Incumbent Republican Keith Nygren is facing Democrat Mike Mahon and Green Party candidate Gus Philpott in the race for McHenry County sheriff. The candidates answered the following questions:
Q: What is your Number 1 campaign issue?
Mahon: My number one campaign issue is the incumbent. After 12 years, Sheriff Nygren has become the type of incumbent with a sense of entitlement who is a liability to our system of government at all levels.
He has long since lost the pulse of the citizens, if indeed he ever had it. While piling up personal wealth and acquiring showcase retirement homes, he seems oblivious to the plight of ordinary taxpayers, as exemplified by his failure to immediately get behind the County salary freeze earlier this year.
Meanwhile, Sheriff Nygren continues to act as a magnet for lawsuits from citizens and aggrieved employees alike. His legal bills and payouts from losses are costing taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars annually.
Finally, he appears to believe that citizens should only be given the information he wants them to have. Transparency in government is a foreign concept to his administration, as is demonstrated in the wounding of Dep. Woods and other incidents.
Nygren: For the past five years, we have been working on National Accreditation for the Sheriff's Department. The accreditations we are working on include the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies (CALEA), American Corrections Association (ACA) Accreditation and Accreditation for our jail medical program.
Since our correctional facility has just been awarded national accreditation by ACA, my next goal is to complete the law enforcement accreditation process we are currently working toward. CALEA is a nationally recognized management model that will assist the department in efficient use of resources and service delivery. CALEA accreditation will provide the department with nationally recognized "best practices" in our pursuit of excellence. I believe this goal will be accomplished in January of 2011.
Philpott: Re-establish the belief and understanding that deputies are citizens first, cops second.
Q: What is your Number 2 campaign issue?
Mahon: My number two campaign issue is the amount of money McHenry County citizens are spending for Sheriff's operations, versus the mediocre return. I shall have more to say about this as the campaign continues, but I believe we could easily cut 1 million dollars from annualized Sheriff's expenses without any decrease in performance.
For instance, why do we need one full-time employee making $73,000 annually to spearhead efforts to obtain CALEA (Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies) certification? Sheriff Nygren has consistently cited protection against liability as the major reason for his expensive CALEA efforts. Yet the County continues to be sued and continues to lose lawsuits, often due to Nygren's own decisions. What's the point of CALEA certification if the head of the Department walks around with a "Sue Me" sign on his back?
Nygren: Secondly, we will be putting the finishing touches on our new "state of the art" communications system. This new system provides updated technology for both routine as well as emergency radio communications and meets the standards of interoperability mandated by the Federal Communications Commission. This updated system is necessary in dispatching information for the sheriff's department, as well as numerous local police and fire departments. This is the lesson we learned from 9/11, that all potential responders in an emergency should be able to respond and communicate with each other in an effective manner. The new communications system accomplishes this task.
Philpott: Reduce aggressive behavior of deputies toward civilians
Q: What is your Number 3 campaign issue?
Mahon: My number three campaign issue is cronyism and pay-to-play politics. My campaign has demonstrated that a mere 20 firms doing business with the Sheriff's Office have contributed some $133,172 to Sheriff Nygren's political fund over his years in office, either from the firms themselves or from individuals within those firms.
I have vowed publicly not to accept political contributions from either Sheriff's Office employees or firms doing business with the Sheriff's Office or the County. Period.
Nygren: Thirdly, I will continue to enhance our partnership with Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE) and expand our jail bed rental program.
Since the program began, we have generated over $61 million in fees to offset the cost of running county government. It will be my mission to continue to increase the dividend that is paid to the taxpayers of McHenry County. This program is a cornerstone of fiscal responsibility and represents an important step in providing some financial relief to our county residents.
Philpott: Reduce unfair level of profits on commissary sales to inmates and detainees.
Q: As revenues, both from local sources and the state, are likely to keep falling in the year ahead, how should the county adjust its spending priorities related to the office you are seeking? Please be as specific as possible.
Mahon: I believe that at least $1 million annually could be cut from the Sheriff's Office budget without affecting the delivery of services.
It is my belief, after speaking with dozens of rank and file deputies and correctional officers, that the Sheriff's Office is top-heavy in terms of supervision. By streamlining supervision and getting more supervisors out on the streets we could, along with other cost-saving measures (see second biggest campaign issue above) reach the $1 million goal.
Nygren: In the Sheriff's department, we create and live by a balanced budget annually. As sheriff, it is my role to evaluate public safety programs and expenditures and make the necessary adjustments each year.
As a department head, it is my responsibility to work within the available tax structure which funds county government.
I accomplish this by working closely with the county board and sharing my rationale for the decisions I have made for my portion of their annual budget.
I see it as my function to work within the tax dollars appropriated to my department by the board. I have also made it a priority to generate revenue through our jail bed rental program to offset the cost of county government.
Since our rental program began, we have generated over 61 million dollars in collected fees for the taxpayers. We have also pursued and received over 18 million dollars in state and federal grant funds.
Philpott: The Sheriff's Department will have to participate in funding cuts. Union contracts will make it difficult to reduce payroll. Staffing cuts may not be feasible, so wages will have to be frozen.
Q: The McHenry County Board this summer froze salaries for its members, as well as those of the sheriff, treasurer and county clerk. Do you support the pay freeze? Why or why not?
Mahon: I issued a news release in May stating that I would accept the current Sheriff's salary for not one but two fiscal years if I were to be elected.
Nygren: I am supportive of this gesture due to the difficult economic times that are confronting everyone. As sheriff, I believe it is important to set an example of fiscal responsibility.
Philpott: Yes. The highest-paid officials must participate in salary management. Freezing is not enough. Elected officials should have compensation cut. Taxpayers cannot be expected to continue to carry the burden already placed on them.
Q: According to the U.S. Census, McHenry County's Hispanic population grew from about 19,600 in 2000 to about 36,000 in 2008. What challenges does that present for the office you seek, and how would you address them?
Mahon: An increase in the Hispanic population as such does not present a problem, as long as the increases come from persons who are in the United States legally.
The problems and challenges associated with illegal immigration are not the responsibility of the Sheriff of McHenry County. He or she does, however, have to cope with the consequences.
Toward that end, I would toughen enforcement so that activities associated with multinational narcotics traffickers and associated gangs do not make McHenry County a hub for trafficking of any sort.
I would also see to it that all persons who come into contact with Sheriff's personnel are treated with human dignity and accorded all the civil rights to which they are entitled by law.
I would, however, cancel the ongoing exchange program with Mexico instituted over the years by Sheriff Nygren. It is a waste of taxpayer dollars and officer time and serves no useful purpose.
Nygren: During my tenure as sheriff, I have always believed in the need to understand and serve all constituents in McHenry County in a fair, equal and compassionate manner. Specific to our growing Hispanic population, we have engaged in a police exchange program with the state of Zacatecas, Mexico.
One way to effectively serve a minority population is to understand their culture and laws and recognize why they do the things they do.
In 2003, an exchange program was developed to send our deputies to live and work for a month in Mexico and bring their counterparts to the United States-this exchange has been repeated for several years.
The goal of this program was for both departments to gain trust and better understand the lifestyle and culture of our neighbors through immersion.
Funding for this program has been provided by the McHenry County Hispanic Business community creating an important partnership with our Hispanic community.
This has been a direct, purposeful, learning experience for our deputies and those who have participated have gained much and are more effective in their interactions with our Hispanic population.
Philpott: Deputies, jailers and office staff must become bilingual and should mix with the Hispanic population outside of work. Employees could be incentivized to live within Hispanic communities.
Q: Kane County, which like McHenry initially banned video gaming machines from bars and other approved establishments, now will allow the machines. Should McHenry County follow suit, or should it remain opposed? How is your position best for county voters?
Mahon: Video gaming is an open invitation to organized crime and presents problem gamblers with unlimited temptation. The impact on individuals and families is enormous over time. For those who can gamble responsibly, there are sufficient venues available in the Chicago area to enjoy themselves. I have no wish to see hundreds of our gathering places turned into minicasinos.
Nygren: The decision to allow or ban video gaming machines is the legal responsibility of the county board. Our elected county board members have chosen to ban these machines and as sheriff, I support their decision. If their decision to allow video gaming were to change, the responsibility of administration and enforcement of the program would fall to the Illinois State Police and the Illinois State Gaming Board.
Philpott: McHenry County should maintain its ban on video gaming in bars and other establishments. Video gaming targets those least able to afford the losses. County should take leadership role in educating residents about the high risks and low rewards of gambling.
Q: McHenry received a two-year delay on a deadline to create a drug court, leaving it as the only collar county without one. Do you agree with the postponement? Should the county set up a court sooner? If so, what are the obstacles? How would you fund it?
Mahon: I understand the reason for the postponement was financial in nature, and in this uncertain economy that is understandable. I am informed that when the funds are in place in early 2012, the court will begin to hear cases and I am in full support of that.
Nygren: The Sheriff's Department is a participant in the Drug Court Initiative. It is important that we have an effective and sustainable program.
If it takes a bit longer to accomplish those goals, it is time well spent. In these challenging economic times, since the program needs to be properly staffed and funded, we felt it would be prudent to proceed cautiously.
As far as funding is concerned, I feel that we should aggressively pursue grant sources as well as looking at the possibility of creating a surcharge or user fee on individuals who participate in and benefit from this specialized program.
Philpott: I disagree with the postponement. Drug violations are a huge problem in the County. Punishment must be rehabilitative to avoid recidivism. The expenditure is an investment, not an expense. The court should be established as quickly as possible.