Worcester Telegram & Gazette
By Robert Z. Nemeth
Campaigning for sheriff of Worcester County, Lew Evangelidis, a well-respected state representative, promised to run a safe and efficient operation, free of political patronage, dedicated to public safety and community service. Today, after nearly five months on the job, he’s on track toward keeping those promises.
A Republican in a Democrat-controlled state running for an office traditionally held by Democrats, he won the election with a comfortable margin against an opponent with statewide name recognition and without making political deals and compromises. He did it by making good on another pledge he made during the campaign: “I will outwork and out-campaign anybody.”
During a recent interview, he spoke of the challenges and rewards of his office. “I’ve never enjoyed any job better,” he told me. “I feel blessed to do it and I’m excited going to work every day.” Given his diverse background as a lawyer, prosecutor and legislator, that says a lot. While he maintains a lower profile than his predecessor, Guy Glodis, who had a knack for self-promotion, at 6 feet 8 inches tall, Sheriff Evangelidis has a formidable presence.
One of his pledges was to eliminate politics from the sheriff’s department. As a symbolic gesture, he removed the previous sheriff’s name from all official vehicles and did not replace it with his own. Breaking a long-standing tradition at a place that had been infamous for patronage, he announced he will not accept campaign contributions from employees or their spouses, and even ignores support letters in behalf of job seekers. “Politics has no place in the selection of future officers,” he declared. “The only thing that matters to me is a person’s commitment to the job, not which legislator he knows. I want to change the perception that connections are more important than performance.”
To elevate professional standards, he strengthened hiring practices. Applicants for positions at the county jail will be required to have an associate’s degree or at least two years of military service. A written exam and psychological screening test will also be required. “This is a difficult job that involves a great deal of patience, cooperation and resolve,” he explained. “The more tools our officers have to rehabilitate inmates, the safer families in Worcester County will be.”
While custody of inmates is his primary task, rehabilitation and public safety are high on the sheriff’s agenda. He believes guiding inmates from “warehousing to rehabilitation” is part of the mission. “It is my responsibility to make them less likely to offend after their release,” he said. Services designed to reduce recidivism include health care — complete with detoxification, treatment of drug abuse and physical therapy — as well as providing housing and basic skills to help inmates adjust to life on the outside.
“We help those who are motivated with special programs,” he said. The jail, which was built for 750 inmates, houses about 1,100 men. It has 600 employees and an annual budget of $39 million. About half of those incarcerated are being held while awaiting trial. “Many of them are bad apples,” the sheriff noted.
He initiated personnel changes to reduce costs and increase efficiency, eliminating or consolidating some positions, and terminating the services of legal counsel Jeffrey Turco, who last year billed $320,000 in legal fees through a no-bid contract. He requested a comprehensive state audit to review all financial practices and improve transparency of daily operations, thus bringing more accountability to the semi-autonomous department. “Taking away some of my own powers makes me a better sheriff,” he remarked.
“The office of the sheriff doesn’t end at the walls of the county jail but at the corners of Worcester County,” he told me during the campaign. Accordingly, he doubled the size of the community service program that provides inmates for cleaning, painting, landscaping and maintenance work in area communities, allowing municipalities to save hundreds of thousands of dollars. “It’s a win-win situation,” the sheriff said. “The towns and cities get financial relief through the program, and the inmates get rehabilitation out of it.”
He is currently working with court officials and the district attorney’s office on a video conferencing system to conduct inmates’ bail hearings remotely instead of transporting them from the jail in West Boylston to Worcester Superior Court. The new arrangement is expected to improve public safety, increase efficiency and save money. “It’s well worth the initial investment of $50,000 in equipment,” he noted. Considering that 756 bail reviews were held in Worcester last year, video-conferencing could have a major impact.
As the father of two teenagers, Lew Evangelidis knows how concerned young people are about their appearance and is trying to use that awareness for an imaginative drug-prevention program at schools. The computerized program, called Face2Face, simulates the effects of drug use over time and shows the harm addiction can cause. He aims to bring the privately funded program to every school throughout the county. “Even if one student who sees it thinks twice before making the bad choice of using drugs, we will be making a difference,” he said.
Sheriff Evangelidis says he’s pleased with the progress made so far, and tries to maintain a “glass is always at least half full” attitude as he moves ahead. “We had a good start,” he concluded. “But there’s a lot more to do.”
Robert Z. Nemeth’s column appears regularly in the Sunday Telegram.