GEORGETOWN – With a primary election around the corner, Ohio stands to be front and center in the national election, but in Brown County, the hottest election seat may be in the March Primary. With four candidates on the ballot seeking nomination, they met at Southern Hills Career and Technical School for a candidate forum hosted by The News Democrat and Brown County Press.
Candidates were asked questions by moderators and topics ranging from heroin use and abuse to what to do about the county jail issue facing the county. The candidates from Brown County Sheriff include David Benjamin, a Ripley resident and current Chief of Police for the Village of Winchester in Adams County; Reggie McKenzie, a former chief dog warden and police officer for the Village of Mt. Orab; current Brown County Sheriff Chief Deputy Carl Smith and finally Lake Waynoka Chief of Police Gordon Ellis.
Each candidate made their case as to why the should get the nomination to serve the people of Brown County for the next four years as Sheriff, if elected in the November General election. To date, no independent candidate had filed with the Board of Elections, virtually making the winner of the Republican primary the de-facto Sheriff elect for 2016.
“Throughout my career drugs or narcotic enforcement has kind of been my expertise,” Benjamin told the crowd at Southern Hills. “I feel like I have a lot to offer as far as the heroin epidemic. I have some solid plans on how to deal with that. I agree with everyone else it’s not something we can arrest our way out of. The reason I want to be sheriff, I started praying about it and I feel like it’s where God is leading me and I think he has plans for me and I will never tell him no.”
McKenzie made his case to the crowd as the former chief dog warden and current officer in the Village of Mount Orab. He told the crowd he had spent the last few years working in the WEST Program at Western Brown High School as a resource officer for the school.
“The reason I want to be is sheriff is because I have a lot of leadership experience,” McKenzie told the crowd. “I think we have a lot of good guys working on the Sheriff’s Department and I would like to give them the opportunity to do their job as best they can. Perception is not what it is and these are good guys who need to be led properly. I think my experience in schooling and the Marine Corp will help with that.”
Smith, the only candidate currently employed at the Sheriff’s Department, told the crowd there were just two jobs he had not held while working at the office. One being the job he was seeking as Sheriff of Brown County and the other cook as a in the kitchen. Smith said he had the knowledge and leadership needed to direct the office. Smith spent the last 27 years working in the department coming up from through the ranks eventually earning the role as Chief Deputy. Smith retired in 2012, but remained in the department as a part-time officer and said he has never had a break in service.
“Last year in April I was hired on as the Chief Deputy for the Sheriff’s office,” Smith told the crowd. “So I feel I have the budgetary experience, the leadership qualities, and the experience to lead the Sheriff’s Office in the direction it needs to go.”
Ellis, a former Williamsburg resident, moved back to Brown County after retiring as the Chief of Police in the City of Franklin (Ohio). He returned home to be closer to his aging mother, a Mount Orab resident, when he moved to Lake Waynoka to become Chief of Police. He has experience in leading departments similar in size to Brown County and wants to be his experience to the Sheriff’s office.
“Why I want to be Sheriff? Two reasons,” Ellis told the crowd. “Number one, because we live in the community, I am greatly concerned what service we can provide to the citizens of Brown County. I have learned that to lead is to serve. My whole thrust in being in this is so I can serve the citizen of Brown County with my training, my experience, and with my education. The other reason is for the Sheriff’s Office. I’ve had an opportunity to work with deputy sheriffs and police officers throughout my career and I understand should I be elected the Sheriff, I owe them leadership by example. That I need to be always there for them and then when a crisis arrives and that situation requires attention I will be there to deal with that. I am not interested in fixing the blame, I am interested in fixing the problem.”
Candidates faces rigorous questions from the moderators that were provided to a great extent by audience participation. Before the forum began, those in the audience were invited to provide questions they wanted ask to the candidates. At the end of the forum, each candidate was given a hard-hitting question that directly effected their situation.
For McKenzie, he was asked if he were prepared to handle a crisis situation and how he would do so given his acknowledged lack of law enforcement experience.
“Handling a major crisis, as far as any natural or terrorist or any other crisis that would occur I have been trained with Force protection, I am not sure if anyone realized what that is,” McKenzie said. “But Force protection is where the agencies combine resources in response to crisis situations that occur and keeping people safe. As far as major investigations, those will be up to the detectives. These days work for that and keep people away and allow them to do their job is all I know how to do. Using good people to do their job and motivate them to do it to the best of the ability and resolve situations.”
Criticism for Smith comes from the notion of change at the Sheriff’s Department. As a 27 year veteran, many voters fear that Smith will be more of the same in the department that have come to disapprove of.
“I have been there long enough to have trained most of the deputies that have come in there,” Smith said. “When I retired in 2012, I had 2,600 hours of sick time. That is after giving away 800 to this one or that one when I had some medical issues. I go to work. That is what I continue here as the Chief Deputy and I will continue to do that as Sheriff. I think in order to lead you have to be there.”
For Ellis, while he has garnered the respect of many citizens for his military service in the Ohio National Guard and reaching the rank of Brigadier General, many are concerned if Ellis has the ability to commit the time to serving the County.
“In the last 10 year when deployments of Ohio National Guard members were at their highest level, the Ohio National Guard did not deploy one General officer,” Ellis said. “The reason for that is generally speaking, they want the units, they usually don’t require Generals. The regular Army seems to have enough of them. That being the case, while it is possible, it is a rare occurrence. In relation to military serve, my father served, my grandfather served and frankly I am quite proud of my service. I was always raised to respect those who when the call to duty came, went and honored that call. I am proud of my military service. My military service is within keeping Congressmen Wenstrup, who is in the Army Reserve who fulfills his duties as an elected official, it is also with keeping with Steve Stivers, resident of Ripley, who is a Colonel in the Ohio National Guard and still fulfills his obligations. If I thought this was a significant challenge I would not run for Sheriff.”
For David Benjamin, he comes as the Chief of Police in the small Village of Winchester, many have questioned if he is prepared to make the leap from the small village to leading and entire county’s law enforcement team.
“I think being Chief of Police is a small department sets me up perfectly to be the next sheriff,” Benjamin said. “I
deal with a very, very tight budget. I don’t have any extra money to spend whatsoever. The only way I can make my budget is work is to have my officers out being active, being able to bring money into our Mayor’s Court and bring it into our general fund to make that work. As a Village you can can’t get by on day to day on just not being able to not bring monies into your village. I think that sets me up pretty nicely to be able to do that. The officers that we have, a lot of them are part-time or auxiliary. If you have ever tried to work around somebody else’s schedule you know how difficult that can be and for us to make out a schedule and make sure we have enough coverage for the Village and make sure the calls are handled and investigations are handled and that you still have enough manpower to cover I think sets me up perfectly. We’ve done a lot of things in Winchester that I feel like are cutting edge. We’ve been able to get good equipment. Currently we have body cameras we have cameras in our cruisers. I think that is something we need here in Brown County. I know a lot of agencies are wanting that and it’s part of transparency. One thing I have done throughout my campaign is I’ve tried to be extremely transparent. I think that is something we can offer the Sheriff’s Office that’s what I would like to see. I want to open to the community, I want to be open to the citizens. So they know what we are doing. Unfortunately if you don’t tell someone whats going on they’ll make it up, believe it or not.”
Early voting has already started in Ohio. Those wishing to cast their ballot prior to the March 15 primary can request an absentee ballot or visit the Board of Elections in Georgetown to vote in person. The complete audio of the Sheriff Candidate Forum is available on The News Democrat Facebook page or on SoundCloud.
Reach Brian Durham at 937-378-6161 or on Twitter @brianD1738.