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Thursday, June 20, 2013 10:25 am

Wanted: A new sheriff

The Republican primary for Sangamon County sheriff is nine months away, but the candidates have been prepping for years.

That Wes Barr is running to replace Sheriff Neil Williamson isn’t surprising. Barr, a former lieutenant who retired from the sheriff’s department last month after nearly 30 years in law enforcement, set up a campaign committee in 2009 and raised more than $25,000 before officially throwing his hat in the ring.

Barr’s campaign committee was ostensibly formed to support his candidacy for a position on the Fancy Creek township board of trustees, a position that Barr says he’s held since being appointed in 2005. State records show that Barr loaned his committee $2,500 in 2007 – more than two years before the committee was set up.

There is not necessarily anything in state campaign disclosure law that prohibits making a loan to a political committee that doesn’t yet exist, said Thomas Newman, deputy director of the campaign disclosure division for the Illinois State Board of Elections, but it is unusual.

“It’s something where we might want to contact the committee,” Newman said.

Barr said that the law doesn’t require candidates to report such loans to the Illinois State Board of Election or report any fundraising until they have raised at least $3,000.

In any case, setting up a campaign committee to run for the post of township trustee and then making donations to such politicians as Bill Brady, an unsuccessful GOP gubernatorial candidate, and former state Sen. Larry Bomke, R-Springfield, doesn’t typically happen in Sangamon County, where Sheriff Neil Williamson fears the spectre of a split party that could play into the hands of Democrats in next year’s general election.

“Twenty, thirty years ago, you would never have seen this in the Republican Party,” Williamson said. “(A candidate would be told) your time is not now, you can’t run, get out. It’s a bit different today.”

Barr had to either take a leave of absence or retire from the sheriff’s office to run for the top job due to a prohibition by the Sangamon County merit deputy commission that prevents active-duty deputies running for sheriff. But Williamson says the ban doesn’t apply to undersheriff Jack Campbell because his post is an appointed one.

“We’ve had several attorneys look at it (the legality of Campbell’s candidacy),” said the sheriff, who is backing Campbell.

Campbell has been running day-to-day operations for at least four years. He and Barr agree on most substantive issues, with one difference lying in support for a sales tax increase to fund the sheriff’s department, an idea that Williamson has pitched to no avail. Barr says no to a tax increase; Campbell doesn’t reject the idea but says that any proposal to raise taxes should be put on the ballot.

Campbell says he’s a cop, not a politician, and his strength lies in experience. He says he already attends county board and board committee meetings and knows the players. He says that he’s also been able to work with the state to improve lighting on Dirksen Parkway to reduce accidents involving pedestrians.

“I’ve been involved with daily operations for the last six years,” Campbell says. “I’ve learned to identify problems and fix them.”

Besides making a career out of law enforcement, Barr, a Marine Corps veteran, has a history of community service, working in leadership positions for such charities as the American Red Cross, Habitat For Humanity, Toys For Tots and Contact Ministries. He was named First Citizen by the State Journal-Register in 2007 and has four times been voted the city’s best volunteer by Illinois Times readers.

Barr pauses for several seconds, however, when asked what he would do differently if he was the sheriff.

“I would focus more on my management style,” he ultimately answers.

Campbell says that he has gotten tough when it comes to discipline, firing three corrections officers and two deputies while overseeing daily operations. Barr agrees that Campbell has improved the department’s approach to personnel issues but says that he would do better.

Campbell says that he has overseen improvements to health care in the jail, where three inmates died in 2007, one from a perforated ulcer that went untreated. Another who was a heavy drinker died from liver problems, the county coroner’s office reported at the time, and the third death is the subject of a lawsuit that has cost the county more than $2 million in legal fees.

Campbell says that the jail now has a medical professional at the jail from 6 a.m. until 10:30 p.m. seven days a week and that the county needs to expand that to 24-hour staffing.

Barr said he isn’t prepared to say what sort of health care the jail needs.

“Honestly, I’d have to look at that,” Barr said. “I’ve only been in the race for one week.”

DUI arrests have plummeted since the department eliminated its DUI officer last fall, but neither candidate could say exactly how to improve DUI enforcement given limited manpower.

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.
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