Stephen ‘overwhelmed’ with win

OKEECHOBEE — In just a few weeks Sheriff-elect Noel Stephen will load up some boxes and make that long trek across the hall to his new office — that of the sheriff of Okeechobee County.

After garnering over 55 percent of the Nov. 8 vote, the current Okeechobee County Sheriff’s Office (OCSO) major outdistanced his competitor — OCSO Deputy Corporal Michael Hazellief — by a 7,319 to 5,775 margin.

“It’s an overwhelming feeling,” Maj. Stephen said Tuesday, Nov. 15, of the confidence Okeechobee County voters bestowed in him. “I’m honored to be elected as their sheriff. I think the 11 percentage-points-difference is significant.”

He was referring to his receiving 55.9 percent of the votes to Cpl. Hazellief’s 44.1 percent.

He also said he’s relieved the whole process is over.

“It’s out of your control, but you question yourself: Have I done enough? Did I work hard enough?” he mused.

When asked, the major said he has spoken with Cpl. Hazellief who will be returning to the agency Monday, Nov. 21, in that same capacity.

“He ran a good race and he ran a clean race. I don’t have a problem with Mike’s ambitions and goals. I respect that,” said the major.

And while current sheriff Paul May spends a few days deer hunting, Maj. Stephen will be in meeting after meeting with his new command staff and the agency’s other employees. He said he wants to meet with each member to tell them about his vision for the agency and the direction he wants it to go, and to get their ideas for the future of the sheriff’s office.

Although he has no intention of firing anyone, the major did say there will be position changes for some of his deputies. The biggest of those changes will be in his command staff.

Captain Gary Bell, who currently heads up the OCSO road patrol division, will move into Maj. Stephen’s old office and become the chief deputy.

“His loyalty and dedication to this agency has not been unnoticed,” noted Maj. Stephen of the captain’s promotion.

Moving into the road patrol captain’s slot will be Deputy Shannon Peterson, who is currently a lieutenant in that division.

“Shannon is another one of those folks who came up through the jail. He’s the future of this agency,” Maj. Stephen pointed out.

He went on to describe Lt. Peterson as being home-grown in the sheriff’s office.

Another road patrol supervisor, Deputy Lieutenant Rob Coleman, will be leaving that division to head up the Criminal Investigations Division (CID), also known as the detective bureau.

“I felt the loyalty and respect Rob brings with him was necessary for that division, as well as his understanding of how to treat people,” explained the major. “He has a fresh look at things and I felt that division needed that. I felt it was time to have that fresh outlook.”

He went on to say the detective bureau is made up of “seasoned cops” who know their jobs but may need some guidance from time to time.

The major explained that several retirements are looming in the near future, he also felt it was time to move younger deputies into supervisory positions because he wanted them realize their ambitions and goals.

“We’re at a point in this agency where there are going to be a lot of people ready to leave,” he said.

And of his new command staff, he expects them to take over and do their jobs while he handles the endless array of duties a sheriff must perform.

“I want more involvement from my command staff. I’m not going to be a micro-manager,” he said, adding that he wants to set his people up to become successful.

In reflection, Maj. Stephen said he has had the good fortune of working for three different sheriffs — O.L. Raulerson, Ed Miller and Paul May — during his nearly 30 years with the sheriff’s office.

He said he learned how to treat his people in the agency from O.L., and learned how to put trust and faith in his command staff from Ed Miller. And, from the current sheriff, Maj. Stephen said he’s learned how to treat people in the community.

“I miss O.L. not being here. But, I know I’ll have Paul to sit down and drink a glass of tea with and it will be nice to have that guidance and wisdom,” said the major, in looking at those times when he may need some advice.

Maj. Stephen, 50, said he prides himself on not forgetting where he came from — when he started in the Okeechobee County Jail, then worked his way up through the agency.

“I know a little bit about every facet of this agency — from working a murder to knowing what light bulb needs changing,” he offered. “I’ve always been involved — whether it be at the grill or sweeping the floor. I’ve always been a worker.”

He also pointed out that he has children and grandchildren living in Okeechobee, so he has a “vested interest in this county.”

The major also vows to have an open-door policy and to be approachable and visible.

“Being sheriff is going to be a change for me. But, it’s not going to change me,” he added.

Maj. Stephen will be officially sworn in Tuesday, Jan. 3, on the front steps of the sheriff’s office. Retired judge William Hendry will be officiating over the 9 a.m. ceremony.

Eric Kopp is a staff writer for the Okeechobee News

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