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Public Info or Campaign Brochure?

Sheriff Department publication raises questions

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Callers to Creative Loafing wondered if the sheriff of Mecklenburg County had started his political advertising early. An eight-page special advertising section published in the Charlotte Observer two weeks ago even confused a former member of the county board of elections, who called to ask why Sheriff Jim Pendergraph hadn't put the legally required notice on the ad to let readers know which political campaign had paid for it.

As it turns out, that was because taxpayers paid $13,094 for the advertising section, which was mailed to 145,000 Mecklenburg County residents two weeks ago. It's easy to see how people could be confused, though. The center of the first page of the ad, called "Today's Sheriff's Office," featured a large color photo of Pendergraph with smaller photos of busy sheriff's department employees floating around him. Inside, a series of articles boasting of the department's accomplishments read at times like a resume of Pendergraph's accomplishments.

"I am very proud of our accomplishments and the progress we make every day," Pendergraph wrote under the headline "A Message From the Sheriff." "After reading this insert, I'm sure you will be, too."

Sheriff's department spokeswoman Rachel Vanhoy says the purpose of the section, which the department runs every two years, was not to boost Pendergraph's electoral chances this fall, but to "educate citizens about what the sheriff's office does."

"One purpose of running it is the citizens sometimes ask what the sheriff's office does," says Vanhoy. "We use it as a public awareness of what they do."

The insert accomplishes this, but it is also packed with references to Pendergraph's accomplishments and philosophies.

"My philosophy is that we have inmates who are serving time," an article about inmate work crews quotes Pendergraph as saying. "There is no reason that they should not be paying something back to our community."

Another article on protecting victims of domestic violence discusses how, "under the leadership of Sheriff Jim Pendergraph," the department sought and received two grants to fund a special domestic violence initiative. Another details how the Sheriff's office secured a grant for an arrestee drug abuse monitoring program. The articles also tell readers that the sheriff opened an office of compliance to uphold high standards for his department, that Pendergraph guided the development of a reality program for teens to teach them the consequences of criminal behavior, and that he makes the names of local sex offenders available to the public.

The ad angered Pendergraph's two opponents in this fall's election, in particular because the county, which funds the sheriff's department, is struggling to make ends meet.

"During the time of this budget crunch and cuts that we are having in Mecklenburg and North Carolina, I would like to see justification of the use of the taxpayers' money for this very unuseful information," said candidate M.L. Banks. "It looks to me that he is more interested in this for his own personal use."

The ad is odd not just for its near-gratuitous promotion of Pendergraph, but also for what it cost the department to run it. CL didn't believe that 145,000 copies of an eight-page advertising section could be printed and inserted into the Observer for a mere $13,094. Despite Observer sales representatives' insistence that Pendergraph didn't get a special deal, when we called to enquire how much it would cost us to run a similar section, we were quoted a price of $71,000. *

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