The questions kept coming.
“What are your plans to rebuild trust and credibility in the Lake County sheriff’s department?”
“What is your stance on diversity hiring?”
“Is there anything in your background that would have a negative impact on the sheriff’s department?”
One after another, audience members walked up to the stage Tuesday inside Bruce Bergland auditorium at Indiana University Northwest in Gary. They didn’t say a word. They simply handed me an index card with their question for one or all of the nine candidates for Lake County sheriff sitting next to me.
I moderated the forum, hosted by IUN’s School of Public & Environmental Affairs and the Center for Urban and Regional Excellence.
“Before you walk into a voting booth, you need to know who you are voting for,” John Tsolakas, an IUN professor and former police officer, told the audience.
The 90-minute forum became feisty at times, with a few funny moments and a couple of combative encounters between candidates. ://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b67lPMNp530&feature=youtu.be
One index card asked, “What is most critical problem facing the Lake County sheriff’s department?”
Another one asked, “What are your plans or programs to reduce the recidivism rate in Lake County Jail?”
And another, “Provide your definition of integrity, how you practice it, and how you will restore it to the department?”
With the May primary less than a month away, I told the candidates that voters are more concerned with their plans for public action, not more campaign promises. I asked them for honest responses, not rehearsed rhetoric. The audience of roughly 100 guests heard both.
One of my first questions to the candidates – comprised of eight Democrats and one (unopposed) Republican – was if they thought the prison sentence for former Lake County Sheriff John Buncich was appropriate or too harsh.
Most candidates agreed the sentence was appropriate. Two of them said they thought it was excessive, considering the circumstances of Buncich’s age and his crimes.
The list of candidates included Democrats Michael A. Brown, Richard Ligon, David Dowling, Nate Hall, Wally DeRose, Maria Trajkovich, Maria “Betty” Dominguez, and current Lake County Sheriff Oscar Martinez, as well as Republican Dan Bursac.
I told them to please keep their responses brief so I didn’t have to serve as the “clock police.” Most of them couldn’t help themselves once they got rolling. I had to cut off a few of them mid-sentence. They shrugged, but respected the time limits.
“This isn’t for me; it’s for them,” I told the candidates, pointing to the audience.
Bursac said if elected into office, he would be the first Republican sheriff in Lake County in 70 years. He also noted that no Republican sheriffs have been indicted in 70 years. His quip got a laugh from the audience.
“Over four years, the Democrats are going to come at me with everything they got, so I have to keep this office squeaky clean,” Bursac said.
An audience member asked if any of the candidates have filed for personal bankruptcy in the past. Three of them said yes. I appreciated their honesty, though there is nothing illegal or immoral about filing for it.
A man who described himself as a retired Lake County police officer asked the candidates, “Education and life experiences like military training can produce a good law enforcement officer. As sheriff, how will you ensure that you hire qualified candidates, not political ones?”
This question, in various forms, was asked by several audience members. It’s one of the top concerns of Lake County residents, I believe. Each candidate responded to this issue, largely agreeing that politics has poisoned the sheriff’s department.
Things got heated when one candidate confronted another candidate with allegations of wrongdoing in their past. I asked the candidate if throwing mud at a public forum is the best campaign tactic.
“It is if it’s the truth,” the candidate replied.
“That’s slanderous,” the other candidate countered.
More than a dozen questions focused on the county’s opioid epidemic and potential plans to better address it. The other most common question was about the department’s hiring process.
Some candidates’ responses were so involved, I wasn’t the only one who forgot what I initially asked.
“What was the question again?” Ligon joked, prompting laughs.
Some of the questions from the audience, which was stacked with supporters for certain candidates, seemed too scripted, as if the candidates themselves had asked them. I skipped over those softballs and looked for a few curveballs.
I asked the eight Democratic candidates if they would “openly and publicly” support the winner of the May 8 primary election as it leads into November’s general election. Most candidates said yes they would. It’s the best thing for the party. But not all of them agreed.
To avoid lengthy replies, I asked the candidates for their top two priorities if elected into office. Their responses included transparency, accountability, better image, erasing nepotism, tighter budget, and the opioid epidemic.
I apologized to the audience for not getting to all their questions. I told them to contact the candidates directly. Call them. Meet with them. Or message them on social media.
On May 9, seven of the eight Democratic candidates will likely no longer care about your questions, I told them.
With time running out, instead of asking candidates for their closing remarks, I asked for their biggest regret in life. I wanted to end the debate on a personal note, I told them.
“I waited 45 years before I got married!” Ligon exclaimed, prompting another laugh from the audience.
“Not pursuing my music career,” Trajkovich replied.
“Not being a police officer long enough,” Bursac said.
“I believe everything happens for a reason, and God had plans for it,” Martinez concluded.
“I don’t have any,” Dominguez said.
“That I wasn’t a priest,” Brown confessed.
IUN recorded the debate. Watch it at https://bit.ly/2v87YA9.