Howard County's newly elected sheriff is a seasoned officer who packs a .357 Ruger even when off duty, keeps a spartan office in the county courthouse in Ellicott City, oversees 18 deputies and a $500,000 annual budget -- and thinks nothing of chasing four horses across a pasture for a court-ordered property seizure.

At 30, the sheriff is tough and ambitious, a political newcomer who trounced the incumbent by a 3-to-2 margin in the September primary.

The sheriff is Virginia Donnelly, the first woman in Howard County to hold the four-year job, and, according to the National Sheriffs' Association, one of only seven female sheriffs in the country. Four are in Colorado and Montana; there are others in Connecticut and New Jersey. Ginny Donnelly's territory is a mostly rural county of 251 square miles wedged between Baltimore and Washington.

Even before officially taking office, Donnelly showed she had a firm grip on the reins of power. Late last month, she stunned the sheriff's department by firing two deputies who campaigned for her opponent, 73-year-old John Votta, an Ellicott City man who was sheriff for eight years. The firings, which Donnelly said were made for "professional, not political reasons," disturbed voters who recalled her campaign promise to draft a merit system that would protect deputies' rights during dismissal cases.

"Her motives may be pure but her actions sure look mean," the weekly Howard County Times said in an angry editorial on the firings. "It seems a bit cruel for Donnelly to decide--even before she officially takes office--that she just can't work with these two people."

"Some people say I've double-crossed them, but there was no double cross," Donnelly said in a recent interview. "It was my decision, and I won't comment about it. I want people to judge my performance from here on in."

Herbert L. Stonesifer, one of the fired deputies, said: "There's no question but that I was fired because I campaigned vigorously for John Votta. I guess being loyal to your boss doesn't pay anymore." Stonesifer, the most senior deputy and Votta's chief aide, said Donnelly had assured him he would not be fired; Donnelly denied making such a promise.

James G. Gill, the other fired deputy, also said he was dismissed for supporting Votta. "I guess these things happen in politics, but I never had a problem with the woman. I'm a team player and when John (Votta) asked for my help, I gave it to him."

Donnelly insists that politics played no part in the dismissals. "If that was the case, then I would have fired six other people who are still in this office--all of whom supported Votta." She indicated that she could face legal action if she were to detail the reasons for firing Stonesifer, an 11-year veteran of the department, and Gill, who was a deputy for five years.

The furor over the two firings is unusual for the Howard sheriff's office, normally one of the county's more placid, if unglamorous, political posts. The sheriff, who is paid $17,500 annually, and her deputies, who start at $14,800, manage the day-to-day grind of eight district and circuit courts: courtroom security, serving summonses, guarding prisoners and occasionally confiscating property to pay defaulted loans or mortgages. (Donnelly's recent horse roundup in western Howard was one such property seizure.) The deputies do little law enforcement such as investigating crimes, but are authorized to do so if needed.

"That's where a lot of our work has been lately, what with the bad economy and everything. And I think we'll face even more," she said, leaning back in a swivel chair and toying with a pencil and letter opener. Her office, brightened by a bunch of white and yellow chrysanthemums, is just around the corner from her childhood home. Donnelly, lithe and blond, is divorced. She has a 10-year-old son and a 9-year-old daughter, and is attending night school to pick up a college degree and fulfill her lifelong ambition to become a lawyer.

"I've always been career-oriented, and I want to stay in this office for at least the four years, maybe more," said Donnelly, an Ellicott City native who used to work as a secretary in a public defender's office and who was once rejected for a deputy's post because she was "too small." ("I didn't know whether it was my height or weight -- they wouldn't say," said Donnelly, who stands about five-foot-six.)

Hired on a part-time basis in 1976, Donnelly became a deputy sheriff in 1977. "I was applying every month for a job in this department," she said. "The people in personnel got to know my first name, my middle name and my last name. This really is a great field for women, for young people. The responsibility is awesome, knowing that every time you put on a weapon, you're taking a danger on."

Donnelly said she has never drawn her police-issue revolver on duty, but has wrestled several times with prisoners of both sexes. Her department includes three female deputies; Donnelly plans to hire two more women in the coming year.

Howard's top Democrats said key factors in her 2,200-vote victory over Votta was the sheriff's advanced age, Donnelly's own energy, and the county's historical support for female candidates. "She presented herself very well. There was an air of competence about her," said Judy Clancy, who chairs the Democrats' central committee.

"Like Montgomery County, Howard does accept women politically," Clancy said. "But the sheriff is an unusual position for a woman. With Ginny, people were used to seeing her in uniform--and some felt it was time for Votta to move on."

Votta, a popular sheriff, contributed some of his own money to raise $9,000 in the campaign; Donnelly raised $5,400. In the Democratic primary, she did well in such towns as Columbia, and was surprisingly successful in the more conservative communities such as Ellicott City, West Friendship and Lisbon.

"I never played on his (Votta's) age, but it was definitely a factor in my winning," Donnelly said. "People had asked me to run in 1978 (the last election year), but it was 1980 before I decided to do it, and I really went for it last year. I never thought I was going to lose."

Having opened her term on what some consider a sour note, Donnelly will ask the Howard County delegation to file merit system legislation early next year in the House of Delegates, she said. The civil service umbrella, which now covers the sheriff's clerical staff, would establish duties, schedules and dismissal regulations for the deputies, who now serve at the sheriff's pleasure.

"Some people here are leery of change, but change is a sign of progress," Donnelly said. "Merit system is something we should have; it's something we will have.

"I bet people will be testing me right and left to see what I do with this office." graphics one thru three (WP Photos by Ray Lustig): Virginia Donnelly, 30, elected last month, is the first female sheriff in Howard County and one of seven nationwide. She joined the office in 1976.