Four veteran lawmen with a combined 110 years of professional experience have been campaigning for about a year to succeed Bartholomew County Sheriff Mark Gorbett.
The May 6 primary will determine which one will earn the Republican nomination for the office. The candidates are Columbus Police Department Lt. Matt Myers and three members of the sheriff’s department: Maj. Todd Noblitt, Sgt. T.A. Smith and Sgt. Dean Johnson.
Gorbett is prevented by state law from seeking a third consecutive term as sheriff.
All four candidates said illegal drugs rank among the greatest criminal threats to the community.
“Our community experiences crimes ranging from burglaries and thefts to domestic violence, child abuse and even homicides that can be tied back to drugs,” Myers said.
He proposes a coordinated, countywide effort involving both law enforcement agencies and court officials to reduce the growing trends of drug-related crimes.
Johnson advocates adding two narcotics officers to the department and more open communication and public education.
But besides illegal drug activity, Noblitt said a general decline in morale and ethical behavior exists, along with a waning respect for life and property. He is calling for strong community partnerships to aggressively fight domestic violence and crimes against children and the elderly.
In addition to addressing the drug problem, Smith wants more emphasis on stopping thefts from both businesses and farms.
“Thefts of converters, batteries and metals reap small rewards for the thieves yet are costing our farmers and business owners thousands of dollars in repairs and raised insurance premiums,” Smith said.
He advocated a more proactive approach toward these crimes and more public awareness.
Another issue the next sheriff must deal with is how to retain more deputies, who can get — for example — a $6,000 bonus by joining the Columbus Police Department, Gorbett said last year.
Both the incumbent sheriff and Columbus Police Chief Jason Maddix have said that employee retention is important to taxpayers because almost $40,000 is invested in nearly every new officer before they are qualified to carry out their duties on their own.
Noblitt said he believes the employee turnover is mostly about the money, adding that both he and Gorbett have been working to address the problem since 2010.
“Significant progress has been made,” Noblitt said. “However, as sheriff I will continue to pursue parity as it is vital and essential for the recruitment and retainment of valuable employees.”
Besides promoting only the most qualified candidates for leadership positions, Myers believes turnover can be reduced by striving to improve training, equipment, technology and pay and benefits.
Administrators sometimes lose touch with employees, Smith said. A true leader first establishes values and later instills them in others through setting goals, improving morale and promoting determination, he said.
Johnson said 15 deputies have left the department since Gorbett took office in early 2007, with none going to the city. While some chose early retirement, Johnson said most actually took a cut in pay when they left the department.
“By possessing the characteristics of a good leader and applying them in the day-to-day operations, one will regain the trust and respect of the officers along with their loyalty, thus retaining them as respected officers,” Johnson said.
Johnson was one of three deputies who received short-term suspensions last July for what Gorbett labeled “errors in judgment” during an investigation into the death of Cary Owsley, who died of a gunshot wound to the chest at home three months earlier.
While no Democrat filed as a candidate for the office, most political parties have until June 30 to fill ballot vacancies for the November general elections. The Libertarian Party may do the same as long as it submits paperwork by July 3, Bartholomew County Clerk Tami Hines said.
Bartholomew County Republican chairwoman Barb Hackman said the sheriff’s race will have the highest public interest of any on the ballot, which could bring more voters to the polls.
“The sheriff’s race usually brings out voters anyway. But the fact that we get to choose between four highly qualified Republicans with diverse backgrounds provides even more of a reason for local residents to vote,” Hackman said.