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Thursday, May 5, 2016

Sheriff's races abound across Missouri

Monday, April 9, 2012

While Oregon County voters will decide among five candidates in August for the seat held by Sheriff George Underwood, other Missouri counties report an ever greater number of sheriff races.

Vernon County, population 21,159, in western Missouri, and Laclede County, population 35,571, in central Missouri both report having nine (six Republicans and three Democrats each) file for the office, including their incumbent sheriffs.

"It's always like that," Laclede County's election clerk in Lebanon said of the many candidates who filed for the top law enforcement job.

Meanwhile, Vernon County's clerk said county elections there generally draw high numbers only when an incumbent does not file. Besides nine who filed for sheriff, nine candidates also filed for the Vernon County southern commissioner's position after the current officeholder announced his intention not to run again.

Of the five counties surrounding Oregon County, all but Howell County will have a primary election for Republican and Democratic sheriff candidates.

Sheriff qualifications

Although most who filed as sheriff candidates have backgrounds in law enforcement, Missouri Revised Statutes do not require sheriff's to be licensed peace officers when elected, although they must be licensed within 12 months of taking office.

The statutes state that until licensed, sheriffs "shall refrain from personally executing any of the police powers of the office of sheriff, including but not limited to participation in the activities of arrest, detention, vehicular pursuit, search and interrogation."

The statutes further state that voters shall elect some suitable person sheriff. Sheriffs can not be convicted felons, and they must have been resident taxpayers for at least one year before taking office. A sheriff "shall be a person capable of efficient law enforcement."

Howell County, pop. 40,400

Unless an Independent candidate files by July 30, the primary will decide whether incumbent first-term Howell County Sheriff Mike Shannon will keep his job. He is challenged by Jim Hedlesten, a former Howell County Sheriff's Department major. Both are Republicans.

Howell County voters also will decide races for the northern and southern county commission seat. The assessor, public administrator, coroner and surveyor positions are uncontested.

Ripley County, pop. 13,000

First-term Sheriff Ron Barnett is challenged by fellow Republicans Bryan Hart, Rory Calhoun and Gerald "J.D." Leroux; and two Democrats, Taun Harber and Brian Walker, both Doniphan police officers.

Ripley County's only other contested races are for western commissioner and public administrator, with one Republican and one Democrat filed for each race.

Shannon County, pop. 8,500

Incumbent first-term Sheriff Steve Blunkall, a Democrat, faces two former Shannon County sheriff's deputies, Democrat Thad Wheeler and Republican John Smith, and Winona Police Chief Don Crowley, a Republican.

Texas County, pop. 26,000

With Sheriff Carl Watson's decision not to seek reelection because of health issues, four candidates, including current Texas County Deputy Melissa Dunn, a Democrat with 26 years of law enforcement experience, filed for Watson's job. Dunn will face the winner of the three-way Republican race between Willow Springs police officer Wes Ellison, Cabool police officer James Sigman and Tim Ceplina, a Houston Police Department sergeant.

Other interesting sheriff's races in Missouri include Camden County where Camdenton officials fired police officer John Payne when he refused to drop out of the sheriff's race because a 32-year-old city code prohibits city employees from entering partisan elections. Less than a half-mile from Camdenton City Hall, a Camden County sheriff's deputy is in the race against incumbent Sheriff Dwight Franklin. Besides two other Republicans, Franklin also will face former Democrat Sheriff John Page, who served four terms before Franklin defeated him in 2008.

Carter County, pop. 6,265

Carter County's sheriffs drew national attention twice in the past few years. First, when Sheriff Greg Melton, 47, of Grandin fatally shot himself three weeks before the November 2008 election. Voters nearly reelected the deceased Melton, with challenger Tommy Adams defeating Melton by one vote. Less than two years after Adams took office, he was arrested for distribution of methamphetamine and federal weapons charges. He is awaiting trial.

Voters elected former U.S. Navy Captain Bruce VanBelle to the position last June from among a field of five candidates. VanBelle, a Democrat, will face Republican Richard Stephens in November. Stephens served as interim sheriff last year, but was ineligible to run for the position because he had not lived in the county a full year.

Oregon County, pop. 10,000

On the Democratic ticket for the August primary, incumbent first-term Sheriff George Underwood, a former corrections officer, faces the sibling of a fellow deputy Underwood arrested early last year on eight felony charges of theft and burglary. Mike Barton, a former Alton Police Chief, will face Underwood in August. Barton is the brother of former Oregon County deputy Gene Barton who pleaded guilty to the felony charges in March.

On the Republican ticket, Thayer Police Chief David Bailey, a retired Missouri State Highway Patrol lieutenant, is competing against two former police officers, both who were fired from their jobs within the past six months.

In October 2011, at Bailey's recommendation, the city of Thayer fired Assistant Police Chief Michael Bunting, citing a disagreement between Bailey and Bunting over department management. Bunting filed suit against the city, seeking reinstatement to his position. A hearing date has not yet been set. Bunting alleges Bailey humiliated him in front of several city officials.

City leaders said they could not comment about the case.

In February, Alton aldermen unanimously agreed to fire Police Chief Kevin Jotz, a retired Los Angeles police officer, when he refused to resign. City leaders accused Jotz of not getting along with the sheriff's department.

Jotz later said he was fired for refusing to stop investigating an Oregon County deputy he suspected of using of a controlled substance, for helping murder victim Narda Pranke outside of his jurisdiction when she said the sheriff's office refused to help and for telling city leaders the city was illegally using CrimeStar software.

Alton officials were unavailable for comment.


Voters must register by July 11 to vote in the Aug. 7 primary. Independent candidates have until July 30 to file for the Nov. 6 general election.

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