Editor’s note: This is the second of two stories about last Thursday’s candidates’ forum. It was held at the Crest Theater in Great Bend and moderated by the League of Women Voters.
League of Women Voters created a list of questions, and candidates drew their questions Thursday evening at the candidates’ forum for Barton County.
Three Republican candidates are running for Barton County Sheriff. The winner of the Aug. 7 primary will have his name on the general election ballot in November.
Incumbent Greg Armstrong said, “As the current sheriff, I’ve visited with citizens throughout the county,” and found people are concerned about crime and want more rural patrols. “I’ve taken a pro-active approach, adding to the tools for officers,” he said.
Lt. Brian Bellendir cited a lifetime in Barton County and 27 years in law enforcement, starting as a reserve officer when Gene Marks was sheriff. “I spent most of my adult life serving you, the residents of Barton County.” He said he’s learned leadership and the legal system. “I would work to improve communication with the public and the press, and stop crime before it happens.”
Rich Unrein said he started on the ground level in law enforcement as a 911 dispatcher and worked his way up. “I can bring as much as any of the other two candidates to the table without actually being born in Barton County,” he said. “I do and did enjoy my time with the Barton County Sheriff’s Office for over 20 years.”
Bellendir was asked, “Do you think that the sheriff’s department currently has sufficient manpower to effectively cover all of Barton County ?”
“From a law enforcement viewpoint and a cop’s viewpoint, no; there should be a cop on every corner,” he said. The county has 900 square miles to cover and runs three deputies per shift. “Yes, I do feel that we have sufficient manpower to cover the county,” he said. But he expects future budget cuts, and said resources could be used better.
Armstrong was asked, “Do you believe there could be improvements to the current high-speed pursuit policy? If so, what are they?”
“There can always be improvement, I don’t care what kind of policy you have,” he said. “People who won’t stop endanger everyone on the road. If we know them and it’s a misdemeanor, I have no problem getting them later if they’ll slow down.”
Unrein was asked, “What changes would you as sheriff make in your department to improve and better serve the citizens of Barton County?”
“There could be numerous changes – there could be a few changes,” he said, noting he has not worked at the department since Armstrong was elected four years ago. His areas of priority and support would be “safety in the jail, maintenance of the jail, youth programs and community programs.”
Asked if he supports the current trusty work program at the jail, Unrein said he doesn’t have all the details on the current program, which could probably be fine tuned. He was familiar with it when Sheriff Buck Causey started the program, he said. “It’s a good program. ... Non-profits should be able to use them. They should always be supervised by some force of the sheriff’s office.”
Bellendir was asked, “What in-house plan would you institute to guarantee the health and safety of the jail population?” He said he was jail administrator from 2001-06, going from the old cells to the new pod system. “We have to remember that we are ... civilly liable for prisoners, whether we like it or not. Mostly it’s training, observation and experience of your staff.”
Armstrong’s second question was, “What is your plan for retention of employees at the county jail?”
“We’ve started a career progression program for people in the detention center,” he said. Jailers who don’t want to become patrolling deputies can still advance in rank.
Unrein concluded, “I began my (law enforcemnt) career in 1990 and worked up through the ranks,” becoming a lieutenant in 1997. He told sheriff Jim Daily, and later Sheriff Buck Causey, he wanted to be sheriff some day, but never ran against one of his employers. “I’ve trained people in every area of the sheriff’s office, so I know every job in the sheriff’s office,” Unrein said. He added he is the only candidate for sheriff who filed for office by collecting petition signatures.
Armstrong said, “There are serious problems the county still needs to address,” but that under his leadership, the office has gone from reactive to proactive. For example, he has worked with other programs and cultivated working relationships with other counties for sharing manpower and equipment; started a Guardian Program; added to the Reserves Program; and utilized trusties. “I’ve run an open-door policy to every citizen of the county at all times.”
Bellendir said he would digress from his notes to address one issue: the K-9 unit. Currently the dog and handler are assigned to a shift. “I’m going to pull that dog off the shift and put it on special assignment. That dog needs to be pulled off of its shift and used to full potential.” On other issues, he said. “We’re going to be proactive, up front. This isn’t my retirement job; it’s a full-time career.”
There are two Republican candidates for the Barton County Commission seat being vacated by John Edmonds, who is now seeking office in the state Legislature.
Candidate Buck Causey cited his leadership and communication skills, and his past community service. He was sheriff of Barton County for several years.
“Being a county commission is a great responsibility,” Caused said, adding there is an $18.5 million budget. “A lot of big decisions have to be made in the next four years.” Some grants the county has received in the past are expected to stop, he said. “You need someone who has a proven budget experience.”
Candidate Don Davis said, “My opponent is entirely correct about the important decisions facing the county.” With the help of department heads and city administrators, he would stay informed. “I’m here to listen to any and all suggestions.”
Asked what he would do as a commissioner to help maintain cooperation between all of the communities in Barton County, Causey said that’s something he’s discussed with many people as he campaigned. “It’s very important for the communities to work together ... because everybody benefits,” he said. He would ask his fellow commissions to all work together, rather than being “territorial.”
Davis was asked if it’s more important to keep the mill levy down or to take care of the needs of the citizens of Barton County. “I want to take care of the citizens of Barton County,” he said. “I support the sheriff’s office and our good roads.” He said needs come before wants, but needs should be met even if the mill levy has to be raised “and your taxes have to go up $2-3.”
Asked what changes he would like to see in the county if he’s elected, Davis said he’d like to see an emphasis on growth, and urged people not to think of this as a retirement community. “Hopefully we can do more than survive. “I’m for the future of Barton County, not just for today.”
Causey’s second question was, “Would you support supplement the bed tax with additional county funds to develop a coordinated county tourism bureau?”
“I’m not saying I would support or not support,” he said. It’s something that could be done if the funds are available, but “we have good representation now. ... That’s something that you’d have to take a look it.”
In conclusion, Davis said, “I know I’m new to this. I’ve worked hard all my life. I enjoy living here and I would enjoy serving the people of Barton County.”
Causey returned to his record. “Like I said, I think you need someone with 37 years of public service.” He has experience controlling a budget and proven interpersonal community skills, and when he was sheriff his department came in under budget every year — as much as $100,000, he said.
There are two Republican candidates for county treasurer. With “no burning issues,” League of Women Voters moderator Rose Kelly said the candidates would each answer one question, instead of two. She also noted an error on the program, which listed the office as “state treasurer.”
Incumbent Kevin Wondra joked that he was disappointed to only get one question and to learn he won’t be running for state treasurer.
Candidate Gayle Cell told the audience about her 23 years of working for the county treasurers office. “I started in bookkeeping.” With cross-training, she has worked in all areas of the office. “I would just very much like to be treasurer,” she said.
Asked what if any changes need to be made, Cell answered, “I feel like we need to be more customer oriented and get people in and out.” The new system is in place that is supposed to help with that.
Wondra was asked, “Do you favor Wichita’s call-in plan?” That, he said, allows people to call ahead and reserve a time to do their work at the treasurer’s office. “You don’t really know how a registration takes,” especially with the new system, he said. Therefore, he wondered if scheduling someone for every 15 minutes, for example, might actually cause back-ups and longer waiting time. “It’s an excellent idea if the bugs can be worked out,” he concluded.
Cell concluded, “I plan on doing cross training of all employees,” and staying current on all aspects of the job. “I am confident that I have the knowledge to do the job, with my 23 years in the office.
Wondra said there’s been a steep learning curve for the last four to five years, and more changes are coming. In the future, people will be able to check their taxes online. “I always strive to be fair when I’m dealing with customers,” he said. “There’s always a need for improved customer service.” He promised to be “courteous, helpful and to stick to the rules.