MARCO ISLAND — Six months after former Collier County Sheriff Don Hunter was sworn in as Marco Island's police chief, the question of how is he doing, is joined by another – how long will he be doing it?
Hunter acknowledged the rumors swirling in the city that when his contract is up in August, he may not renew it.
"I may have started those rumors myself," Hunter said. "I said my contract is for one year, in talking to some people. It's an open question. If I feel I can do something important, I might stay on. I also have an interest in starting my own business."
The nature of that potential business venture, "I'm not at liberty to say," he said. "I have a partner."
Being chief of a department with 33 sworn officers is a far cry from running the Sheriff's Office, which, Hunter said, had as many as 1,392 full-time employees, plus reserve officers, at the peak of his 16-year tenure.
Where an elected sheriff answers to the voters, having thousands of bosses is much like having no boss at all, while as police chief, he is a city department head with the city manager as his boss. In the sheriff's job, he faced the voters every four years.
Now he answers to City Manager Jim Riviere, and indirectly, the Marco Island City Council. Riviere wasn't immediately available for comment regarding Hunter. Council Chairman Jerry Gibson had little to say about Hunter, who came aboard in August as a 59-year-old chief with a base salary of $100,000.
"I have no thoughts," Gibson said. "As a city councilman, we don't get too involved in personnel issues."
He said he's aware of the talk of Hunter leaving.
"I heard people who heard him say it. Maybe that was his intention," he said.
Council Vice Chairman Larry Magel also heard the rumors, and also had little feedback to offer: "I asked the city manager if Chief Hunter was leaving, and he said that's not his understanding."
Sandi Riedemann, executive director of the Marco Island Area Chamber of Commerce, had little to say on the subject. One island leader who did have a reaction to Hunter's tenure was Fay Biles, president of the Marco Island Taxpayers' Association. A fierce opponent of what she sees as wasteful city spending, she is firmly in Hunter's corner.
"I think he's a wonderful chief of police," said Biles, who has known Hunter for years. "He does his homework, checks into everything, and never makes a comment until he has all the facts."
Hunter said the Marco police department is running smoothly, and he hasn't made any major changes in its operations.
"I've been reluctant to make changes of substance. I'm learning who are the top performers. (Former Marco Police Chief) Thom Carr left the agency in pretty good stead."
Their greatest strength, he said, is in the core of well-seasoned officers.
"Clearly, our strength is the large cadre of experienced people we have. Virtually all our officers have extensive careers elsewhere," he said.
That experience extends to the chief, whose many years in law enforcement in this area give him connections in the Sheriff's Office as well as with state and federal agencies.
"We've called on the Sheriff's Office for added assistance" when needed, Hunter said. "We had a string of burglaries in August, and they placed undercover elements, and sent in a SET (special enforcement) team."
The sheriff's aviation unit, he said, helped capture a suspect who crashed a vehicle and fled the scene.
But in general, Marco Island doesn't have much crime.
"We had a total of 168 crimes last year" on Marco Island, said Hunter, "an average of less than one a day."
As county sheriff, he dealt with more than 6,000 crimes per year.
"Here, it's more traffic, congestion, and crowd control," he said.Hunter praised his second-in-command, Capt. Dave Baer, and Baer returned the compliment.
"I'm glad he's here," Baer said. "He's done a lot in budgetary review, and he took the lead in vehicle replacement issues. We're working on a new evidence and property management system."
Baer said Hunter has avoided making "flashy changes," a mistake made by some chief executives moving into a new organization.
"People want to see visible change, but we didn't need a new coat of paint," Baer said.
Hunter said he didn't mind the commute from his North Naples home, although spending time with his wife, Melissa, and their daughters is a priority.
"I make quite a few phone calls, and coming home, it gives me time to decompress."
And so far, he hasn't given in to the temptation to make the run on his Harley-Davidson Softail Deluxe, Hunter said.