Morley police chief challenging Walter for Scott County sheriff

Wednesday, July 11, 2012
Scott County Sheriff Rick Walter is running for re-election. (JOE GAMM)
Paul Johnson is running for Scott County sheriff. (ADAM VOGLER)

In Scott County, challengers for sheriff dropped by half before the race began.

Fellow Democrats Ron Merideth and Paul Johnson stepped up to challenge incumbent Rick Walter, but after finding out that he couldn't run for the office, Merideth dropped out.

Merideth, a narcotics officer on the Southeast Missouri Drug Task Force, in May withdrew his name as a candidate in the August primary election, after the U.S. Office of Special Counsel said he could either quit his job or leave the race, he said.

The task force gets much of its funding through a federal grant. Officials cited the Hatch Act, which prevents active support of political parties by federal employees. Violations of the Hatch Act may result in the loss of an employee's job.

Johnson, the chief of the Morley, Mo., Police Department, said his experience is a strong asset. Johnson said he has served as a Scott County deputy and as the director of the Department of Public Safety in Charleston, Mo.

Johnson said he would bring knowledge about teens and the problems young people face with gangs, drugs and alcohol to the job.

"I'm a strong believer that when you have a problem in hand, you've got to address that problem," he said. "You can't sweep it under the carpet."

Walter said he is not taking any chances on his campaign.

"I run like I'm behind because I don't want to take anything for granted," Walter said.

Walter, a former deputy in the department, ran against Sheriff Bill Ferrell in 2000 but fell short. When Ferrell retired in 2004, Walter ran again, defeating Jerry Bledsoe, a fellow Democrat whom Ferrell endorsed, in the primary by 381 votes. He later defeated Republican Wes Drury by 1,518 in the general election.

Walter wasn't challenged as closely in the 2008 primary, when he ran against Bobby Sullivan and won by 1,142 votes. He defeated Drury in the general election by 4,364 votes.

The Scott County sheriff is slated to earn $59,121 in 2012 and is responsible for a $2.67 million budget. Actual expenditures in 2011 reached $2.62 million.

With deputies and jailers, the department employs about 50 people, Walter said. He said the most challenging part of the job is keeping up with all the services a sheriff's department provides, such as security in four courts, transportation to and from the Department of Corrections, serving civil processes, conducting criminal investigations, conducting patrols and operating a 140-bed jail.

Johnson said it was a calling to community service, and timing, that influenced him to try to unseat Walter.

"I felt that now was a good time to run. I'm 40 years old and have been in law enforcement going on 20 years," Johnson said. "I've got experience with budgeting. It's a perfect time to step up and try to help the community that I live in."

Walter said he has helped his department, city and county save money.

Under Walter, the department entered a contract to allow a nationwide vendor to provide meals in the jail. Before the change, trusties did all the cooking for inmates, Walter said.

The department also brought medical staff into the jail, including retaining a nurse for 40 hours per week, he said. When inmates use the nurse's services, they are required to make a $20 copay, Walter said.

"Law enforcement is expensive," Walter said. "We've been able to offset some costs by bringing in federal detainees. I get $56 per day and expenses for federal detainees. That makes money for the county."

He said it also makes money for Scott City, where he sends county prisoners when the jail gets too full.

Inmates are also helping support the jail through a commissary, Walter said. The commissary provides items like food products, health products and underwear.

Having the commissary increases security because it prevents people from sneaking contraband into the jail in items provided by inmates' friends and families, Walter said.

The jail also sells phone cards to inmates, he said.

Johnson also touts his financial qualifications and points to his time in Charleston as director of public safety as a record of his fiscal management abilities. While there, Johnson said the department routinely came in spending only 80 to 85 percent of its allotted budget.

The Scott County clerk's office said Johnson has registered a committee with the office but had not reported any second-quarter contributions or expenditures as of Tuesday. Walter's committee has taken in $5,545 this election, $4,445 of which came in during the second quarter. The figure includes a $1,200 loan the candidate made to his committee. Walter's committee has spent $2,405 on the election.

Johnson has until Monday to file his second-quarter reports.

jgamm@semissourian.com

388-3635

Pertinent address:

131 S. New Madrid St., Benton, MO

Map of pertinent addresses

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