Candidates running for sheriff speak at a public forum

Four candidates for Merced County sheriff fielded questions about how they plan to increase the department’s presence on the streets, restore morale and tackle issues regarding concealed carry weapons permits.

Pat Lunney, Jim Soria, Frank Swiggart and Vern Warnke squared off at a forum hosted by the Los Banos Chamber of Commerce and Los Banos Tea Party Patriots.

Lunney, 66, is chief investigator for the Merced County District Attorney’s Office. “We need to have a critical thinker who has the experience to lead us through these difficult times,” he said in his opening statement.

Soria, 46, a security supervisor for Guardsmark and city councilman for Livingston, said ultimately his goal is to enhance services. “I want to encourage the deputies to come out and talk to the community,” Soria said.

Frank Swiggart, 47, head of the Merced College Police Department, operated by the Sheriff’s Department, touched on a number of issues, including gangs, drugs, theft and the drought. “Our gang issues, we’ve got it, we know it,” he said. “Everybody in the Sheriff’s Department needs to become a gang specialist.”

Vern Warnke, 55, reserve deputy sheriff and retired senior sergeant, said he plans to bring the sheriff’s job back to being responsible for each citizen in the county. “Until we get that part going and have the citizens actually take and feel confident about their sheriff, and quit making it into a political position and actually make it a law enforcement position that’s where we need to go with this,” he said.

Here’s how the candidates responded to some of the questions:

West Side presence

Starting a felony task force and a neighborhood watch were among Soria’s ideas. “We keep mentioning we need more boots on the street,” he said, “but what you do with those boots on the street, how are you effectively going to utilize the deputies out there?”

Swiggart said he wants to redirect beat lines and get deputies back to 10-hour shifts.

Warnke said he also wants more deputies on the streets but utilized correctly. “I’m tired of hearing the word task force,” Warnke said. “I want to hear patrol deputy.”

Lunney said he didn’t agree with getting rid of “task force” just because members do a specialized job. “In my opening statement I told you that the core of the sheriff’s office, I believe, has gotten soft,” Lunney said. “What we have to do is strengthen that core, and that core is patrol.”

Department morale

As a supervisor, Soria said he believes in positive recognition. “We need to make sure that you lead by example,” he said. “Make sure you always give positive recognition to your fellow co-worker that’s how you build up morale.”

Swiggart said he plans to find out what the problems are before he tackles the issue. He wants administrative staff supporting and encouraging each deputy on the street.

Warnke said he wants to see everyone in the department treated fairly. “Reward them when they need to be rewarded,” he said. “When the deputies see that you are fair, they respond to that.”

Lunney said deputies need to be a part of a level playing field. “If they are willing to work, they are willing to put in the time, they know that they have an equal shot at special assignments, promotions, all the kinds of things that go along with a level, fair playing field.”

Concealed weapons

Each candidate said he supports citizens having a concealed weapon but stressed the importance of safety and training. Community members also wanted to know if they plan to modify the requirements once in office.

“Of course, you have to pass the background,” Soria said, “but what I would like to add to it is a little bit of training.”

Swiggart said making the requirements more strict would not be something he would want to do. “I think it’s a good tool as is. What we need to do is ... go forward for those that are carrying in our county. We all talk about standardizing. I’m talking about having at least the law enforcement put together the curriculum so that the private citizens who are teaching it, are teaching them stuff that we want them to teach, so we have the confidence behind them and we set the stage for the rest of California (to) follow.”

Warnke said a lot of the issue has been politicized. “The requirements have been the same for a long time,” he said. “It’s just the ability and/or willingness to have our local sheriff to be able to say, ‘Hey you can have it.’ The requirements have been there it’s been politicized to the point where they’re afraid to actually take a stance on saying we can give you that CCW.”