Forum moderator Frank Phillips, the managing editor of The Brazil Times, prepares to read an audience question to Mike Heaton, Rob Gambill and Larry Pierce, candidates for Clay County Sheriff at the candidate's forum at the Clay County Fairgrounds Monday evening.
By IVY HERRON
Clay County Sheriff candidates Mike Heaton (R), Rob Gambill (D) and Larry Pierce (I) found out what's on the mind of Clay County voters at the Candidates' Forum sponsored by The Brazil Times, Clay County Farm Bureau and the Clay County Chamber of Commerce Monday evening.
- The war on drugs.
More than half of the questions asked were about law enforcement's battle to remove drugs from the community -- a topic the three candidates agreed was the biggest problem facing the department and the next sheriff.
"Drugs has always been a major problem for Clay County," Sheriff Mike Heaton said. "Getting the drug dealers off the streets of our community is vitally important."
Both Heaton and Rob Gambill, the current drug detective at the Clay County Sheriff's Department, cited their involvement with recent drug arrests; ongoing investigations with local, state and federal authorities and the more than 20 Methamphetamine drug dealers removed from the streets in the April drug sweep as evidence of the department's commitment to the war on drugs.
"There's a Methamphetamine epidemic in Clay County," Gambill said. "The work has just begun and we've got a fighting chance to win. I'd like to continue that fight as sheriff."
With a law enforcement career dating back 34 years, Larry Pierce said Methamphetamine isn't just about drugs.
"Methamphetamine causes many other problems that have to be addressed," Pierce said. "They're not just dealing, they're out there stealing to buy more drugs. Drugs cause problems throughout the community."
Facing a future of more possible budget cuts, all three candidates agreed the sheriff's department was understaffed for the size of the county, the types of cases the department handles especially considering the level of drugs in the community.
Issues raised by the audience included:
- Prioritizing crime
One audience member wanted to know how calls are prioritized at the sheriff's department because of the shortage of manpower and funding.
"There are constant complaints about drug activity in the area, and we take each one seriously, but often a complaint is not enough to build a case," Heaton said.
"Each case is different and has to be developed, investigated to find out who the big players and the small players are."
Gambill agreed there was no specific formula in prioritizing cases, but said his years working as a carpenter presented a strategy for dealing with heavy case loads.
"If you work on 30 houses all at once, you can't get anything done. I've found if you work one at a time, you get results," he said. "We do consider the impact on the surrounding community. A 'small fish' (dealer) in a neighborhood might have 30 cars in a couple of hours -- we can get him in a couple of days -- where a 'big fish' might only have one car in a day, a week -- that can take a few months investigation to get him. (Point is) we don't ignore any complaint."
Communication and knowing when to delegate authority are keys to working heavy caseloads, according to Pierce.
"We have to take a serious look anytime someone makes a complaint about drug activity," he said. "A sheriff is an administrator and you have to know when to delegate authority. Communication is a big thing, I found that out (while working with the Indiana State Police.)"
- Budget and understaffing
Having dealt with budget problems before, Pierce said lack of funding was a problem when he was sheriff.
"We didn't have extra money to use to buy drugs from dealers (in the 1990s), some of the money used to buy drugs from dealers to catch them came out of 'Old Larry's' pocket," Pierce said. "I didn't mind, it was worth it. We need people that are highly-skilled and dedicated to fighting the drug problem."
The department could afford more deputies and overtime because of funds returning to the county from drug money, property and vehicles seized in recent high-profile arrests, according to Gambill. He doesn't like the idea of raising taxes to support the department, but said it could become a future reality where "citizens need to decide what is important; keeping the money or funding more officers."
Heaton admitted that being understaffed causes problems when high-priority cases take investigators away from smaller cases. He said that is why the reserve deputies are so important to the department.
"You can have a slow day. Then all of a sudden you're playing catch-up because you're the only one out there," he said. "But you work within the budget, using what you have ... I've worked hard to trim the budget at the jail and just returned $110,000 in money back to the council, money cut of the budget. I asked for three additional deputies for next year and got shot down."
- Personal accomplishments
Reflecting on his 34 years in law enforcement, Pierce said his biggest accomplishment was bringing the 911 system to Clay County while he was sheriff in the 1990s.
"We didn't have a high communication center before 911," he said. "Some people at the time didn't like it much, but I think people would say they feel a little safer now with it."
Outside of his present duties as a drug detective, Gambill said being the department's training officer several years ago was still paying off today.
"I wanted to ensure the department had the best in-house training program available. The guys still call and ask me questions about different things," he said. "You can have 30-40 officers out on the roads, but if they are not well trained and supervised they're not worth it. I'd stack our limited number of guys against any department out there."
Heaton said working on the Clay County Justice Center project was his biggest achievement.
"I was unaware of what was going on with the new jail project when I came on as sheriff," he said. "Working on the Transition Team, we spent every day in the jail testing everything from the kitchen to the laundry to make sure it worked. When it came time to open the jail, we were ready and it went off without a hitch."
The candidates agreed the forum was a positive experience and a great way to get a feel for what the public is concerned about.
"I feel pretty good about tonight, but I've never been very good at blowing my own horn," Pierce said afterwards. "Politics should not be a part of the department, and will not be if I'm elected sheriff. I'm a cop, not a politician."
Heaton would have liked more time to answer questions.
"I thought the audience asked excellent questions. Fifty minutes was not enough time to discuss all the issues -- we could have talked all night," Heaton said.
"I really enjoyed the opportunity to come here tonight with the other candidates and be with the public. This was a great experience."
Gambill was surprised by the number of drug-related questions.
"I've enjoyed fielding questions from the voters. I'm amazed all the questions slanted toward the drug problem in the county, which I think is great that they are concerned," Gambill said. "Hopefully I communicated my position to the voters. It was a great night."
Listen to the Sheriff's forum at this URL: http://mysite.verizon.net/res0x644/sound...