Outgoing Sheriff Mark Gorbett was courted by political supporters to run for a variety of political offices, including mayor of Columbus, in recent months. But in the end, he opted to seek an open seat on the Bartholomew County Council.
Gorbett, who will be 57 when the May 6 primaries occur, said the timing of the county elections and his familiarity with local financial issues are among reasons he chose to run for County Council District 3 this week.
Gorbett, a Republican, made his move a day after incumbent District 3 council member Ryan Lauer decided not to seek re-election and to run against state Rep. Milo Smith, R-Columbus, for the District 59 seat in the state House of Representatives.
“The county council seat has always been on my radar,” said Gorbett, who filed his papers to run Tuesday.
Gorbett, who started with the Sheriff’s Department in 1979 and rose through the ranks over 35 years, is barred by the state’s term-limits law from seeking re-election since he has already been elected as sheriff twice in a row — in 2006 and again in 2010.
“I’m proud of my track record of fiscal responsibility at the Sheriff’s Department, and I feel like I have a lot more to give back to the community,” said Gorbett, who will step down as sheriff at the end of this year.
If elected to the county council, he would move into that seat in January.
Gorbett’s entry into the county council race comes amid what’s shaping up as a hotly contested election season.
One more week of filing remains before a noon Feb. 7 deadline for any remaining candidates to sign up for the Republican or Democratic primaries.
In the county council races alone:
Marcus Speer, a Republican and minister known for his work with 4-H and other youth activities, will challenge incumbent Republican Chris Ogle in District 1.
Columbus businesswoman and real estate agent Laura DeDomenic has filed for the District 2 Republican primary. So far, DeDomenic is alone in that race.
District 2 incumbent Rob Kittle had considered a run to replace Gorbett as sheriff but decided against it in the past few days for personal and professional reasons and after lengthy discussions with his family, he said in an email to The Republic.
Kittle, a captain in the Sheriff’s Department, will not be filing to keep his county council seat and plans to move out of the district.
District 4 of the county council has incumbent Jorge Morales and retired banker Paul Nolting vying as Republican candidates. Nolting, 74, has never run for elected office before but said he sees his banking and fiscal background as a plus. He retired in 2002 as chairman of the board of Old National Bank’s Jasper District.
“Maybe I can do some good,” Nolting said this week after filing. “I think I can bring a new face and some new ideas to the table.”
Morales, a Cummins Inc. retiree, is ending his first four-year term on the council. At Cummins, Morales spent 20 years in personnel, one year in manufacturing services and security and nine years in materials.
Gorbett draws support
Barb Hackman, chairwoman of the Bartholomew County Republican Party, said she has known Gorbett for 30 years since he was a sheriff’s detective and she was working in various administrative jobs in the department.
“I had heard his name being mentioned in connection with a possible city office (in 2015), but I think his heart is with the county,” Hackman said. “He loves the county. The good of the county is in his heart.”
Hackman said she hasn’t heard of any other Republicans interested in seeking the District 3 seat, although with another week of filing left anything is possible.
She called Gorbett “a good fit” for the county council in part because he was in charge of a $6 million annual budget at the Sheriff’s Department, and that’s a big chunk of the entire county’s finances.
“He is a very public service-oriented man and truly cares about the whole community,” Hackman said. “He is very thoughtful and conscientious, and that’s the way he was as a detective years ago. He wants to make sure of the proper information before handling any incident.”
Lauer said he didn’t discuss the possibility of Gorbett running for his vacated county council seat in advance of his own decision to battle Smith for a spot in the General Assembly.
“I called Sheriff Gorbett to tell him I had filed for the state House on Monday and that I wouldn’t be running for re-election in District 3. He congratulated me at that point, and the next day he called me in the morning to tell me he had heard my announcement on the radio and that he was planning to run for the District 3 seat,” Lauer said. “I wished him luck.”
Lauer praised Gorbett’s ability to work with the county council on budget matters in recent years.
“The county council is a big responsibility. But Sheriff Gorbett and I have had a good working relationship,” Lauer said. “Each year he made a clear and organized budget presentation. The department didn’t always get the funding that they asked for, but the sheriff and I worked very well together. I am a strong supporter of public safety.”
Gorbett said he discussed this run for office with his family before making a final decision to seek the District 3 seat.
“I feel like I’ve got a lot more to give to the community, and my wife tells me that I am too young to retire,” Gorbett said. “To be honest, this was a family decision. After 35 years in law enforcement, I’m ready for the next chapter in my life. I was born and raised in Bartholomew County, and I’m invested in this community. I want my grandchildren to grow up here.”
When asked directly whether he had considered running in the next election for mayor of Columbus in 2015, Gorbett said: “A group of community leaders approached me last fall about serving in city government, but right now the county council is the right fit for me and my family. This is my passion.”
If elected, Gorbett said, he will serve the full four-year term on the council but doesn’t know what might come after that.
“I don’t want to shut any doors,” he said.
Proud of tough decisions
Gorbett said his family understands that the county council position is a time-consuming job, although he added “it can’t be as busy as the last eight years have been. I’ve made the tough decisions as sheriff, even if some weren’t popular.”
As sheriff, Gorbett has been in the headlines frequently this past year, including two incidents that have drawn statewide and even national attention. In one case, murder suspect Samuel Sallee is in the Bartholomew County Jail awaiting a June 24 trial in connection with the death of four people found slain in a rural Waynesville home last spring.
And the Sheriff’s Department has drawn criticism from some family members for how deputies handled their investigation of 49-year-old Cary Owsley’s shooting death last April 7. The Sheriff’s Department, coroner and county prosecutor all labeled the death a suicide and closed the case. But the man’s sister, former TV reporter Cheryl Jackson, filed a civil lawsuit and won the right to exhume her brother’s body from his grave under a court ruling.
She suspects foul play and wants independent forensic specialists to examine the remains under the legal supervision of Bartholomew Circuit Judge Stephen Heimann. Final details of that medical undertaking are still pending.
Jackson, a former Chicago resident, said this week she has established residency in Columbus “specifically so that I can be part of election process in this community.” She said she will work against Gorbett whenever he runs for a public office.
“The buck ultimately stops with him. He is the leader of an absolute failed investigation. Mark could have made this right at any time by doing a legitimate investigation into my brother’s case or by ... admitting that his deputies failed miserably. Can anybody really say the Sheriff’s Department did a great, good or even adequate job in this case?” she asked.
Last summer, Gorbett ended up taking disciplinary action against three sheriff’s deputies who he said hadn’t secured the Owsley death scene properly or had made other critical missteps handling evidence at the dead man’s home.
Those disciplined included Sgt. Dean Johnson, who is now among candidates running to take over from Gorbett as sheriff in the May election; then-Detective Christie Nunemaker, who was demoted; and Deputy E. DeWayne Janes, an ex-husband of Owsley’s widow, Lisa, who was allowed to enter the death scene as deputies did their work.
A sheriff’s internal review found that Janes was allowed to touch a handgun found at the death scene and help others place Owsley’s corpse on a gurney as it was readied for transport to a funeral home.
“When I met with Mark, I asked him if he was sorry that he had let Deputy Janes — the ex-husband of my brother’s wife and the father of her sons, who were constantly in contention with Cary — work the death scene. Mark actually got red-faced and raised his voice and said, ‘The only thing Deputy Janes did wrong on that scene was pitch in and help out.’ That was his response to this mess — the biggest failure of police ever in this area,” Jackson said.
Gorbett may endorse for sheriff
Gorbett, who has a son and daughter in college at Ball State University, said he plans to seek a full-time job next year after finishing his final 11 months as sheriff, a job that pays him $114,800 a year.
He said he won’t try to stay on in some lesser, non-elected capacity with the Sheriff’s Department, but he’s not sure what other employment might be possible.
“My daughter, Laura, will be graduating in December, so she and I could be hitting the job market at the same time,” Gorbett joked. The county council is considered a part-time office.
Gorbett hasn’t made an endorsement yet in what has become a crowded field to replace him as sheriff.
Four men — all of them with law enforcement backgrounds — have filed to run in the Republican primary for the sheriff’s nomination so far.
Confirmed candidates are Maj. Todd Noblitt, Sgt. T.A. Smith and Johnson, all veterans of the Sheriff’s Department; and Lt. Matt Myers, an officer and spokesman with the Columbus Police Department.
After the Feb. 7 deadline passes “and I see who else runs, I may make an endorsement in the race,” Gorbett said.
He added that he believes one of the key criteria for becoming sheriff is having worked your way up through the ranks, just as he did.
“I’m a firm believer that if you want something bad enough, you work for it from the bottom up,” Gorbett said.