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Rock County sheriff candidates spar at forum

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Frank Schultz
July 16, 2014

JANESVILLE—Organizers said it at least three times before it started: “This is a forum, not a debate.”

But the two candidates for Rock County sheriff Wednesday night didn't always make that distinction.

The candidates veered away from moderator Janet LaBrie's questions several times to challenge what the other had said.

Sheriff Robert Spoden and Gary Groelle, a sheriff's office captain, are vying for votes in the Aug. 12 Democratic primary. The winner would likely be the next sheriff, as no one else is running.

Groelle attacked on the first question at the Democratic Party-organized event at the UAW Hall, making his pitch for change:

“The Rock County Sheriff's (Office) is a good organization, but in order to be a great one, we need a stronger leader. I am that leader. While the Rock County residents were suffering through a Great Recession and being victimized by a regional heroin epidemic, my opponent was lobbying for a huge raise increase for himself,” Groelle said.

“For the past eight years, the office of sheriff has been less about leading and more about politics,” Groelle continued. “The organizational vision shouldn't be about making the sheriff look good and ensuring he is well compensated. The vision should be about how we can more effectively and efficiently serve the citizens of Rock County, Groelle said.”

The county board froze the sheriff's salary in 2011 at $93,826 but raised it every year since then to $102,819 this year—a 9.58 percent increase over three years.

Spoden, who is completing eight years on the job, did not respond to the accusation about lobbying for a raise. He said previously that the 2.5 percent increase slated for next year is the same percentage that all deputies will get and that a $5,000 bump slated for 2016 was added to bring the sheriff's salary closer to that of the Janesville and Beloit police chiefs so that qualified people would run for sheriff.

Spoden also has criticized Groelle for not objecting when the county board was considering raises.

Groelle brought up his role as being in charge of emergency management for the county, but Spoden said a sergeant actually does the “day-to-day” work and “the captain is a backup to her.”

Groelle agreed the sergeant does most of the work under his supervision but said he has taken nearly 20 classes in emergency management.

Both candidates said they are fiscally responsible. Spoden noted his role in bringing in alternative programs to avoid a jail expansion that could have cost $60 million.

Groelle said Spoden was in favor of expanding the jail when he was first elected and said thousands of dollars were spent analyzing the problem of jail crowding.

Groelle criticized Spoden for buying a “tank” for $40,000. Actually, the Beloit and Janesville police departments bought the armored vehicle known as a BearCat together with the sheriff's office, splitting the $195,000 cost.

Groelle suggested the sheriff's office didn't need to join in the purchase, that it would have been loaned to the sheriff's office when needed.

Spoden said it's not a tank, but a “rescue vehicle,” noting that it has no gun, and said it would pay for itself when it evacuates a wounded deputy.

Groelle, after one back-and-forth exchange, agreed to call it a “rescue vehicle slash tank.”

Groelle said the vehicle did come up in a command meeting, “and there was a lot of talk that it wasn't the right move” and that money should have been used to buy new handguns.

Groelle also criticized Spoden for buying a $20,520 “tactical robot” in 2013. The robot has a camera and could be sent into high-risk situations, Groelle said.

The money for these purchases, which came from drug seizures, would have been better spent on new handguns for deputies, some of which are “drastically outdated”—16 years old in some cases, Groelle said.

“The captain sits at that table. If he had a concern about that BearCat, he sure never voiced it. If he had a concern about the robot, he never said a word,” Spoden said.

It's Groelle's role to voice such concerns, “and I would encourage him in the future to do that,” Spoden said.

The candidates agreed on marijuana: They would continue enforcing existing laws. Spoden said he is glad Colorado is experimenting so Wisconsin can watch and learn before deciding.

Groelle returned to the heroin problem repeatedly, saying the sheriff's office has no plan to deal with rising numbers of deaths. Groelle said his plan includes involving educators and others in a heroin summit.

“It has the potential to tear this county apart,” Groelle said.

Spoden noted again that Groelle sits at command meetings and never brought up the heroin problem until he announced he was running for sheriff.

Spoden said a good friend lost a son to heroin, and he had to go to the man's house and tell him what happened. Then, he called a command staff meeting on a Sunday, “and I said, 'we need to take this on,' and we did.”

Spoden said deputies are making record numbers of heroin arrests.

More needs to be done in the area of counseling and treatment, Spoden said.

Groelle repeatedly stressed his “collaborative leadership style” and ability to work with other police agencies.

Spoden said he established a special investigations unit, bringing in police officers from around the county, and got federal authorities to include Rock County as part of a high-intensity drug trafficking area, bringing in money and federal intelligence resources.

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