GREENFIELD — The county’s drug problem, department spending and personnel discipline were hot topics at Friday’s debate between the Republican candidates for Hancock County sheriff.
Incumbent Sheriff Mike Shepherd and challenger Donnie Munden shared their stances on a variety of issues facing the department to a room of 115 people who gathered at the Hancock County Public Library to learn more about the campaign.
The debate, which was moderated by Daily Reporter editor Dave Hill, was co-sponsored by the Reporter and the library.
Shepherd, who is running for a second term, told the crowd he believes he has restored professionalism and integrity to the sheriff’s department since he took office in 2011. Munden, a lieutenant and shift commander for the sheriff’s department, said deputies could be doing more to serve the public.
The candidates’ main focus is on the department’s use of manpower, which both agree has been limited in recent years.
Shepherd said he continues to work to meet the request of shift commanders for more officers on patrol. Munden countered that the department would be better served by dedicating a few road officers to drug investigations instead of patrol.
Shepherd concedes the department could do more to address the drug problem, but he said he will wait until the department’s three most recent hires have been trained and put on duty before he assigns a patrol officer to drug investigations.
“That’s pulling somebody else off the road,” he said.
Munden said the county has seen too many overdose deaths in recent years to ignore the cause of many local crimes. He said the sheriff’s department should take the lead in developing a task force to combat the problem.
“I don’t think, as a law enforcement agency, we can sit back and watch this happen,” he said.
The issue was also of interest to voters.
Jim Weddell meticulously took notes as the candidates went back and forth on the topic Friday. After the debate, he said he’s leaning toward supporting Shepherd because he believes the county’s neighborhoods need increased protection. That has been a cornerstone of Shepherd’s campaign.
Melinda Campbell, on the other hand, said the idea of a team approach to fighting drugs resonated with her on a personal level. Campbell’s son overdosed while he was an inmate in the jail after prescription narcotics were smuggled into the facility last year. Campbell said she came to the debate to see what the candidates would do to remedy the county’s drug problem in the future.
“I love the idea of a drug task force,” she said.
Department spending for the upkeep of the county jail also incited debate between the candidates.
Shepherd came under fire for spending half a million dollars in the past year on upgrades to the facility. At Friday’s debate, Shepherd stood by those expenditures, saying that if he hadn’t replaced the jail’s control system and cell locks, it would have put workers and the public in danger.
Munden questioned why a department employee who was certified to evaluate jail equipment wasn’t consulted before high-dollar replacement parts were ordered.
“I just would have felt better about that if there would have been some consultation from our employee … to find out they’re all faulty or we could do some routine maintenance,” Munden said.
Shepherd said the company that manufactured the jail’s locks told him the locks had far exceeded their life expectancy of 15 years.
“They were worn out and needed to be replaced,” he said.
Discipline problems among officers have posed problems in the department since Shepherd took the reins, and the issue afforded the candidates a chance Friday to discuss their management styles.
The discussion centered on a deputy who remained on the payroll for three months after being arrested last October.
Shepherd cited a department policy that prohibited an internal investigation from occurring simultaneously with a criminal one.
The old rule tied his hands to immediately fire the officer, he said, adding he has since changed the policy.
“I didn’t like it any more than anyone else liked it,” he said. “I know people aren’t happy that an officer’s basically getting an extended vacation.”
Munden said when it comes to personnel problems, the sheriff should be prepared to take swift action. He criticized Shepherd for addressing the policy only after the deputy resigned in January.
“This incident started in October of 2013. I would have, as sheriff, went to the merit board in November of 2013,” he said.
Shepherd said he was following the advice of his attorney.
Staff writer Maribeth Vaughn contributed to this report.