Candidates debate sheriff's job

Cathy Decker/Staff reporter
A debate occurred between Mercer County Sheriff candidates from left Tom Thompson (Democratic), Jason Soseman (Republican) and Tom Nelson (Independent) during the Watermark Women's forum held Sept. 2, 1910.

A series of questions fielded by Sheriff Tom Thompson, Democratic candidate, Jason Soseman, Republican candidate and Tom Nelson, Independent candidate, took up the latter portion of a two-and-a half hour session held in Aledo on Thursday, Sept. 2, 2010.

The debate fell within certain rules -- like three minutes for a response per person and a 90 second response (if needed) after the initial response. Each candidate was also given three minutes at the end of the debate for a summary. The questions were asked by moderators Pastor Daren Dietmeier and Pastor Jeff Bealmear, with a mixed order of who answered the question first.

Questions included:

• What are your goals if elected Sheriff?

Nelson - To balance the budget. Nelson said that as the head of the Aledo Police Department he had to administer a $300,000 budget for the city and overtime was always a problem "Overtime is a big killer for this job," Nelson said.

Soseman - Balance the budget. "We need to balance the budget and create better rapport with the cities of Mercer County and other law enforcement personnel within the area," said Soseman. He also said the Sheriff's department needed to create better rapport with area senior citizens. "I've heard it six or seven times," he said. Individuals have to wait as many as two hours to get any kind of response back from the department when they call in," said Soseman. He said he also wants to stress "time on the road," instead of office time for deputies who are working.

Thompson - Wants to continue serving the people of Mercer County. He wants to keep providing "professional jobs from his employees," he said. "They care about what they do," he added. He would like to continue the DARE program in the schools and Crime Stoppers. He also is interested in building the Sheriff's Auxiliary back up. There is also a program called Triad Program, where law enforcement and Senior Citizens work together through education and cooperation. The aim of Triad is to educate Senior Citizens about crimes, exploitation, abuse and neglect, and to improve communication between seniors, law enforcement agencies and social service agencies. Another organization Thompson mentioned was "Project Life Saver," which works with people who have cognitive impairment, offering a "search and rescue" for people who may become lost.

• What makes you feel that you're the best candidate for Mercer County Sheriff?

Nelson - I have 28 years of law enforcement experience and 24 years in the city of Aledo. Nelson worked as the assistant chief in Aledo for 14 years. "I like to work with the public," he said. He called himself a "working sheriff," saying he would be out on patrol and work on some of the calls that come in. "I think my experience speaks for itself," he said.

Soseman - While Soseman admitted he had no law enforcement experience. He said he believes "the sheriff is an administrator." He's not elected to do the day-to-day calls that come into the office. "There are close to 50 employees," said Soseman. He said he had 15 years of administration experience. His business experience gives him an edge by knowing the importance of profits and losses and budget analysis. "I'm willing to come out of the private sector and step into the role as the administrator," he said.

Thompson - "Through the experience of 22 1/2 years of police work," said Thompson, including 18 years in administration and eight years as the sheriff and "training several classes in police administration." He said, "I'm in the business of law enforcement. I'm basically the best candidate for the job."

• What is the biggest challenge facing the next sheriff?

Soseman - The growing budget that is out of control was the first thing Soseman mentioned. "We can not afford to lose officers," he added. He sees that the department needs to have better relationships between the jail, police officers and parts of the courthouse. "We need to look at what is really needed in the sheriff position and what can I do for you," he said.

Thompson - The jail project is Thompson's idea of the biggest challenge. He pointed out that "it was not my idea to build a jail addition."

He does support it, however. He thinks once completed he will be "hiring four additional correctional officers." He said the job requires the sheriff's department to "keep everyone safe and the inmates behind bars."

Nelson - "Trying to keep the jail full with federal inmates," would be Nelson's biggest challenge if elected sheriff. He said there is no contract with the federal government to have federal prisoners sent to Mercer County. "Whoever is going to be sheriff will see the jail increase from 36 to 72 beds," he said.

• How do you feel about federal prisoners being housed two blocks away from our elementary schools?

Thompson - Federal prisoners have been housed at Mercer County Jail without any problems for the past 12-13 years, according to Thompson. He said in 2009 the average number of prisoners at the jail was 44. The jail addition is needed, he said to enable "making room for our own county inmates." He said the county's professional staff makes sure that the county's number one priority - security - is maintained. "I'm not afraid there's going to be any problem as far as where the school is located and where the jail is," Thompson said.

Nelson - "Mercer County is a very secure area," said Nelson. He is not concerned with the proximity of the schools and the jail. Federal prisoners are mostly "short timers that stay in Mercer County."

Soseman - "It should be on everybody's mind," Soseman said, about the proximity of the jail to area schools. "They are very close to the schools here," he said. He said that escape "does happen and everybody needs to say a prayer that it never happens."

• What would be or is the procedure of handling allegations of wrongdoings or misconduct by a Mercer County officer?

Nelson - There are rules and regulations that everybody has to follow, or else you will deal with the authorities, Nelson said.

Soseman - On or off duty police officers need to follow a strict code of ethics, according to Soseman. "If it's not implemented, it needs to be." He pointed to the recently signed union contract - "In the union contract that was signed if an officer does something wrong, they can not be humiliated," he said. He said that an internal investigation would begin and if necessary, the State Police would be called in to investigate. "There is no tolerance for misconduct at the Mercer County," said Soseman.

Thompson - There is a policy in place that deals with off or on duty police misconduct, according to Thompson. "We represent the Mercer County Sheriff's Department. We take a complaint and the chief deputy or myself would investigate. It may be turned over to the State police." He said there will be no talk of cover-ups.

• What things are factored into creating a sheriff's department budget?

Soseman - The budget includes wages, salaries, maintenance of the building, utilities, care of the prisoners. He said there are a lot of variables in the budget, except for overtime. "You factor that in," he said.

Thompson - "There are 53 line items in the budget." He said the largest line item is salaries. He looks back to the previous year's budget to figure out the next one, especially when looking at variables. "Overtime is difficult to control," he said, "you just don't have a lot of control on these numbers." Some of the things built into the budget include squad cars, equipment inside the vehicles, like computers, radar and cameras, much of which comes through grants or street value drug funds, fines and fees for DUIs.

Nelson - Wages, squad car needs, fuel, uniforms, weapons and radar guns are some of the items listed by Nelson that are in a budget. "I haven't ever seen the budget," he said.

• How would you improve safety within the county without raising taxes?

Thompson - He said there is a police vehicle fund, a $25 fee to the court that goes into this fund for vehicles and equipment. Another court-based fee that comes in is from DUI arrests, of which funds go towards DUI enforcement or education. There is also a street value drug fund, where sometimes the county files for forfeiture of someone's property that was connected to drugs. "That can be used for education or trying to prevent drug usage or extra patrols. There is also a Illinois Department of Transportation safety program that provides for extra officers, where the DOT reimburses for roadside safety patrols or DUI patrols, said Thompson. "We don't have to use any taxes," he said, "to help with providing more safety in the county."

Nelson - "I'm a big believer in patrols," said Nelson. He said he would go out and provide high visibility in patrolling to "keep people from breaking the law." He also wants to start the police auxiliary again and Neighborhood Watch. "The more eyes you've got working for you the better off you are."

Soseman - Soseman talked about how there are two officers on duty during the first shift, but there is only one deputy on duty at night. He sees this as a potential problem. He said he would look at the statistics of when crimes occur and make some changes, if needed. He mentioned that domestic violence occurs more at night and endangers the deputy on duty, as well as the person being abused. "Where can we get the most bang for the buck."

One question specifically for Nelson came up - Why did you retire from Aledo in 2005?

Nelson talked about how there was a new administration and new mayor that came on board in the city and he saw the writing on the wall, so decided to take an early out. "It was not because I wanted to (retire)," he said. He believes in an open door policy, getting information out as early as he can for the media and citizens. "The public is welcome to come and see me," he said. He believes in being out in public and talking to the people. "Less waste and less spending equals less taxes," he added. He noted that having one investigator on the sheriff's staff increased to two in January of this year, with both working on first shift. He would like to investigate whether both were needed on first shift. He would like to eliminate as much overtime as possible. He also believes that he "should and could take up some time as a road patrol officer."

"There's just fat in the budget," he added.

Thompson talked about the labor equation of adding four additional employees. As of March 2009, the sheriff's department has never made a profit. He sees nothing wrong with just breaking even. "We have an opportunity to increase revenue for the county for housing federal and out of county inmates," said Thompson. He is not worrying about trying to make a profit. "It does appear that we're over budget," he said.

However he pointed to a lot of reimbursement that comes back to the county does not get put into the sheriff's department budget, but rather goes to the county general fund.

• Isn't Muscatine expanding its jail and won't we be competing with them for prisoners?

Thompson - Yes, Muscatine is expanding their jail. "They have a lot more local inmates than we do," he added. "They house federal inmates as well."

Nelson - "If we start competing with Muscatine I don't know how we're going to keep ours full."

Soseman - He pointed to the company who was in charge of the construction of both the Muscatine and Mercer County Jail expansion saying, "they sold the same pitch to both of us." He added that if Mercer County is housing federal inmates from Iowa, "we have to take what we can. If we stay under 60 inmates we don't have to have another man per shift." Going higher than 60 "would cost the county between $300,000 to $400,000 more," He suggested it would take "very strict management to keep everything in line so this county doesn't go broke."

• What service groups or community organizations are you actively involved with?

Nelson - He said he is not involved with any organizations at this time. "I have a full-time job taking care of my 99-year-old mother," he said.

Soseman - He said he was involved in the Aledo Jaycees for around 18 years. He is currently involved more with 4-H and a shooting sports program. He is also active with his childrens' passions. "Any time I can, I spend with my boys," he said.

Thompson - He is a member of the newly formed Mercer County Central Lion's Club, which formed in June. He also goes to a lot of meetings with the Illinois Sheriff's Association.

• What happens to the DARE program if there is a change in sheriff?

Soseman - He said he struggles with the DARE program on a daily basis. "It may not be used on the right age group," he said. He pointed out that the most important influence on children in regards to drugs and alcohol are the parents. He said that the Quad Cities have dropped the DARE program. He plans to implement the program, until he learns more about it. "There's no statistics that say it's really helping out kids," said Soseman.

Thompson - He has been teaching the DARE program in Mercer County for the past 20 year. He said the program not only talks about drugs and alcohol, but about decision making in general. He said the program used to cover a program for junior high-aged students as well and he plans to talk to Aledo Acting Police Chief Terry Dove about becoming involved in teaching the program. "The Ohio State University will tell you some statistics" about this kind of education, he added. The DARE program is not just about educating youngsters, it is also involved with providing scholarships for graduating seniors at Mercer County and Sherrard schools, and giving out citizenship awards for junior high students. "If I'm elected it will continue," said Thompson.

Nelson - He thinks the DARE program is a good one and if elected he plans to "get a young deputy to take on that program and keep it implemented."

• How large a problem are drugs in Mercer County?

Thompson - "You can't open a newspaper without reading about it," said Thompson, who calls the problem a nationwide one. "It's throughout the country and in Mercer County," he said. He believes that education and enforcement are the answers "until we find a way to get people to reduce the demand for it." He added that too many people are making a lot of money in the drug trade. "We have collected $200,000 just from the drug trade in Mercer County."

Nelson - He sees there is a problem with drugs, especially with some of the more recent drug busts that occurred on the I-80 corridor. "I think the judicial system is going to have to crack down. The judges need to be more strict."

Soseman - He talked about how he has a friend who works for the Department of Natural Resources. "He spends most of his time running the river looking for meth labs," he said. He believes that communication with the department and with the people of Mercer County needs to be boosted so that neighbors who see excess propane tanks outside neighbor's doors and know what else to look for can tell the police what is going on in their neighborhoods.

• Who would be your key advisor and key supporter?

Nelson - He pointed to the fact that he is running as an independent candidate, which means that "the whole public would he his advisor. I'm out for all people," he said. The chief deputy would be my biggest supporter.

Soseman - He said he plans to have a key group of advisors. "There are many knowledgeable citizens who could give advice or help out whenever," he said. He also pointed to the current deputies and other law enforcement within the county. He plans to "Listen to the people of Mercer County. They run their houses, they run their businesses and that's who we need to look to." He said that when money is tight, "we tighten our belts at home. I plan to look to the people of Mercer County whenever I can."

Thompson - He points to his constituents as "the people you are there to serve." He looks to his staff and employees for advice. "We have a staff meeting every other week," he said. He said the chief deputies, employees in the department approach with any of their concerns.

Closing statements:

Soseman is a lifelong Mercer County resident who lives on a farm south of Aledo, He has a wife, Amanda, and two children, Jeremy and Austin. "I bring a business background," he said. He points to his understanding of management, profit and losses. "I do not have law enforcement experience," he said. "The deputies - that is what their job is to do."

He said a budget needs to be implemented in Mercer County. "We need to stick to it and not go over it. There has to be some sort of ramification." There are close to 50 employees that he would oversee, as well as the maintenance of the Mercer County Courthouse.

Thompson grew up in the Sherrard area and is a 1969 graduate of Sherrard High School. He is married and on Saturday, Sept 4, he said he would celebrate his 39th anniversary. In 1985 he started at the Mercer County Sheriff's department. In 1988 he started working patrol. In 1991 he was named chief deputy and was first elected sheriff in 2002. "I've been honored to be your sheriff for another eight years," he said.

Nelson took his last three minutes to try and deflect a rumor that has been going around "that he would take over the city of Aledo Police Department and run it (too)." He said "the people of Aledo would never go along with that." He said the jail expansion "should have been left to the voters." He pointed to his independent status. "I can work equally well with either Republicans or Democrats. We would work together as a team with the Mercer County Board, no matter what the party."

Tom Thompson