Tuesday, September 25, 2012

TOP STORY >> Sheriff candidates at forum

Leader staff writer

Dean White, the candidate for Lonoke County sheriff with the most years in service, and John Staley, a candidate touting ideas for change, participated in a forum before members of the Cabot Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday. And if the crowd preferred one over the other, it didn’t show.

The questions, read by Lonoke County Prosecutor Chuck Graham, were submitted by chamber members.

White, a Democrat with 28 years of law-enforcement experience, 22 of them in the Lonoke County Sheriff’s Office and the last six as chief deputy, said he’s not a politician.

“I am applying for a job I know I can do,” White said.

New problems come up every day, he said, and he has learned through experience how to make informed decisions through fast research to handle problems as they arise.

White said he has worked under five sheriffs and seen “new guys come in and make the department backslide.”

Staley, the Republican, worked as a police officer in Jacksonville before becoming police chief in Austin. He is at least 15 years younger than his opponent, but he says he is the candidate who will reform the sheriff’s office and make it accountable to the people.

Staley said it is an advantage to be the police chief in a town with little money. Because of that he has learned how to get grant money and training for officers at no cost. He has learned to use volunteer officers who are willing to work for the experience.

And he has started a neighborhood crime watch. All those skills can be transferred to the sheriff’s office and make it more efficient, he said.

Staley said by using volunteer deputies, he will double the number of deputies on patrol and save money at the same time. That money can then be used to help run the jail, which would open beds for city prisoners.

“You’ve got to be smart. You’ve go to reorganize and you’ve got to work the budget day after day,” Staley said.

White reminded the audience that the sheriff was not allowed to move into the new jail immediately after it was completed last year because the quorum court knew there wasn’t money in the budget for operating expenses. Taking in federal prisoners was the plan for running the jail since its inception, and it wasn’t allowed to open until the sheriff agreed to do it.

Now, the sheriff’s office earns $1,000 or more a day, up to $400,000 a year, by renting beds for federal prisoners. As chief deputy, White runs the jail.

“It’s not a long-term fix, but it was the original plan,” White said.

Asked about how to deal with the drug problem, both candidates said they need more cooperation between agencies. But Staley said there needs to be a plan for rehabilitation, while White said they need better reporting from the public.

Asked what they would like to accomplish in the first two years, Staley said he would cut the budget, put those convicted of misdemeanors to work around the county and lock up criminals.

White said given the option of working outside or staying locked up, most prefer to stay locked up, so Staley’s plan wouldn’t work. He said he would rather work with the judges and prosecutor for alternative sentencing.

Instead of incarceration, those convicted of some crimes could wear monitors and go to work as usual. And that would save the county the expense of locking them up and make more space available at the jail.

“I already have the experience to make the sheriff’s department work,” White said during the forum.

Staley doesn’t refute White’s experience, but he implied during the forum that as chief deputy, White could have worked better with other police agencies in the county, something that both said would benefit everyone.

The police chiefs in the county meet periodically, Staley said, but the sheriff never sends a representative.