NAPLES _ Of all the years to become sheriff, Kevin Rambosk had to pick 2009.
With a high-profile missing child case, the “most horrific and violent” mass homicide in county history, an ongoing investigation into allegations of illegal campaign work by his staff, and the most devastating economic downturn in decades, Rambosk called his first year as Collier sheriff the most challenging of his career.
But looking back, Rambosk also calls his first year at the helm one of the most effective he’s ever seen.
“What I offered through the campaign was experience, education and operations, and I believe that’s why the public chose me to lead in this position just to be able to handle circumstances that we faced this year,” Rambosk said. “Of course, we didn’t know we were going to face them.”
Rambosk’s predecessor, Don Hunter, said Rambosk appears to have made the adjustment to his new role rapidly.
“In fact, he probably had to make it faster than most,” Hunter said.
On the sunny morning of Jan. 6, 2009, Rambosk was sworn in as the county’s seventh sheriff during a ceremony on the Golden Gate High School football field.
“There will be challenges in the coming years,” Rambosk told the crowd. But it didn’t take years for challenges to arise.
Four days after the ceremony, 6-year-old Adji Desir disappeared while playing in front of his grandmother’s Immokalee home. Rambosk appeared on national television discussing the case during the week-long search for the boy.
“It was a critically important event for which the entire country watched,” Rambosk said.
Everyone that assisted with the search “did exactly what we would have all hoped,” Rambosk said.
“The one thing we’re missing is finding him,” he said.
With the search for Adji in full force, Rambosk received his next major challenge with the release of an internal investigation that showed that the Sheriff’s Office’s public information staff had been doing on-duty work for his political campaign. They contended they had been forced to do the work by their boss, Brigid O’Malley, Rambosk’s longtime confidant who headed up his media committee.
Rambosk denies O’Malley’s claims that he was aware of, and even participated in, the illicit campaign work. Her allegations didn’t negatively affect his ability to lead the Sheriff’s Office, he said.
In September, the Sheriff’s Office and the community was shocked by the brutal killing of Guerline Damas and her five young children. Days later, investigators traveled to Haiti where they tracked down and arrested her husband, Mesac Damas, who has been charged in the slayings.
Even though what he called the “most horrific and violent event” in county history happened on his watch, Rambosk said it shouldn’t reflect negatively on his administration. There were 15 homicides in Collier County in 2009, including Guerline Damas and her children, up from six in 2008 and on par with 15 in 2007 when five people were killed in an arson fire in Immokalee.
“Certainly we would like to prevent every crime,” Rambosk said, “but some crimes are, to a degree, not preventable, and homicide is a crime of passion, and very difficult, if not impossible, to prevent.”
Vinny Angiolillo, who ran against Rambosk for sheriff and already is a candidate for 2012, said it’s big crimes, like homicides, that the public is most concerned about. In that regard, Rambosk hasn’t improved things, Angiolillo said.
“He hasn’t been proactive in his approach to all of the situations, including domestic violence,” Angiolillo said.
Possibly the most pressing issue Rambosk faced during his first year as sheriff was the economic downturn.
Without any changes, to continue existing operations in 2010 would have cost $156 million, mostly because of the increased cost of health insurance and retirement benefits, Rambosk said. But through a series of moves — reduced capital purchases, reduced overtime, reduced fleet, consolidation of functions, an early retirement option, closing the Immokalee jail — Rambosk recently certified a $143 million budget for 2010.
County staff and the constitutional officers worked closely together, instead of against one another, in 2009; something he said they will have to do again.
“There will be no recovery this year,” Rambosk said. “The best we can hope for is a static inflow of tax dollars.”
Despite the challenges, Rambosk pointed to scores of new programs and partnerships established in 2009, many of which were prompted by town hall meetings he held with residents last spring. He said he intends to hold follow-up meetings later this year.
During his first year, the Sheriff’s Office established several traffic programs, and in February, Rambosk announced that every patrol car had been equipped with a defibrillator. It appears the Sheriff’s Office held the line on crime in 2009.
Agency members established dozens of community safety teams; held safety fests, National Night Out events and Hot Summer Night events for teens; revamped the Sheriff’s Office’s Web site; and produced a monthly television program.
The only thing Rambosk said he didn’t check off his to-do list during his first year was a regional meeting between Southwest Florida sheriffs, something he intends to do in the coming weeks.
Rambosk’s goals for 2010 include expanding youth relations resources, getting a regional “fusion center” for sharing information between agencies up and running, and conducting a quality of service assessment.
Though obviously proud of his agency’s accomplishments, Rambosk declined to grade his first year.
“You don’t grade yourself,” he said. “My grade essentially comes from the public, period.”