GREENFIELD — Area residents packed the county courthouse annex Wednesday to hear from candidates in one of the most hotly contested races this election season.
The Hancock County Young Republicans conducted a special forum Wednesday night, inviting the public to hear from the Republican candidates running in May’s primary for sheriff.
No Democrats have announced campaigns for the position.
The race is likely to be one of the most popular races this election season, so the Young Republicans wanted to get the contenders in front of the public early, said Holly Gillham, president of the organization.
The four candidates — Wayne Addison, Brad Burkhart, Donnie Munden and Donnie Smith — have a lot in common, including a combined 100-plus years’ experience in law enforcement among them.
They’ve served in the county jail and on road patrol and have a passion for helping people and improving their community.
But on Wednesday night, they tried to highlight the strengths that set them apart from their challengers ahead of the May 8 election.
With all the law enforcement officers in the room, Gillham joked the annex was likely the safest place in Hancock County on Wednesday evening.
Here’s a look at the candidates.
Addison, a lifelong Hancock County resident, has known since 1966 he wanted to serve his community as sheriff, he told the crowd.
A Greenfield-Central graduate, Addison graduated from Ball State University with degrees in criminal justice and corrections and telecommunications — at one time, he thought he might write movies about police.
He retired last September after serving the county for 35 years as the chief probation officer, but he’s spent time patrolling Hancock County roads, too.
He was hired by former Sheriff Malcolm Grass as a reserve deputy in 1981 and served as one until 2010. For 10 years, he was commander of the reserve division, he said.
As chief probation officer, he’s overseen a more than $1 million budget and cut back spending while implementing new programs to address some of the problems plaguing probation clients.
He hired counselors to the department, wanting experts who could help offenders facing mental health issues and addiction. Those staff members also serve as probation officers, saving the county some funding, Addison said.
Last year, he retired from his post to pursue his lifelong dream of being sheriff.
“I wanted this so much, I thought it was time,” Addison said. “My hair is getting grey. … I figured it’s now or never.”
Brad Burkhart began his presentation by holding up the very first uniform he wore as an explorer with the Hancock County Sheriff’s Department.
He was a high-schooler when he went through the youth program — and admittedly, skinnier back then, he joked. More than 30 years later, he’s served in just about every role the department offers.
Burkhart joined the department in 1988 as a jail officer, moving up the ranks ever since.
He spent 16 years as a road deputy before moving to the investigations unit as a detective and eventually into the administration wing. He’s also served on the department’s SWAT team and underwater search and rescue dive team.
For the past seven years, Burkhart has served as Sheriff Mike Shepherd’s chief deputy, overseeing the department’s approximately $6 million budget.
In that time, he’s helped implement the department’s first employee assistance program to support the department’s employees through personal issues that might affect their work. He’s one of the founders of the county’s underage drinking task force, which patrols underage drinking parties, and helped beef up security at the county courthouse the past few years.
He’s not running for sheriff because he wants to get involved in politics, he said.
Burkhart said he wants to be sheriff to make Hancock County a better place, to protect his neighbors.
Donnie Munden’s career path mirrors Burkhart’s.
He started his tenure with the Hancock County Sheriff’s Department as an explorer. He served for four years as former Sheriff Bud Gray’s chief deputy. He’s been on the SWAT team, worked in the jail and patrolled the county’s roads.
Rather than spending his time highlighting his achievements, Munden talked about the changes he’d bring to the department at its helm.
A top priority is ensuring the department continues to operate in a fiscally responsible manner, he said.
He also wants to expand neighborhood watch programs to protect county residents and give them an opportunity to build relationships with law enforcement while having a hand in keeping their homes safe. He’d also like to expand the program to include businesses, he said.
If elected, he’ll implement an performance evaluation system to mentor and shape young deputies so they’re ready to serve as the department’s next generation of leaders, he said.
He joked he was born in 1966 — the year Addison said he realized he wanted to be sheriff — so he wasn’t quite thinking of the role then.
“My intent to serve as your sheriff is to help maintain Hancock County as a safe place to live, work and raise your family,” he said.
Donnie “Smitty” Smith grew up on the east side of Indianapolis and graduated from Lawrence Central.
He wasn’t born and raised in Hancock County, but he’s as dedicated to the community as the other candidates, he said.
He began his public service career as a correctional officer at the Indiana Boys’ School in Plainfield in 1987.
Later that year, he joined the Cumberland Police Department as a reserve officer, working at the boys’ school during the day and serving Cumberland residents in the evening.
A few years later, he was hired at the sheriff’s department, where he has worked the past 27 years.
Smith serves as a road deputy on the day shift and said he enjoys being the boots on the ground, one of the officers in regular contact with residents.
He told the crowd he’s proud of having overseen the department’s firearms training, he told the supporters gathered. He’s also served as a K-9 officer.
Smith said while it’s important for the sheriff to serve and protect Hancock County citizens, the department’s leader also needs to look out for the employees.
“I think that gets lost sometimes,” he said.
If elected, Smith said he’d put more resources into patrolling Hancock County roads, ensuring the deputies are seen and visible in the community.
All four candidates announced their campaigns last year. The filing deadline to run for office in the May primary is Feb. 9.