With longtime DuPage County Sheriff John Zaruba retiring after more than two decades, two members of his staff -- Undersheriff Frank Bibbiano and patrol Cmdr. James Mendrick -- are seeking their party's nomination in the March 20 Republican primary to advance to the November general election.
They're both good cops and articulate candidates with plenty of experience in the sheriff's office -- 21 years for the 47-year-old Mendrick of Woodridge and 18 for the 44-year-old Bibbiano of Elmhurst.
There are even similarities in their campaigns. Both, for example, point to the opioid crisis as the most important issue facing the county, and they agree that some of the department's technology must be updated.
But there are two important areas where the new sheriff must make significant changes in the department's culture: improving openness and transparency in dealing with the public and media and rebuilding relationships with county board members. And it's here that we believe Mendrick has a decided edge.
Unfortunately, some of the sheriff's best programs currently go underused or largely unnoticed simply because of a lack of communication. Did you know, for example, that if you find an unknown substance in your child's room, you can ask the sheriff's department for a free analysis to determine what it is? We didn't either. Or how about that deputies recently began following up with drug overdose victims to determine if they need additional help?
More worrisome is the department's reluctance to release even the most basic information about major crimes. Twenty-four hours after a recent slaying near Downers Grove, where deputies found the alleged killer standing in the doorway of his home covered in his mother's blood and her body lying behind him with multiple stab wounds, the department still refused to confirm any details of the crime. Indeed, its news release a full day after the slaying said simply "This investigation is still ongoing and we have no information to report." That's right, not even an acknowledgment that deputies were investigating a homicide or that a suspect was in custody.
Bibbiano admits the department needs to improve communication, both with the public and the county board, but largely defends its reluctance to share information on even major crimes. Mendrick, on the other hand, says he wants to create a 24/7 press office that would make it easier for the department to share information with the media and, in the process, the general public.
Both say they will work to improve communication with the county board, but Mendrick has the support of the majority of county board members and seems more likely to make that a reality. He also has a decided edge in administrative background and in formulating budgets.
The bottom line is that the primary will offer Republican voters the chance to influence the culture of the sheriff's department, where the day-to-day policing is excellent but the desire and ability to communicate and get along with others leaves room for improvement.
These are two excellent cops with a sincere desire to serve and protect. If elected, both will do that. But it's time for the sheriff's department to emerge from its shell and begin reaching out to others again -- elected officials, the media and especially the public.
We think Mendrick is the best choice to lead that culture change. He is endorsed.