Sunday, December 21, 2014

Voters need sheriff with steady hand to target office’s challenges


Wanted: A professional lawman. A man we can trust with our pocketbooks. A quiet, humble servant.

After 15 months as Franklin County sheriff, Jeff Richards has faced a number of challenges. The next one comes Tuesday as he aims to fend off a challenge by Michael Reed in the Republican primary race for sheriff.

Most of us know Richards’ story. Appointed to the county’s top law enforcement position in spring 2013 after the former sheriff resigned, Richards quickly earned his stars when three bodies were discovered at a rural home between Ottawa and Pomona. Media attention and public scrutiny swirled as the sheriff’s office and other agencies searched for what ultimately was a fourth victim, an 18-month-old girl, in the quadruple homicide case.

Richards, 45, Ottawa, a former Overland Park police detective and Ottawa city commissioner, deftly handled the investigation of the case, calling in outside resources when it became appropriate and securing the crime scene for better prosecution of the case once a suspect was apprehended. We applauded his actions a year ago, and we remain appreciative of his diligence.

But the sheriff’s role is far more than crisis control on a high-profile criminal case. It’s about more than reacting.

“We’re not just responding to the next call,” Richards told The Herald. “We’re out on patrol being proactive to prevent crime.”

Under Richards’ leadership, he said, the sheriff’s office has placed an organizational focus on increasing awareness and presence in the community. Those efforts not only have included ramping up patrols throughout the county, but also getting officers — if not the sheriff himself — in attendance at all city meetings throughout the office’s coverage area.

The goal is to open lines of communication between the sheriff and city leaders, as well as everyday community members. Another outgrowth of the effort is to get more eyes in the rural areas to help battle the county’s crime problem, which Richards said largely traces back to drugs and the communities’ proximity to what has become a drug-trafficking corridor along I-35.

“Drugs are not something we’re going to fix overnight,” Richards acknowledged, “but we have to make it a priority.”

Another proactive priority has involved his stewardship of a project moving the county sheriff’s and attorney’s offices to a renovated facility on Beech Street, near the county’s juvenile detention center, 226 S. Beech St., Ottawa. With work set to begin in August and a six-month march to completion in the spring, the facility is expected to free up space at the county jail, allow more efficient and secure storage of evidence and provide safer operations for both sheriff’s office personnel and the public. The effort is planned to be finished without having to raise the county’s mill levy.

Richards’ eye on the budget doesn’t end there. The sheriff has saved money by re-examining the office’s contracts — for example, on the provider of the jail’s mental health and medical services — and looking for more cost-effective ways for the department to operate. A new records management system is another area for improvement, Richards said, one where the county can get more for less.

“I understand we have to spend money, but it has to be spent right,” Richards, a fiscally conservative Republican, said.

So with the sheriff’s “tight” nature when it comes to the spending, why might his challenger say he’s being loose with money?

A practice carried over from the previous sheriff involved artificially lowering the office’s operational budget by spending out of drug seizure funds — particularly the Sheriff’s Trust. It gave the appearance of less spending, but actually was just tapping into a limited supply of funding meant for other needs. Richards put an end to that practice, noting, “That money will run out. Then what?”

“I don’t believe that is a proper way of doing business,” he said, “because we have a budget that shows it’s costing this much money to run the sheriff’s office when we’re really spending more than that. It’s just coming out of this other pot.”

We were critical of Richards’ predecessor for dipping into the Sheriff’s Trust for operational expenses, and we’re pleased to see the sheriff sticking to his guns and ethics on transparency and professionalism.

His opponent in the race, Reed, 53, Wellsville, a former Wellsville police chief and county sheriff’s office detective, has campaigned on a platform of increasing patrols, getting officers more engaged in the community and righting the county’s budget. From our view, Richards already is tackling those goals and deserves a full term to see his efforts come to fruition.

If that wasn’t enough, one rural Ottawa couple has another reason to support Richards.

Last summer, a few weeks removed from the most intense moments of the homicide investigation, Almeda and Kenneth Edwards found themselves standing in the rain at the Lane Fair. Struggling with physical ailments and a couple of folding chairs after a concert at the event, the Edwards lamented to the sheriff about the long walk back to their parked car. Without missing a beat, Richards offered to take their keys and retrieve the vehicle. He didn’t ask for thanks. And he didn’t boast about his good deed.

“I was thrilled,” Almeda Edwards said. “He was in exactly the right place at exactly the right time.”

We couldn’t agree more.

Richards is the sheriff we want and the man we need for the office.

Tommy Felts,

managing editor

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