ROCK FALLS – The five candidates running for Whiteside County sheriff weighed in on their priorities and qualifications to a packed house at the American Legion on Saturday.
The Legion hosted a forum aimed at letting community members get a closer look at the candidates, each with varying law enforcement experience, who will be on the March 20 primary ballot.
The goal is to have a debate in September between the Democrat and Republican front-runners before voters have the final say in November.
The candidates largely agreed on focuses and challenges a sheriff will face, including mental health, community relations and financial hurdles in the county.
Here’s a rundown of the candidates and highlights from the 2 1/2-hour event:
A Whiteside County deputy, Lewis, 46, of Rock Falls, is one of four Republicans running for the office.
He began at the department in 2003 after 3 years at the Lanark Police Department and said he’s the only candidate to have worked every post at the sheriff’s department including the jail, patrol, courthouse security and civil process. He also is a part-time Tampico police officer.
Lewis said his know-how of the department and former financial experience with Northwestern Steel and Wire as well as positions on the Rock Falls and Montmorency school boards set him apart from the rest.
He wants to “trim the fat” and cut administration positions to make room for more deputies.
“We need to make cuts and get more for less,” he said.
The department also need to focus on reducing “stagnancy” in the jail and work to lower the inmate population, which has reached north of 100 people.
“We need to move these people through the system to decrease our costs on the jail floor,” he said.
Schmidt, a sheriff’s sergeant and 46-year-old Republican from Morrison, started out in the U.S. Air Force’s security police in 1990, was a sergeant at the DeWitt Police Department and director of security for Ashford University in Clinton, both in Iowa. He came to the department in 2001, where he was promoted to sergeant in 2009.
His solution to most of the issues – such as budgetary strains, addiction and mental health of inmates, and community relations – is working with others, including other law enforcement agencies, to cover more ground, working with the state’s attorney’s office on decreasing the jail population, and streamlining training with area police.
“We need a cohesiveness with continual training,” he said. “We all need to know how each other is going to react in a situation.”
A Republican, Fisher, 47, of Rock Falls, spent most of his career in law enforcement. He joined the Rockton Police Department in 1993 after serving in the U.S. Army military police and then worked at the Rock Falls Police Department for 18 years where he was a patrolman, canine officer, sergeant, investigator, and certified dispatcher.
He has spent the past 3 years working in the behavioral health department at KSB Hospital, spent a dozen years as vice president of the Rock Falls police union, and was on the Sterling Christian School board.
Fisher said Whiteside County needs its own behavioral healthcare unit and either needs to create its own mental health crisis team or join Lee County’s. He also wants to do away with participating in roadside safety checks to devote manpower elsewhere and push for better community relations.
“We need to get out of the car and talk with the public,” he said. “We have got to get back to where the community is comfortable with talking with officers.”
Clark Mortensen Jr.
Rounding off the list of Republicans is Mortensen Jr., 47, of Erie, who served in the Illinois National Guard for 6 years as a Stinger Missile Crewman, was an officer for the Colona Police Department from 1992 to 2000, and has been a police officer and firefighter for Quad City International Airport for the past 17 years.
He also was on the Colona City Council from 2001 to 2005 and was a member of its economic development committee.
Mortensen said the department needs training for a mass casualty situation, needs to be more involved with the community, find a way to extend patrol areas in the county and make better use of auxiliary groups.
The only candidate who hasn’t worked in Whiteside County, he said his knowledge from other towns gives him a better perspective on what needs fixing at the department.
“I’m the outside guy who’s going to come in with the fresh ideas,” he said.
Booker, 51, of Rock Falls, a lieutenant with the Whiteside County Sheriff’s Department, is the sole Democrat in the race.
He was first hired by the department in 1998 and was a patrol sergeant and detective before becoming lieutenant and commander of the county’s SWAT team.
Booker said he has the most knowledge of how to run the department, given that he’s worked closely with Sheriff Kelly Wilhelmi, who announced last year that he’s retiring and will not seek another term after 10 years in the position, and who endorsed Booker, the man he defeated in the 2010 race.
He said money is the biggest issue for the county, and he’s familiar with all aspects of being the sheriff, including administration, programs and drafting budgets.
“You don’t go to a doctor who has never performed surgery before,” he said.
Most of the candidates have yet to name a preferred deputy sheriff, except for Lewis, who has chosen Gabe Gomez, who started at the sheriff’s department and recently retired after 23 years with the Morrison Police Department, and Mortensen, who picked Donnie Pridemore, a lieutenant with the Fulton Police Department.