Originally created 01/26/03

Aiken County's sheriff starts last week on job



AIKEN - Howard Sellers has been a federal agent, a tracker of serial killers and a small-town police chief.

But the man who abruptly resigned Jan. 3 as Aiken County sheriff - a position he has held for a decade - said being the county's top policeman has been his most trying job.

"It was the most challenging thing I have done in my career," Sheriff Sellers said. "It forced me to grow in some ways I hadn't anticipated I'd have to."

The sheriff, who will leave office Friday, served as the director of special operations at Savannah River Site until his election as sheriff in 1992. He is in the middle of his third term.

Early on, the sheriff butted heads with members of the Aiken County Council over the budget for the sheriff's office. Sheriff Sellers remembered that he "got burned" after issuing a news release on budget negotiations.

"All I managed to do was heap coals on my head," he said. "I learned just to shut up and go on. I think I've done that.

"Politics is not rational; it's not logical. Given my background, that was a little hard to come to terms with."

The 58-year-old former psychology professor said the public's confidence in the sheriff's office has grown because of the faithful day-to-day approach to the job he has helped mold.

"Integrity is the one thing (deputies) are trading to the community for their paycheck. That is all a cop has," he said.

The budget of the sheriff's office has more than tripled since Sheriff Sellers' first full year. But he said every dollar has come with a fight.

The sheriff's office also has responded to more than double the number of calls since that first year, handling more than 75,000 in 2002 on a $6 million budget.

There have been many milestones in the past 10 years.

Just after Sheriff Sellers' third election in 2000, the sheriff's office gained state accreditation. The office looks forward to an evaluation by national accreditation officials at the end of this year.

The sheriff also started a DUI Task Force in 1998. Last year, the office helped to open a regional drug lab.

"Sheriff Sellers brought a professionalism to the office that quite frankly hadn't been seen in many years in Aiken," said Jeff Moore, the executive director of the South Carolina Sheriffs' Association.

"He is one of the top sheriffs in the nation in my opinion. He's been one of the movers and shakers on the national scene," said Catawba County Sheriff David Huffman, who serves on the board of directors of the National Sheriffs' Association with Sheriff Sellers.

But his tenure has not been without controversy.

Gary McClain, a union organizer at Tenneco Packaging, sued the sheriff after he was arrested and sent to a mental hospital in July 1999. He claimed the sheriff falsely arrested him after his employer heard him talk about union organizing. The lawsuits - both federal and state - were dismissed.

The sheriff also lost his bid to run the county jail. Many saw the attempt as a power grab, though the sheriff said he was only trying to make the jail more efficient.

The issue symbolized the difficulties he experienced, he said.

"The trying part was not that it was difficult," he said. "The trying part was getting the other part of county government to understand our perspective and the responsibilities given the office of sheriff."

Four men, including the sheriff's top deputy, are in the race to replace Sheriff Sellers.

The sheriff said he would like to see his successor continue the professionalism he started and apply his political lessons.

"This is not a place for on-the-job training," he said. "It's a lifestyle. It's a way of responding. It's a way of looking at yourself."

SELLERS' DECADE AS SHERIFF

1993: Begins first term; adds school resource officers to six schools

1994: Begins push for more funding from county council

1995: Begins a community policing unit in Beech Island

1997: Begins second term; contracts with Salley for police services

1998: Creates DUI Task Force from state grant; moves into new building that houses communications and records

1999: Upgrades dispatch radio system; begins Reserve and Posse groups; Tenneco controversy begins with arrest, then lawsuits

2000: State accreditation

2001: Begins third term; county council denies request to run jail

2002: Opens regional drug laboratory

2003: Announces resignation

Reach Matthew Boedy at (803) 648-1395 or matthew.boedy@augustachronicle.com.