said during the campaign that his first order of business when he takes office will be to ask the state Legislative Auditor’s Office to conduct a thorough audit of the agency, including all the equipment. He said he doesn’t know whether the audit will turn up any problems, but he wants to start his tenure “with a clean slate.’’
But Smith won’t take office until July 1, an extremely long transition period. When Strain called to concede Saturday night, Smith said, his opponent and former boss was cordial, promising his cooperation in the seven-month interim.
Some of the changes Smith plans will be immediately apparent to the public. He said he wants a new image for the agency, with new uniforms, decals and logos.
Beyond cosmetics, he said, he wants to bring back community policing, with more patrols in subdivisions and greater involvement of deputies in community organizations. Deputies will treat the public “the way we would want our families treated,’’ he said.
The lack of a visible Sheriff’s Office presence in neighborhoods was a consistent complaint he heard while campaigning, Smith said. He’ll put more officers in the patrol and investigations divisions, he said, noting that’s his background as a former deputy.
Smith was critical of two other areas during his campaign: the management of the parish jail and a Slidell work-release program that Strain privatized.
He said management problems at the jail need attention, with cronyism and favoritism causing problems with both employees and inmates.
As for the controversial work-release program, Smith said he wants to start from scratch. He will end the private contract to run the program and will put it back under his control, he said.
In a work-release program, inmates have full-time private sector jobs, but 64 percent of their pay goes to the operator of the facility where they sleep and spend their time away from the job. “I think that’s ridiculous,’’ Smith said, noting that the state already pays for the inmates’ housing, food and medical services.
The work-release program has been problematic for Strain, who closed a privately run Covington facility after a rash of escapes. The closure is the subject of litigation that Smith said he hopes is resolved before he takes office.
Smith said he prefers a halfway-house model, with inmates under the supervision of personnel trained in Department of Corrections protocol. He said he will put the inmates to work picking up litter, cutting grass and painting public buildings.
Smith’s campaign also seized on two prominent issues in St. Tammany: public corruption scandals that have rocked the parish in recent years and the high suicide rate. He promised to deal with each.
He said he will create a special white-collar crime unit with deputies who are trained in dealing with public corruption and who can work with state and federal agencies. He also pledged to create a crisis intervention unit with deputies who receive special training to deal with mentally ill people.
During the campaign, Smith said he wants to give Sheriff’s Office employees a raise, although he hasn’t specified how much.
Candidate Smith tried to reach out to the agency’s 750 employees, posting a letter on Facebook that assured them he did not plan mass firings. As a former deputy, he said, he understands the anxiety of working in a department that does not have civil service protection. He urged employees to “put aside the culture of fear” that he said they’ve worked under.
But the letter also alluded to “leadership issues’’ at the agency, saying that those issues and individuals would be dealt with “on a case-by-case basis,’’ a signal that some personnel changes are in the offing.
Smith said he wants to make sure that complaints from the public are dealt with and not “swept under the rug.’’ He will make sure that the person in charge of Internal Affairs reports directly to him, he said, explaining that he thinks there have been too many layers between the sheriff and that division in the current administration.
Smith was gracious in victory Saturday, telling a hyped-up crowd at the Slidell Municipal Auditorium that Strain “has done a great job for 20 years,’’ while pledging to continue to keep the parish safe.
But clearly, change was also on the winning candidate’s mind.
“One more little thing,’’ he said. “There’s a new sheriff in town.’’
Follow Sara Pagones on Twitter, at @spagonesadvocat .