Rock County sheriff candidates Gary Groelle and Robert Spoden debate at fair
JANESVILLE—Both men running for Rock County sheriff claimed during a forum Thursday to have the right demeanor for the job.
Incumbent Robert Spoden said sheriff is a high-stress position. Responding to homicides and talking to the families of kidnapped children is taxing, he said.
“During those moments of crisis, I've had a very calm and steady demeanor," Spoden said.
Challenger Gary Groelle, a captain at the sheriff's office, said his personality and background make him the ideal candidate.
“My strength is that I collaborate well with individuals in the community,” he said.
He said he's approachable and respected by his peers.
The two Democrats will face each other in the Aug. 12 primary. Because there is no Republican candidate for the office, the primary victor will likely be the next sheriff.
They answered questions Thursday on the WCLO Radio program "Your Talk Show" at the Rock County 4-H Fair. Tim Bremel, host of the radio show, posed questions.
Bremel asked both candidates about replacing the sidearms carried by deputies, a topic they've debated before.
Groelle said $40,000 the sheriff's office spent to help purchase an armored vehicle with the Janesville and Beloit police departments would have been better spent replacing decades-old Glock handguns. The sheriff's office could have borrowed the armored vehicle from Beloit or Janesville if necessary, he said.
“We could have the best of both worlds,” he said.
Groelle said guns malfunction after several years, but Spoden disagreed.
“Guns aren't milk. They don't expire,” Spoden said, noting that guns function fine if they're properly maintained.
The sheriff said he has eight deputies who examine the handguns each year for any malfunctions. If any are found, the guns are replaced.
The sheriff's office has a plan to purchase 40 new Glocks over the next two years, Spoden said.
“There is no way as sheriff I would ever let someone go out with a malfunctioning handgun. That's just nonsense,” Spoden said. “I'm always in favor of being smart with our technology, and I would never, ever jeopardize our officers.”
Spoden said the office has used the armored vehicle five times since buying it.
“I have no regrets going into that partnership with Janesville and Beloit,” he said.
Groelle agreed the armored vehicle is useful but said functioning and safe equipment and weapons for officers should be a priority.
Groelle and Spoden agreed more needs to be done to combat drunken drivers.
Spoden said he has implemented plans and task forces to crack down on intoxicated drivers.
“I commend the efforts the sheriff has done over the years,” Groelle said. “We've done a good job as a county and as a state. I want to take it one step further.”
Groelle said the sheriff's office should be more involved with the community and focused on educating children about the dangers of drunken driving.
Bremel asked what innovative programs each candidate has started at the sheriff's office.
Spoden pointed to the Workenders Program that allows jail inmates to be released and perform community service on the weekends to lower outstanding fines. The program lets inmates work off their fines rather than turning the jail into a “debtors' prison,” he said.
Groelle said he wants to crack down on heroin. He's attended summits inside and outside the county to better inform himself on the heroin problem, he said.
If elected, Groelle said, he would implement a seven-step strategy to educate parents and the community about the drug.
Spoden commended Groelle for his stance on heroin but said other drugs such as cocaine also are an issue. The sheriff's office has seen a record number of heroin-related search warrants and arrests, the sheriff said. Spoden is happy the sheriff's office recently broke up what he called a major cocaine distribution operation.
“I believe we can always do more,” Groelle said.
Spoden cited a lack of treatment as the real issue, calling the two-month waiting period for addicts to get help “unacceptable.”
Bremel asked how they'd improve day-to-day operations and staff morale.
“It's hard to put a finger on morale. It's ambiguous,” Groelle said.
“We have a professional staff. They do enjoy working together,” he said.
Groelle referred back to the handgun issue, saying working equipment makes deputies feel safe.
“Morale is fluid. It changes on a daily and regular basis,” Spoden said.
Spoden said improving training and preparation for employees would help boost morale.
The sheriff's office has specialty teams that allow officers to “experience different things and grow as individuals,” Spoden said.
Factors outside the sheriff's office can impact morale, but Spoden said there are good leaders in the office.
“I'm very proud of who we have in place and the work that they do,” he said.
Groelle criticized Spoden for taking a recent pay raise.
Spoden noted Groelle also has accepted raises, though not as substantial as his own.
“Don't try to blame someone else,” Spoden said.
Groelle said Spoden's raise impacted officer morale because others' pay increases weren't as big.
“I know that the supervisor union does not feel good about what happened,” he said.