Leader Blues

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

TOP STORY >>Lonoke race for sheriff is down to wire

By JOHN HOFHEIMER
Leader staff writer

Lonoke County voters are tired of turnover and instability in the sheriff’s office and, like voters everywhere, they are ready to kick the incumbent to the curb, according to Charlie Martin, the Democratic challenger and former sheriff. Not so, says Lonoke County Sheriff Jim Roberson, a Republican, confident that residents are pleased with the professionalism and outreach programs he initiated and the job he’s done and will reelect him Tuesday to serve a third term.

Despite conventional wisdom, Roberson says he doesn’t think it will be a tough year on incumbents. “It’s only going to be rough on people who haven’t done their job. I don’t see it being rough on me. All the feedback I’m getting, people are happy (with our performance),” the sheriff insisted.

On the tail of a strong turnout in Cabot in 2002, Roberson ended Martin’s six-year stint in office 8,646 to 7,515 in part because Martin and some members of his department were cited by the Bureau of Legislative Audit for improper use of money in the weapons and uniforms fund and indicted.

Martin pled no contest to a misdemeanor as a result. “If I was arrested for falsifying receipts, I couldn’t face the public,” Roberson said of Martin. “You have to arrest people for the same thing every day.” Martin failed to regain the office in 2004, when Roberson beat him 11,582 to 7,660 behind a strong Republican turnout to support President George W. Bush in his tightly contested race against Democrat challenger John Kerry.

This time the Bureau of Legislative Audit is looking into improper use of county credit cards by two of Roberson’s employees, one of whom was fired, the other demoted, he says. “We had two employees that didn’t follow procedure on credit card use,” says Roberson. He says he initiated an internal investigation, notified the prosecutor’s office and the legislative audit bureau, he says. “They bought some items that they had planned to pay for later,” he says. “I made them pay and then took action against them.”

Martin, 58, and his wife Mavis have three sons, one of whom is due home from Iraq Dec. 15. Since leaving office, Martin has been working as a part-time Ward policeman. Martin Monday charged that Roberson had gone through 77 employees during four years. “I went through one in six years,” he said.

Roberson, 59, reached by phone away from the office, said it was natural to have some turnover when taking over a large county office, doubted Martin’s numbers but said he didn’t have a figure. Martin also criticized Roberson, saying “I don’t believe it’s a deputy’s job to chase drugs on the intestate, when there’s people kicking in doors and stealing people’s property. They need to be on the county roads, developing their confidential informants and finding out who’s doing this stuff.”

“My deputies are not on interstate,” Roberson says, unless the state Police asks for backup or they are in hot pursuit. “We’re patrolling county roads.” “I’m not one to guess politics,” said Roberson. “I hope I have done a good enough job that people will keep me. I’ve implemented several community programs,” he said. They include work with senior citizens, working with the schools, riding school buses, work on the alert program and sponsoring Beth Holloway Twitty, whose daughter disappeared in a high-profile possible murder in Aruba. Twitty spoke to students at several county schools about safe travel.
Roberson says one of his biggest accomplishments is increasing the training and professionalism of the deputies. “They are some of the best trained officers in the state,” he says.

The sheriff says the county needs more officers. Meanwhile, he says, the number of arrests is up, including methamphetamine-related arrests. “Our guys are doing a good job, arresting people every day,” he said. “We’re locking up drug dealers, users, domestic violence and thieves. That’s our goal, everyday.”

He said criminals who should be in overcrowded Pulaski County jails are on the streets, adding to Lonoke County crime.
Martin counters that Roberson is too quick to arrest and jail people who don’t need it. “I’m for treating people with respect,” he says. “Every time you come in contact with someone on a call you don’t have to arrest them and everyone you arrest doesn’t have to go to jail.”

Martin says he’d reinstitute the electronic home arrest system he used when he was in office. “If the monitor showed tampering, the company notified us and we immediately put them back in jail,” he added. Martin also says the response time from the 911-operators and deputies is too slow. “We had a fatality up in Ward on Hwy. 319 and from the time the sheriff’s department got the call, it was six to eight minutes before anyone was dispatched to Ward—and then they sent us in the wrong direction.”

Roberson notes that new jail policies have been instituted since he took office, with new jailers, more security and all-new stainless steel bathroom equipment.