Oswego’s motley lawman

Of all the politicians in Oswego County Sheriff Reuel "Moe" Todd is probably the most versatile. As the highest law enforcement official in Oswego County, his office is responsible for patrolling more than 950 square miles.

The sheriff has to wear many hats, beside his Stetson; he must be part law enforcement officer, part administrator and part Republican politician.

In Sheriff Reuel A. Todd, the public gets all that. His career in law enforcement has spanned more than three decades; he began as a deputy and worked his way up to Sergeant, Criminal Investigator and Undersheriff, and then in 1998, Todd ran and was elected sheriff. Twelve years later, he still runs the department. In 2007, Todd served as President of the New York State Sheriffs’ Association. Born and raised in Oswego, Todd has spent years cultivating his image.

Although he answers to the people he serves, it is clear the public is satisfied with the job he is doing, or that no viable challenger exists. In his bid for re-election in November, Todd swept his opponent with 99 percent of the vote and won another four-year term.

Whether Todd is a good ol’ boy Republican sheriff, or a hardworking man of the people depends on who you ask. What does seem clear, however, is that he does his best: behind the desk and the "tin star" is a person who no doubt wants to serve his community. Whatever anybody’s view on his job as sheriff, he is a steal. The taxpayers get 30 plus years of law enforcement experience and someone that works a lot of long hours for his money. The Oswego County Legislature voted in March to give the sheriff a four percent raise each year for two years. Todd currently takes in $84,536, a modest $3,740 more than the undersheriff. Five employees of Oswego County will earn more than $100,000 this year, according to a Feb. 9 article in The Fulton Valley News. Todd, who has served as sheriff more than 10 years, is not one of them. Among the county employees earning more than $100,000 are the county administrator, the district attorney, the commissioner of social services, the county attorney and the director of Solid Waste.

Other county positions, such as central services director, director of public health, first assistant district attorney, highway superintendent, chief accountant and the director of community development, tourism and planning will make more than the sheriff. Even one of Todd’s own officers makes almost as much as he does. Lt. Emerson Dillion will make $76,425. That’s just 9.6 percent less than the sheriff, before overtime.

Each of these public servants might very well deserve and earn every penny, but so does the sheriff. He is far more exposed than his fellow public servants. The Oswego County Sheriff may well be the most honest and accountable public official in Oswego County, but not because he has some moral superiority. Any sheriff must serve the public interest or risk being voted out. No unions or protection allowed. He must do his job with the notion in the back of his head that one of his own deputies or the undersheriff might try to take his job. With dozens of deputies to oversee and a mountain of paperwork to wade through, fighting crime seems like a daunting task. Like him or not, the taxpayers are getting a Sears quality sheriff for a Wal-Mart price.

The county sheriff is uniquely American. The public directly elects the sheriff in almost every state. While the contemporary image of the sheriff is one of corruption or incompetence, virtually no other law enforcement official answers to the people more than the sheriff. If the people don’t like the job the sheriff is doing, then they can vote him out of office in four years.

While they still wear a "tin star" and carry a gun (though not a six shooter), today’s sheriffs are more likely to spend their days in meetings and running the department, rather than physically chasing down the bad guys. But Todd’s duties don’t stop at a desk. In September, when sheriff’s deputies were in a standout with a man in Pulaski that eventually turned into a double homicide, Todd was on the frontline. He undoubtedly spends much of his time riding a desk, standing for photos, shaking hands and kissing babies. But when it counts, the sheriff is there. When small time Oswego is gripped by crisis the sheriff is on the scene.

Another role the sheriff of any county must fulfill is acting as the face of the department. As the chief public relations man, the sheriff deals directly with the media. He stands in front of the camera and is quoted in the papers during times of tragedy and triumph. In short, he better have a face for TV, and Todd plays his part.

Perhaps the strongest tool Todd has in his crime-fighting arsenal is his reputation. Todd once had campaign literature with a stern picture of himself staring into the camera and the phrase, "Criminals fear this man."

Criminals might not fear the man himself, but they certainly do fear the office. Todd has history on his side. Sheriffs have spent more than two centuries making the position one of the most respected and feared of all the lawmen. People think of the Wild West and men like Wyatt Earp. No man, dead or alive, can ever live up to the public’s perception of the sheriff but that reputation is a tremendous asset and any sheriff worth his spurs knows to play up the image.

Even the public’s image of the contemporary sheriff has been helped by history. Sheriffs everywhere can thank Bufford Pusser- a tough-as nails lawman who waged a one-man war on crime and corruption- for their reputations. Pusser was immortalized in the 1970s film "Walking Tall."